May 28, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Jocelin Weiss talks to playwright Peter Sin Nachtrieb about science and the stage.

Lights up on a subterranean laboratory on the campus of a research university somewhere on the coast of the United States. Jo, a female undergraduate journalism senior, has just arrived in response to an online post promising a night of “intensely significant coupling”. Unbeknownst to Jo is that Jules, the male marine biology PhD student who wrote the post, is gay, and has invited Jo due to (correctly) predicting an oncoming apocalypse based on years of observing the behaviour of his fish. He believes he is in need of a fertile female with which to re-populate the human race. In the end, after several post-apocalyptic months of existential crises, their copulation turns out to be unnecessary, as two of his fish lay eggs, allowing the chordate evolutionary chain to begin anew. Oh, and one last twist…the entire universe of the subterranean lab is part of a science museum exhibit, operated by eccentric, passionate curator Barbara—asking the audience to play the role of both scientist and museum guests by watching the specimens in the tank and how they interact.

Sounds crazy, right? Maybe too brilliant? An odd fringe play doomed to obscurity? Not so much. After a workshop over the summer of 2007, it got picked up by Ars Nova, now one of the top Off-Broadway theatres for bold new work, including Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (which then ran on Broadway and garnered twelve Tony nominations, the most of any show that season). From there, boom, if you’ll forgive the pun, exploded, becoming the most performed play in US regional theatre in the 2009-10 season and continuing to appear regularly on college, community, and professional stages today. It had its UK professional premiere in 2017.

In the introductory notes to boom, playwright Peter Sin Nachtrieb notes:

“In college I majored in both theatre and biology, and I think this play might be an attempt to understand the relationship between the two. For me, both fields are attempting the same thing: to try and make some sense of the world in an epic and intimate way.”

Peter Sin Nachtrieb has written many plays, particularly dark comedies, that ask scientific questions—and they’ve been performed on stages all across the United States and the world. I sat down (okay, I Zoomed) with Nachtrieb on a crisp Friday afternoon. We talked science, theatre, and bridging the gap between the two.

As we both know, theatre and biology can be seen as an odd combination of things to study—how did you decide to pursue that and how were you able to pull it off?

I came into Brown thinking I was just going to do theatre, and my advisor said that I should try to also do other things as well! And I’d always loved biology—in high school I was doing a lot of marine biology, a lot of SCUBA diving, so that kind of was my entryway, and I did some biological independent studies in high school, so I took the intro bio class and I just fell in love with it even more deeply and continued to take classes. Brown is lucky in that there’s no core curriculum, so you’re able to just choose your classes as you see fit. I got a BA in Biology, so I didn’t have to take Organic Chemistry. It was just this nice balance of the brain—I feel like the theatre world can get very insular and sort of obsess on itself, and I felt like there was a nice contrast in the brain and in space with the world of science. And then I did a couple of internships for marine biology—one was off the coast of Panama. I took a year off between sophomore and junior year and worked for a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which had a research station in the San Blas islands and the station was really a spit of stand with buildings on stilts into the water. It was pretty incredible—I was there for three months watching fish spawn—and the fish in the play are the fish I was observing for this scientist. Eventually I ended up pursuing theatre as my career by choice. I think from the get-go, looking at the world from a scientific lens, from a biological lens, from seeing us as products from an evolutionary history, has always coloured my worldview and how I perceive people—and it just seemed natural that my investigations as a playwright would also go into that realm. So some of my plays are explicitly about science, others are in the background, but no matter what, I think my approach to seeing how we are as people is from that sort of biological lens.

In the introductory notes for boom, you say something that has resonated with me for a decade—that both biology and theatre are trying to make sense of the world in an epic and intimate way, which is interesting because it seems almost paradoxical, but it isn’t.

Yeah! So I just think the rules are different. They’re both trying to interrogate who we are, and our truth, and I think for me, I really ended up bending towards the arts and towards theatre because I want to be able to ask questions that I can’t answer. And I feel like in science you have to be able to at least attempt to answer the question—through an experiment, or…you know, you have to be able to prove your (gesticulates with emphasis)…but I think even those questions that you can answer by experimental design, they’re often pushing towards the unanswerable question and I think that’s what theatre is about, just leaping into the void a little farther, to go to places where you don’t have to back everything up with data. So, I do think that they’re very interconnected. Before boom, for example, I’d read The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins and I think I have a quote of that in the beginning…it’s very elegantly constructed, inspired by The Canterbury Tales and [the protagonist] goes back in time and it starts with humans and then keeps going back in time to meet common ancestors and every time there’s a common ancestor he adds a branch and then uses that animal to talk about the way evolution actually happens in all these different ways. That book is just written with such poetry—he’s eager to tell a story and I think there’s a drive for him to give as much romance to the evolutionary story as there is given to creation myths. I was really struck by that and I think boom is in a way trying to be a creation story that is in the science world and also in the world of myths that are in so many cultures across the globe. So I wanted to give that poetry, the romance, to the scientific story that also exists in a lot of religions and creation myths. That was one of the goals I had set myself with boom.

Is the word “boom” in reference to the Cambrian explosion, the apocalyptic event, or both?

Um..yes (laughs). Definitely both and probably more things too. It’s the explosions, the radical changes that can happen, whether it’s a comet, a personal epiphany…the title is intentionally lowercase, to create a little tension between the word and how it’s written and I think that’s sort of speaking to the evolutionary story it’s looking at. Sometimes evolution is triggered by major events and sometimes it’s triggered by one little accident that happens to be very successful, so I think it’s looking at the levels of how change happens and sort of honouring both ends of that.

At what point did you realise boom was going to be so successful? Did you have any idea?

Honestly, I had no idea…I definitely did not expect when writing it that it was going to be my “moneymaker”, so to speak. Especially Barbara—that character didn’t even exist in the beginning when I was writing it. It was really just a two-character play and then I thought “well, how do I create a character that represents the forces that are outside of their control”? And then Barbara became a character in and of herself…I think I was just focused on writing a good play. I live in San Francisco and then at Brown, my theatre professor Larry Marshall, was running their summer theatre that had sort of a “new play” focus…

At Trinity [Repertory Theatre, the well-renowned regional theatre company and theatre masters program in residence at Brown University]?

Yes, at Trinity Rep, but they performed it on the Brown campus. It was Trinity actors, and a lot of Brown….so there were a couple of playwrights from Paula Vogel [notable American playwright]’s programme, there was me and there was Stephen Levinson who had just graduated undergrad. My professor invited me to submit this play and work on it there as a workshop production, and that was the summer of 2007. And I worked with her, and I worked with this amazing director who has become a longtime collaborator—his name is Ken Prestininzi. He was the one who said “your play is moving too slowly, make it faster”. When I came in that summer, I did not have that ending. I was still writing the ending while they were rehearsing downstairs, and then some people came to see it and I got invited to do a reading at Ars Nova in New York and I think that was the first hint that this play had some traction and some interest beyond what I would normally expect. They were really excited by the play – it was the first year, I think, that Ars Nova was producing original plays. It happened really quickly—and at the same time, a couple of large regional theatres had reached out about it as well. And all of that really sort of came by surprise—I mean looking at it, it’s sort of easy to produce, right? It’s one set and three actors, so that… I think the threshold to decide to produce it is lower than some things, but all of those things very much took me by surprise. It was quite a ride, I have to say. The fact that so many theatres picked it up after those three productions—Ars Nova, Woolly Mammoth, Seattle Rep, and Cleveland Public Theatre—all did it first. And then it got published and produced all over the place. It was kind of a fun year to travel—I was invited to see a lot of productions. So the short answer is no, I did not expect for it to go that way. Especially to be on the top of that list [of most produced plays in the 2009-10 regional theatre season]—it was a low number list, but still… that was… ridiculous.

It’s very cool to be able to say that your play was the most produced in a regional year!

Oh yeah, on my down days I go (laughs) twelve years ago I had “the play”! I had it!

Well, there’s much more of an interest now in science as a social issue I think…I mean, *I* like your other plays (laughs)! When you originally decided to pursue a theatrical career, was playwriting the original plan?

Oh no—it was acting first, then directing, then I was doing a lot of writing as well, a lot of sketch comedy. I did a lot of sketch comedy in high school, and then in college a couple of acting classes had solo performances where I was writing material for myself. I think the sort of gateway from actor to writer is when you write your own material. Then I took my first playwriting class, I think, my junior year at Brown, from a grad student who was one of Paula Vogel’s grad students, and I ended up taking that play and directing it. And there was something about the world-creating and the challenge of it that I really loved, and moving forward I was still pursuing acting for many years after college but I started wanting to write longer pieces. I was working with a sketch comedy group in San Francisco, so again, that’s both, it’s writing material and performing it. I started gravitating more and more towards writing things I couldn’t be in, or that I didn’t want to be in. Or for characters that weren’t me. And—I guess I just kept following what I was really passionate about. I think there was a moment where I realised I couldn’t mentally sustain being a hyphen—a something-slash-something-slash-something. It felt like I needed to commit more to writing, so I made a commitment to being a playwright first. I still do some acting once in a while, but it’s not the focus, and in that decision I decided to go to graduate school and get an MFA in creative writing and really work on the craft for a while.

So when you were shifting from hyphenate to mostly playwright, did you intentionally think “I’m going to make plays about science” or was it more unconscious?

I think it had always been there. I remember during undergrad trying to think about how I could make a funny play about On the Origin of Species? And maybe I’ll get there at some point? I think it was just always there. I remember also watching a lot of Monty Python, which has a lot of science-y humour in there. That intellectual humour was always what I liked, so there’s already some crossover there. And I think I liked trying to write things that seemed impossible or didn’t make sense – like my first solo show was like “how can I write a solo show with a climactic battle sequence”, so how does one person fight themselves? It ended up being science fiction…about, basically, a blob that gets bigger and bigger as the central character [note: this is listed on Nachtrieb’s blog as The Amorphous Blob and the script is, sadly, unavailable for preview]. One of my early plays was called Hunter-Gatherers. It was actually one of the first plays to “break out” for me, and that was also science-inspired – it was very much a “humans as animals” type of theme. I was reading a lot of E.O. Wilson at the time and he has this book called On Human Nature, and it talks about a lot of these common traits among all these populations and civilisations that are baked into the human organism. I tried to get all of those into one play, so the challenge was “can I get every primal urge into one piece”. So yes, I think it’s always been there. In other plays, there’s some cultural stuff or political stuff that’s the forefront of the piece. So it’s still kind of always there, and like apocalypse too—maybe it’s because I grew up in San Francisco. In California, there’s always this feeling of impending doom, and I think that has always carried with me too and I kind of jokingly say that’s my wheelhouse. So I actually have a musical that we premiered in 2019 called Fall Springs, which is—

I was just going to ask you about that next!

Oh great! Yeah it really did start as a musical about climate change, about wilful human ignorance of human involvement in climate change and wilful human ignorance of science in general so that’s sort of a combo politics-and-science story and I was just—how do I—in a musical, let’s see, what’s the apocalypse musical? So it’s inspired by disaster films, which often have a scientist as the lead character, and I watched tons of them. It turned into a musical about a town called Fall Springs that’s sinking into the ground because they’re fracking for essential oils underneath it. The daughter of the mayor, Eloise, is a “closeted” scientist—her mom was a geologist who died in a cave accident…this is all like, deliberately inspired by tropes of disaster films.

Oh yeah, like when a scientist has died in some kind of science related accident…

Yeah, exactly! And so the mayor, the father, has then banned science from the family so [Eloise] has to do it in secret, she’s “closeted” about it and so he ignores the warning signs, she tries to warn him, and so the parents don’t listen—end of act one, the whole town starts to turn into quicksand and starts to sink. The second act is all of the characters stuck on a raft trying to survive, so…that’s a musical about people ignoring facts, basically. And we even have a great song called “C’mon Science” so…it’s not subtle.

That’s so fun! Had you ever done a musical before that?

No, so that was my first full-length musical. The composer and co-lyricist I worked with is Niko Sokolakos—he wrote a song for another show that I wrote, as sort of a test of our collaboration, and it worked great, so we decided to launch into writing a whole show together. It was seven or eight years before we got that premiere production, so y’know, a lot of workshops, a lot of readings…and we’re continuing to work on it. So we had our first production, and then we’re like “let’s, y’know, take what we’ve learned and see what we can re-write and re-make”. I think that’s common in all playwriting processes for me, in that even when you get to that premiere production and that first audience, I mean, you’re going to learn so much about what you’ve written. It’s always good to go back, apply those learnings, and make the play even better if you can. So yeah, we’re still working on it and looking for more places to do it. A small, ugh, pandemic got in the way between our premiere and now, so that’s slowed us down a little bit, but yeah, we’re definitely trying to get it out there.

That’s amazing! Do you have any more new projects in the works that you’re excited for?

Yeah! I actually have a couple of plays that I have drafts of, one of them is sort of weirdly science-y connected and as I keep working on it it gets more and more…I have a lot of plays where things kind of fall apart, so sort of entropy-driven pieces. I wanted to actually see what it would be like to write a play about something assembling, something coming together, so that’s what launched this play. I also wanted to write a play about empathy, which is a skill that is in need these days. It’s a play called The Overbooked Hotel Room, and it’s about seven strangers that have all been given keys to the same room by accident and wondering how, and if, they can co-exist in this space. So they’re coming in and living together and trying to negotiate space and existence and I think it’s about how something can fuse and become an organism even though things inside it are independent and doing their own thing, like almost how a cell is created, like the evolution of a cell, in a very abstract way. But I think that’s something I’m really excited about and have been working on for a while. So that’s a new one. I’m also curious about writing a play about how, if the new normal for us on this planet is unexpected events and quick change like how our climate is operating now, what would it be like if you could never sort of “settle” and you’re always uprooting and having to adapt? And that’s something that happens on a quicker time scale than it ever has before in the history of humanity, maybe. It’s maybe taking a page from The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, which follows one family. The end of each act is a disaster. So there’s an ice age coming in the first act and they have like, dinosaurs taking refuge in their house and the second act is a hurricane, the third act is a war. So there’s something about that play and thinking about our current actual moment of the planet and combining those two to write something interesting.

You have a play called A Bunch of Scientists on Spring Break that explores the pressure scientists feel from society—and as a playwright, do you also feel a responsibility to society? Do you feel any sort of pressure? And if so, how?

I guess I feel the pressure on myself? I think I picked a profession where I don’t feel like I wield much influence or power. So I don’t feel anywhere close to the pressure that maybe a virologist felt or the folks at Pfizer…I definitely could not equate any of the pressure I feel as an artist to that. I think I apply a lot of creative pressure to myself in wanting to create interesting and compelling work, and it’s very much connected to who I am. So maybe this is a similar thing for scientists—I feel like my work defines a big part of who I am? It’s a big part of how I express myself and my identity, and when that’s in a good place I feel good, and when that’s struggling I also feel the pressure or that struggle. I guess that’s a common thing to how a scientist would feel about their own work. You’re asking these questions, and trying to find a way to answer them, and that’s…so there’s a lot that’s on yourself in this life. It was actually really fun to write and ask the question, y’know, is it okay to take a break? And sort of ask yourself that – is it okay to take personal time?

So, any person who makes art that communicates scientific concepts is a science communicator, right? It is a science communication magazine, after all. What do you think the role is of a science communicator?

I think it’s so important—it’s to be a translator, in a way. The language of scientific journals is very hard to parse for the average person, so whoever can take those findings and present them to the rest of us in a way we can understand the rigour of whatever discovery was made—y’know, I think that’s crucial. I think the best science writers are the ones who can incorporate that storytelling feel to it, so they create a narrative. Richard Dawkins writes like that, Steven Jay Gould certainly, he was able to translate his writing into absolutely beautiful books. Any of these science writers—I think we need it explained to us in an entertaining way. If you can make science entertaining, it’s easier to digest. Like, all of my plays are funny, and that’s because I think that if you can present something in a comic way, you can make a deeper impact in someone’s soul. When you open people with laughter, the ideas can drop in a bit more easily. So any writer that is able to engage us or stimulate us in that way, we can hear them so much better.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today!

If you’re interested in more of Peter Sin Nachtrieb’s work you can visit his website, http://www.peternachtrieb.com.

Image credit: Ella Miodownik.