Peter Nachtrieb seems like such a nice young playwright, not at all the sort to open a play with the slaughter of a lamb in a Gen-X couple’s living room.
Perhaps more discomforting is how funny it is. In Hunter Gatherers, the San Francisco-based Nachtrieb’s play, our cultured selves and the primal ones that roil beneath do battle for supremacy to endless, if horrific, comic effect.
“I think it comes from having a double major in theater and biology,” says Nachtrieb, a graduate of Brown University. “I like to explore people as animals. At the same time I love comedy, and it’s a way to offer a social critique.”
Now, with the support of a joint $50,000 grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, Nachtrieb is turning his sociobiological dramaturgy to the topic of privacy in contemporary society. Expect more laughs.
Nachtrieb is one of six young California playwrights to receive a commission for new work, in the second year of a three-year, $900,000 program by the two foundations to support Bay Area performing artists and arts organizations at a time when funding for new work has been harder to come by. In 2005 the grants went to emerging Bay Area choreographers, and then to playwrights in 2006. The 2007 awards, to musical composers, will be announced early in 2008.
One half of each award goes to the artist as a commissioning fee. The remaining $25,000 goes to the producing organization to cover commission-related expenses for the work’s development and production. Nachtrieb will be working with Encore Theatre Company in San Francisco. The world premiere of all funded compositions will take place in the Bay Area between September 2008 and June 2010.
The program is an example of the ways the Hewlett Foundation works with other organizations to make grants to support Bay Area cultural life. Gerbode administers this program; Hewlett does not make direct grants to individual choreographers, playwrights or composers.
Searching for Themes
Nachtrieb says he’s still in “the exploratory phase” of his commissioned play, which he described to the committee vetting applications for the awards as a “darkly comic mystery” about “privacy, exhibitionism and voyeurism in contemporary America.”
“There are lots of things to think about the issue,” says Nachtrieb, who has begun collecting news stories that seem pertinent. “There’s all the paparazzi stuff and Paris Hilton, who is someone who exposes herself with full knowledge of what she’s doing.”
But the issue is not just-or even primarily-about celebrities, he says.
“With the Internet and cell phones, the bar has been lowered for people to expose themselves to others. And it’s much easier to spy on others. There’s a smaller area of true privacy. And there’s a curated sharing of yourself. Technology has made it easier for everyone to be an exhibitionist.”
Nachtrieb, 32, grew up in Marin County, the son of a local attorney, Harold Nachtrieb, whose love of wordplay and the theater found him doing a bit of amateur playwriting himself, for projects at his children’s schools and for fellow members of the Bohemian Club, California’s exclusive retreat of business and artistic leaders.
“I was drawn to comedy records,” the son says. “I listened to Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Steve Martin and Monty Python. That formed my comic sensibility. I guess my own comedy was formed by my dad’s love for puns and my German mother’s sort of darker sensibility.”
Becoming a Playwright
Nachtrieb participated in musical theater early, performing in such staples as Oliver! and The Wizard of Oz in middle school, and non-musical theater in high school. He says it wasn’t until after he arrived at Brown University that he settled on playwriting as a career. “There is an amazing playwriting group at Brown,” says Nachtrieb, who was back there this summer for a workshop production of his most recently completed work, boom.
After college, he returned to California, where he joined his older brother, George, a graduate of Wesleyan University’s film program, in the making of the low-budget indie film Welcome Space Brothers. The as-yet-unreleased comedy is described on its Web site as “about two aliens, their quest for a cow to save their planet and the humans who get in their way.”
“It’s in postproduction,” Nachtrieb says. “We’re waiting for someone to give us free stuff the way you do with independent films.”
In 2002, Nachtrieb entered San Francisco State’s playwriting program, earning an M.F.A. degree in creative writing in 2005. Soon after, he hooked up with Killing My Lobster, a San Francisco sketch comedy troupe run by a group of Brown graduates, some of whom he knew in college.
If San Francisco State was his master’s program, Killing My Lobster was where Nachtrieb got his Ph.D. in comedic theater.
“It was a great way to generate material and to learn to think quickly,” he says of his time writing and performing with the troupe. “The thing that’s great about sketch comedy is you often have to make extreme choices. It gave me freedom to look beyond the naturalistic.”
“And there was a much quicker response to material-some of it very humiliating,” he adds with a laugh.
Deepening His Art
Last year Killing My Lobster offered its first full-length offering when it produced Hunter Gatherers to glowing reviews from Bay Area critics, who sensed a new talent on the rise.
Nachtrieb “maintains a remarkable freshness and capacity to surprise when you see him onstage,” says Marc Vogl, a newly hired Hewlett Foundation program officer for Performing Arts, former Brown classmate and member of Killing My Lobster. “All of that comes out in his writing. He takes on all these serious themes about the human condition and happiness and suffering, but then he starts with sacrificing a lamb in a living room. He doesn’t hit you over the head with the seriousness.”
The debut of Hunter Gatherers also signaled Nachtrieb’s pursuit of more ambitious works.
“In sketch comedy you can be more two dimensional,” Nachtrieb says. “You only have to be with a character for a few minutes. The big challenge for me has been to develop deeper characters, not writing for the joke but writing for the truth of a situation.”
Nature versus Nurture in Drama
During the writing of Hunter Gatherers he was reading the work of Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, who helped establish the field of sociobiology by applying evolutionary principles to the study of human behavior. What Wilson argues-that all animal behavior, including human, is influenced by genes and never entirely the product of free will-often is on hilarious display in Nachtrieb’s plays. Critics have likened the result in Hunter Gatherers to a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for Gen X, and indeed, Nachtrieb cites its author, Edward Albee, as a playwright he admires.
To date, Nachtrieb has completed four full-length plays. In addition to Hunter Gatherers, there’s been Colorado, about a teen beauty queen who goes missing and her family, which was first produced in 2004, and Meaningless, about the emotional journey of a gay man in San Francisco in the ’90s, also in 2004.
The fourth, boom, is about a Craigslist ad that leads to a casual date between a journalism student and a gay marine biologist in a subterranean research lab. Oh, and it’s right before a comet is expected to hit Earth.
So the humor doesn’t seem in danger of disappearing anytime soon. It is the balance between it and Nachtrieb’s weightier intentions that preoccupy the playwright.
“That’s my journey,” he says. The plays “are comedies, but I want them rooted in some larger truth. I love comedy. It’s not just entertainment. It’s a way to think about our nature and provoke thoughts about the choices we make as an American culture.”
And in the battle to triumph over our genetic inheritance, Nachtrieb sometimes seems to suggest, we may all be lambs to slaughter.
In addition to Nachtrieb, the winners of the 2006 Emerging Playwright Awards are:
Deontay Wilson, who will work with the American Conservatory Theatre to create a sequel to his recent play American Limbo, an African American adaptation of Dante’s Inferno.
Aurorae Khoo, who will work with the Asian American Theatre Workshop on a play about a relationship that develops between an Asian American woman and a young African American soldier about to be shipped out to Iraq.
Tim Barsky, who will work with the San Francisco Playhouse on Track in a Box, a new multimedia theatrical work.
Marcus Gardley, who will work with the Berkeley Shotgun Players on a play about the Richmond Shipyards in the World War II era.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who will work with the San Francisco arts organization Youth Speaks on a play that blends hip-hop the