Nikolas Weir is an international theatre artist hailing from Montreal, Quebec where he grew up with a mother of French descent and a father of German descent (via Greece). After graduating from Bennington College in 2005, Nikolas studied in Germany, where he founded his company, Theatre for/of the Blind. Nikolas, or Niko as his collaborators call him, is currently working with the Figuren vom Dunklen Theater Lab in Frankfurt, Germany where he is co-directing his adaptation of Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) alongside Artistic Director, Herman Doucher.
So, you’re French, German, Greek, and Canadian?
NW: Please don’t tell anyone I’m Canadian. (laughs) What a pointed question.
You’re quite a global soul, though. Obviously there’s been some influence.
NW: Of course. I grew up in Quebec with my parents who, also artists, had lived all over the world. From a young age I had this sense that the world was still open for discovery and that, like my parents, I was going to involve myself in exploring culture through my art.
When did you being working in theatre?
NW: My first produced play was entitled “Thomas Mann’s Summer Vacation” – a parody of Death in Venice told in a journal-like style. I was in eighth grade. My father played Thomas Mann and the next door neighbor friend played the object of his desire. My mother designed the lights. We performed it in my basement. I need to revive that play someday.
You read “Death in Venice” in eighth grade?
NW: You would’ve had to meet my parents. My mother was a sculptor, my dad a poet who taught writing. I can’t imagine growing up any other way. They were lovely talented people.
You’re a major proponent for this movement in the arts — theater for/of the blind. Tell me, how does it work?
NW: It was not something I was particularly interested until I committed myself to it. All ideas are ridiculous until you commit. We live in a culture that profits from Theatre Of the Blind, those who close their eyes in fear. We must create then a Theatre For the Blind. It’s both a socio-political movement and a performance style. It’s communicating through something above text. Traditional audiences go to the theater; we see, we hear, we take in our surroundings. What is beautiful about the theater is it takes active listening on the audience’s part. When I first began my work in Theater for/of the Blind I kept saying to myself, “I go into a theater. I close my eyes. I’m feeling something. What is that?” I began to watch performances with my eyes closed. Our goal is to create a theater that involves all the senses: dramas that have sound, movement — movement that can be felt by the audience — taste and smell.
Taste and smell?
NW: Yes, absolutely. How you can incorporate those elements which are usually overlooked in the theater? Releasing scents, unleashing rhythms — it’s all very ancient in tradition but innovative in how we relate it to a modern audience, specifically a blind audience – either physically or metaphorically. It’s particularly difficult as I challenge myself with something like an opera. Which, this is my first time working with opera.
How does that work with opera?
NW: I must say, it works beautifully.
You don’t see this demeaning to, say, blind persons?
NW: You mean offensive? I don’t know. I don’t consider that sort of thing. If you think about offending people you’re never going to get any work done. This is an idea, a big one, and I want to see how far I can take it. What people are going to think is my last concern – it’s what they’re going to feel that I’m invested in.
And this is Wagner’s “Das Liebesverbot” you’re working on?
What’s your take on it?
NW: What you have here is Wagner’s first performed piece, which people hated, isn’t that how it always is? It’s based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, a wonderfully nasty play. So, if you can imagine: I’m taking Wagner and Shakespeare and I’m inserting a somewhat punk-rock texture into the opera. I must say, this is why it’s great to work in Germany. Audiences want to tackle this kind of material when they go to the theatre. I think this may be true in America too – it’s a matter of recognition though.
American audiences don’t recognize they want this kind of work?
NW: Probably not.
Can you explain some design elements? I can’t really imagine it.
NW: Good. Then you’ll have to come and smell it.
Alright. Well then, can you describe what a piece of Theatre for/of the Blind might look like?
NW: We did The Balcony by Jean Genet. We included all the design elements you might see in a typical production, but we heightened the experience beyond the text. We do this by creating a constant soundscape that suggests mood and tone, one that has a dialogue of its own, even releasing certain scents into the audience. A friend of mine once called my shows “scratch and sniffs” (laughs), but it is all very specific. For The Balcony I found myself mixing a lot of industrial materials with spices. Like chlorine and curry. Or sulfur and lavender. Or my favorite, rubber and cinnamon. It was very strong, even harsh, I think – like a meal that’s too big and you can’t finish, but you want to leave it on the plate because the odor is so unique and off-putting in a very almost sensual way. Like staring at the sun. I’m seeking funders to assist in building another Scent-Releaser, one more state of the art. I built one for our inaugural production here in Germany in the summer of 2006, but right now it only really works in small houses. It works in a similar fashion as a fog machine – the downside is that it clogs up very easily.
A big question that I know you’ll have a lot to say about: Is theatre dying?
NW: Of course it is. But it’s died before and in the past century too. When a thing is dying there’s never a better time to be innovative. This isn’t just theatre, this across the board in the arts. I think in this decade there’s going to be a rise of the creative class. And, nay, this is not just me spouting some passing thought I have had. I’ve talked to collaborators from all the places I work regularly – Montreal, New York, Frankfurt- and everywhere I go I have had conversations about this idea of the Creative Class.
What is the creative class?
NW: One could stick to the socioeconomics of the term – but I’m misusing it on purpose. Perhaps we should call it the Artists Class, but that suggest elitism. That would be inappropriate. This class dissolves the elitists approach to theatre, that is, the long standing tradition of showy, empty, money-fueled Sparkle Shows that appear on Broadway and in repertory houses throughout America. We have a lot of work to do and it begins with the individual, I think. But, I don’t know. Can we change the subject?
Sure. What’s your next project after the opera?
NW: I’ll be back in the states after the premiere in late April and I’d like to do a U.S. production of Das Liebesverbot with English speaking actors sometime by the end of the year. I am also writing a new piece that has absolutely no dialogue. Only movement, music and smell.
NW: Like I said, it’s committing to the asinine and seeing how far one can take it.
—Nikolas Weir Interview
Adam R. Burnett