Going to see a play can be a small, well-rehearsed miracle. Lighting magically matches every scene, surroundings take on a metaphorical relationship to the characters' inner lives, and every word uttered is expressive and articulated. But, you might be wondering, where does the play come from? Whose fevered imagination did it spring from, and how did it go from their head to the stage? I got a chance to see the process in action at a reading of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Boom. The play isn't fully finished but will be soon -- with a little help. That help arrives in the form of the Playwrights Foundation and their In The Rough reading series, and from the feedback given by audiences at readings in Palo Alto and San Francisco. I was at the San Francisco reading of Boom held at A Traveling Jewish Theatre.
While not all readings are so minimally produced, Boom took eight hours of rehearsal per day followed by performances that featured no costumes, no memorization, and little attention to the stage directions read aloud by the director from the back of the stage. Banish the thought that modest production values means modest interest. Stripping away most of the visual cues focuses attention on the spoken words -- and while the actors were excellent and clearly invested in interpreting the experience for the audience, the audience was equally invested in interpreting the experience for the playwright.
Jules is a geeky scientist, inexperienced in the ways of human interaction. Jo is a masochistic journalism major with a foul mouth and bitter heritage. You gotta love the idea of putting these two in a room together for a couple of hours, just to see what happens. But what sort of situation could bring them together? Nothing less than an apocalypse, of course! Boom features the harangues and laments of Jules and Jo, along with the occasional interpolation by Barbara, the mysterious third person on stage who manipulates the events. I don't want to say too much, because this play unfolds in one long delicious reveal, but it continually confounds the audience's assumptions and expectations, constructing a darkly comic journey for both the characters and the audience.
For Nachtrieb, bringing other people into the process is vital to rounding out the work in question. "In general, the director can take a visual approach to the play, lighting, sound -- and can work with actors well, to help them find the character, the moments," he notes. "This is the first reading for this particular play, and I really heard the rhythms for the first time."
According to Nachtrieb, hearing a piece out loud and seeing the big picture are important to seeing what works and what doesn't work in a play. He is currently in the process of using the feedback and observations he received to rework the play, focusing mainly on the last third. This summer, another, more extensively produced reading will take place in Providence, with more rehearsal time and more performances.
Nachtrieb is an active member of the Bay Area theater scene -- working on half a dozen projects at any given time. He writes for and collaborates with the well-regarded comedy troupe Killing My Lobster; is just coming off of the highly successful debut of his full-length play Hunter Gatherers (which has garnered several awards and will be staged on the East Coast this summer); and has just been commissioned to work on yet another full-length play for Encore Theatre in San Francisco.
When I asked Nachtrieb what he was most happy to have discovered through the reading, he responded, "I felt good that there's definitely something in the core that seems compelling to people." I certainly thought so. I am eagerly awaiting the finished product and production, which could be as early as next year. In the meantime, check out any one of Nachtrieb's projects to get a taste of how he deftly weaves comedic elements into the darker substance of life to produce his own sophisticated brand of comedy. And for more information on In the Rough, visit the Playwrights Foundation.