Peter Sinn Nachtrieb in Three Acts
by Rachel Howard | Photo by Claude Shade
A weirdly warm afternoon in San Francisco's Mission District. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (M.F.A., '05) enters the Ritual Roasters café, wearing a baseball T-shirt, shorts and Birkenstocks. He is, as his Web site promises, six-feet, six-inches tall, though he does not look as absurdly Brobdignagian (that means: really, really tall) as one might expect. His eyes are strikingly, even handsomely, blue, but his eyebrows are just unruly enough and his expression just googly enough to make you think he will be as outrageously funny in person as he is in his writing.
As it turns out, however, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is sort of shy. He shakes hands with the stranger he's meeting and offers a quiet smile. He gets a coffee and lowers himself into the leather armchair in the window. He has just taken a break from revising his newest play, "boom," which opened to rave reviews from The New York Times and The New Yorker during its Manhattan premiere. "boom" is slated for three other productions before 2009. Nachtrieb looks a little spacey, still lost in the dream-concentration of writing.
He talks about his time studying playwrighting at SF State.
NACHTRIEB: Going to State was about making a decision to be a playwright, not just a guy who does theatre-y things. [Diffident glance at the floor.] It was a chance to dedicate three years to just writing and being. The challenge to me was 'less wit.' I'd done a lot of sketch comedy. At State I worked on not just being funny, but getting at the truth of things.
That last line could sound grandiose, but NACHTRIEB, 34 years old, delivers it with a humility that belies his tremendous success as a playwright. His first full-length play, "Hunter Gatherers," written as his M.F.A. thesis, premiered a year after he graduated, in a sold-out San Francisco run, and went on to win the prestigious American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for best American play to premiere outside of Manhattan. In it, a Mill Valley dinner party for two couples kicks off with a ritual lamb slaughter before devolving into sex and primal debauchery. NACHTRIEB, who studied both biology and theatre as an undergraduate at Brown, sips his coffee and considers his theme.
NACHTRIEB: You can't really take the animal out of the human, even though we layer culture on top of it. Everything we do comes from our genes and a pressure to reproduce. Those instincts don't go away because we don't talk about them. How many hours are we away from becoming savages?
Those big ideas have set his plays apart. In "boom,"a marine biology student meets a woman for a casual sex encounter in his laboratory as an experiment in doomsday mating. In "TIC," premiering at San Francisco's Encore Theater in January, and commissioned with the help of an emerging playwright grant from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, the big idea is technology, with a young girl blogging about her tenancy-in-common neighbors.
As SF State Creative Writing Professor Michelle Carter, who worked one-on-one with NACHTRIEB on directed study projects, says: "Peter has a welcome voice. There are writers who can write funny stuff -- though that's not as easy as you think. And there are writers who can tackle big subjects. But there are few who can effectively do both. It's a dazzling combination and, we need it right now."
NACHTRIEB hardly looks like a self-appointed bright hope of the theatre world as he uncrosses his gangly legs, leans forward, and admits he's just hoping he can continue to write full time and credits the moral support of his "more-than-a-boyfriend" Mark, a nurse. Not long ago NACHTRIEB was making money part time by acting in corporate sexual harassment training videos and moonlighting in murder mystery dinners. He honed his comedy acting chops as a past member of Killing My Lobster, a San Francisco sketch comedy troupe founded by fellow Brown grads.
NACHTRIEB: One character with the Lobsters was an aspiring poet who read Craigslist "Missed Connections" as slam poetry. I played a lot of priests. Spastic characters.
His calling as a playwright has unfolded in three acts, you could say. In the first, he grew up in Marin County with a lawyer father who liked to write plays to perform as a member of San Francisco's famed Bohemian Club.
NACHTRIEB: My humor is a mix of my parents'. My dad writes a lot of jokes with puns and wordplay. My mom has a darker sense of humor, growing up in postwar Germany. They'd play comedy records, we'd watch "Monty Python."
In the second act, after becoming a "theatre geek" at the private Marin Academy, NACHTRIEB began writing more seriously at Brown, starting with scripting solo performances for an acting class.
NACHTRIEB: Solos are the gateway drug for actors becoming writers.
He moved back to San Francisco after graduating, in 1997. He chose SF State on the recommendation of friends, and because he felt he was becoming attached to the smaller Bay Area theatre scene after flirting with the idea of L.A. or New York. His favorite classes were Carter's "Writing in the Public Context" and Brian Thorstenson's on "The Architectonics of Plays."
NACHTRIEB: I learned to look to the world for material. And the "Architectonics" class was a chance to 'get thinky' [raises eyebrows as though to make quotation marks].
At the climax of this second act, Killing My Lobster chose to produce "Hunter Gatherers."Word spread of its hilarity, and the San Francisco Chronicle gave it the highest rating. The run sold out for three months. NACHTRIEB landed an agent.
Now his third act is just beginning, though as he rises from the coffee house chair, NACHTRIEB looks less like a glamorous star in his own play, and more like a sweet, humble guy with a lot of talent.
NACHTRIEB: I've been a full-time writer for a year and nine months now. That sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous statement. [Walking toward the door, his head almost high enough to touch the doorframe.] I just hope I can keep it going, and I hope every play takes my writing forward. I've got a lot of work to do this fall.
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