San Francisco-based playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s hit Off-Broadway black comedy BOOM, the most produced play in the US in 2009 and 2010, receives its UK premiere at London’s Theatre503 in London. Here, he explains how Richard Dawkins and a love of evolutionary biology inspired the play…
I’m a huge biology buff. I think I first became interested in biology initially through a love of SCUBA diving and snorkelling with my family and attempting to identify all of the different fish and corals that I was seeing. Also, my mom was really into birds and lichen and we watched a lot of public television and nature documentaries.
My family was also very much into the performing arts. My dad was a lawyer who moonlit as a tuba player in a vaudeville washboard/tuba/banjo group and wrote plays for our grammar school classes. We went to see theatre all the time.
“I was really interested in origin stories and creation myths and the universal desire to understand where we came from”
We watched Monty Python as a family. I obsessed over the cast album of Cats. And I loved being a performer myself. (An early high point was playing Estragon in Waiting for Godot in my freshman year of high school.) It was a perfect escape for an awkward kid with lots of entertaining spastic energy.
In college, I double majored in theatre and biology, which was a nice yin and yang of interests. In exploring both fields, my passions for a career gravitated towards the arts, but biology and science is a primary shaper of my worldview, and I always am aware that we humans are animals, part of a natural system whose behaviour and existence is shaped by our evolutionary journey.
That worldview seeps into my work often, and explicitly into BOOM.
One impulse that drove me to write BOOM was to try to write a story that felt both epic and intimate at the same time, that was telling two stories with very different time scales and impact, and wanting to explore how small decisions and small stories can play a part in the great arc of a biological story.
I think I was really interested in origin stories and creation myths and the universal desire to understand where we came from. And I was really curious about writing a play that could explore evolution. As I was beginning to sketch out the piece, I was reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, which is a dense and absolutely wonderful look at all the different ways Evolution actually takes place on the ground, as it were. He starts in the present and goes back in time, when humans and another line of animal share a single common ancestor and then uses that ancestor to tell a biological story. The book is written so wonderfully and there is a passion and a poetic beauty throughout.
And that, I think, inspired me to want to create a story that is exploring an (albeit fictional) scientific origin story that has as much passion and flair as a creation myth or religious story, wanting to share the passion and beauty of how life really evolves, that the truth of that is beautiful and strange and just as wonderful as any made up story. And I also wanted to make that story as fun and funny and weird a journey as possible.
The London premiere production of BOOM stars Will Merrick, Nicole Sawyerr and Mandi Symonds. It’s directed by Katherine Nesbitt, designed by Nicola Blackwell and presented by Ian Melding for Announcement Productions.