Q&A: Playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

 

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Peter, center, with Sean Daniels, Danny Scheie, and Aysan Celik (beneath)

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, 6’6”, is San Francisco-based playwright whose other works include The Totalitarians, boom, BOB, Hunter Gatherers, and A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Weston Ludlow Londonderry.

 

Where did this play originate?

Well, it started with Aysan – she and Danny were in a play that I wrote that Sean directed back in 2011, and we had an amazing, really great time working on it.

Fast forward to when Aysan got her job at NYU Abu Dhabi. She had some research funds, and wanted to do a project that would revolve around comedy, where the three of us could work on something together that would exploit the brilliant, natural comedic chemistry that I believe the two actors have.

How did you get the idea for actors on bicycles?

There’s actually a theatre troupe from the Bay Area that tours across the country on bicycle. And I was also training for a long distance bike ride at the time. The idea of actors on bikes let me explore ideas about the sacrifices and the adversity some artists are willing to endure in order to do something that they really are passionate about and care about.

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Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Did experiences from your own long-distance riding make it into the script?

The ride I trained for was the AIDS/LifeCycle, it’s an annual charity ride from San Francisco to LA, about 2,300 cyclists traveling 550 miles over seven days. It was my first time doing any sort of distance cycling.

So the training, the experiences of the road, and the general pain of riding long distance—the real physical toll it takes to sit on a bicycle that long—got folded into it.

There’s also a whole bicycling scene in the script – one thing I found was that it’s pretty hard to have a conversation on a bike, because usually you’re riding single file. But there is a system of warning someone behind you or in front of you about potential obstacles; a car, glass, nails, small child.

Are there core questions this play is asking?

I think it’s asking the question of why we choose to pursue whatever it is we’re pursuing – and what do we think our chosen vocations do for ourselves or for humanity.

The two characters, Mona and Terry, have differing points of view about why they do what they do, and the tension of the play has blossomed from there. I wanted to put Mona and Terry’s personal story – and the physical and emotional toll of biking and camping and hauling sets and performing for crowds that vary in size and alertness—into relief with the great moments of human achievement that they’re acting out within the play itself.

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Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik. Photo by Meghan Moore.

How did you come up with the “Great Moments” that Mona and Terry perform in their show?

I initially approached it by just asking a lot of people: What do you think are the great moments of human achievement? And when we talk about a great moment in human achievement, what does that even mean?

I also read a bunch of books, including one called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It starts when humans became a species, and goes all the way to now, and discusses the revolutionary moments where humans became distinct from other species and a dominant force on the planet.

Was it tough to narrow it down?

http://data.abuledu.org/URI/50ee7171
The Draisienne, also called the “Running Machine,” was the first bicycle – though it had no pedals or brakes.

Baron Karl von Drais, who invented the Bicycle, had to be in there. If they’re bicycling in the play, the bicycle’s got to make it in thematically too, and the bike becomes a metaphor for a whole bunch of other things in the show.

Some others are ones that I think are funny, or that use characters who aren’t locked into exact history so I can create mythical non-historically accurate figures that give Danny and Aysan some real comedic freedom.

The inventor of cheese, for example—it’s based on some legends about how cheese was invented/discovered, but put into a character. The first time we read it, Aysan threw in this ridiculous accent—and it’s really stayed in the play mostly because of the accent.

You’ve worked for traveling theatre before – any high or low points?

I’ve worked as an actor for an interactive murder mystery company called Murder on the Menu for about 15 years, and also worked for a theatre company that does corporate trainings, including sexual harassment trainings.

A lot of the time you’d come to the place you’re supposed to perform, and the odds are just stacked way against you: you’re performing in a wine cave, or you don’t have a good microphone and you’re performing for 500 people and they’re drunk.

So I think that sense of dread you can have as a traveling performer, even before you get there, is embodied in The Making of a Great Moment: anything can happen. There’s some pride swallowing that happens. You have to just move forward and do the best work that you can.

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Aysan Celik and Danny Scheie. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Any reason the characters are Canadian?

I liked them not being American. I have another play about American mythology – the “Great Man” stories of America, and I wanted this one to not be so tied to us as a country. To have them be just slightly outsiders to the US seemed fun to me. People might not have prejudgments about who they are and where they stand.

Why do you write for the stage?

I was always in love with theatre and performing, before I considered myself a writer. I loved standup and sketch comedy, and those were my first writing experiences for the stage.

Eventually playwriting became the thing that engrossed me the most. I love writing for a live performance— that elastic relationship you can have when you’re in the moment with someone in the room, that every show can be different, that every audience can be different, and that you can adapt and respond to that.

It feels more and more important to me as there are more and more technological ways to enjoy great art; I feel even more committed to the live experience as something that’s special.

Learn More about Peter: http://www.peternachtrieb.com

The Making of a Great Moment runs January 4 – 29

http://www.mrt.org/moment

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