In Conversation With Timo Niermann: Stage Manager and Author.
Updated: May 6, 2021
On the 7th April 2021, Laura Harris held her sixteenth art business interview this year, with Timo Niermann, a backstage expert who has worked as a performer, director, stage manager and technician in the entertainment business for twenty years in more than forty countries. He has worked across the industry in circus, classical opera, at festivals and fairs and on cruise ships. He studied Stage Technology and Theatre Science at the University of Vienna in Austria, and published his first book: ‘Collaborating Backstage: Breaking Barriers for the Creative Network’ in 2019.
LH: Super excited this evening to be speaking with Timo, who, amongst other things, is an author and stage manager. He's also an actor. So we've got lots to speak about tonight. I'm just going to dial him in. Hopefully. So welcome, Timo, you're an actor, a stage manager, and also an author. And I do have a surprise for you, I found the book I fess up, but I did actually lose this for a little while. And it was under a huge pile of things that weren't books, it was in my art kind of corner.
TM: So I brought one just in case.
LH: It's nice to have a physical copy of it. And I really want to ask you, before we come on to everything else. How did you come to publishing your first book, because it really is quite an achievement? I've been doing a bit of research on, you know, entrepreneurs and business people and things. And it's quite an achieve is quite an accolade actually, to have a published book. It's something that a lot of people have on their things that they want to do in life. So how did it come about?
TM: It's definitely a bigger mission than I expected. To be honest. Maybe it was a bit foolish to start this whole thing. No, but I mean, you know, when I worked in the theater industry for quite a while, and I studied theater science, and I got a diploma for stage technology. And I just realized, I was always interested in, in how to work professionally, and how to make operations really smooth. So I found out that the more I learned about the other people working around me, the better obviously, my communication with them became. And then more and more people came up to me and asked me like, like, hey, how would you do this? Because he seemed to have a good system to speak to them. And so yeah, like I told you before, like I, at some point, I just said, Okay, I just want to write a book.
I researched a lot. And I did a lot of interviews with all sorts of different people. And there's not, there's not much literature around. So that motivated me to find my niche. And it was actually finding a publisher was actually This made it a little bit harder, because they are usually looking for a niche that exists already, rather than opening a new one, but I sort of had to convince my publisher that this is something no one has yet. And they jumped on board. And I'm really happy, because I got Bloomsbury in London, which is a major book deal, really. And it was a really nice process with them to improve my first book because I hadn't done it ever. But yeah, but like I said, in the beginning, I was like, Okay, I'm going to write a book, you know, like, like you said, everyone wants to write a book. And then after a couple of months, I was like, okay, I've gone that far. I'm not going to stop anymore, you know. And then a couple of months later, I was like, oh, I've gone that far. I'm not going to stop anymore. And that took for four years, or five years, until it was actually out and in my hands!
LH: Did it take longer than you thought it was going to take as well.
TM: Definitely. I mean, I think every author will tell you that. But yeah, no, I expected it to last about two, maybe three years. And I'd say after three years, I had my deal. I was quite lucky to reach the right person at the right moment. But I mean, it's how it is sometimes. Then I needed another, let's say half a year or a year to finish my manuscript. And then the whole process within the publishing agency took another year to proofread it to produce to print it to market it.
LH: It's just an amazing achievement. I would absolutely love to be one of those. So I'm sure a lot of people are also reading this book are studying to be in the industry, the entertainment and performing arts industry. And I know that you've worked in classical opera, you've worked in circus, you've worked in theater, you've worked in music festivals, and on cruise ships. Can you tell me about if you've got a story about one of those different places in which you've worked? Maybe something really funny happened? Or is there a key thing that you want to tell us about?
TM: I'd say there was really one really interesting story that happened in Egypt. We were doing a show right at the right at the bottom of the pyramids, beautiful setting, and it was a major telecommunication company. And they invited their probably like, top 1500 guests, clients to this event. And it was it was massive. It was a beautiful setting. And they obviously they had a lot of performance invited and they started off the evening with like, nice walking as stilt walkers, five performers, jugglers, and then it continued, you know, then later on, they had beautiful laser and light shows around the pyramids.
They also had River Dance there. And then the highlight in the end was a one hour set of Mariah Carey. But they only forgot one little thing, little thing, which was that most of the clients were rom the Middle East. So a lot of people from from Sharjah, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. And the one thing that is different when you produce shows over there, the one thing that's different to Europe or Western countries is that your lineup needs to be in the opposite direction, because the sheiks will never stay till the end, or usually will never stay to the end. So you usually start out with your highlight, and then sort of go slower by at the end of the evening. So what happened that night was that by the time Mariah Carey went on stage, there were only 150 guests left. She literally performed for more employees and workers and bartenders than for the actual audience for the actual clients. And so this was an obviously a big failure of the holy bandit. I mean, they invested tons of money. And this, this was one of the moments where I really realized, Oh, my God, it's like one little thing and communication can change so much, especially into intercultural international communication. And everyone had done an amazing job. But disregarding this one little fact. And so yeah, so this was also part of the thing where that I really wanted to bring this international communication into the book, and how to create an intercultural dialogue. And, you know, understand the other culture that you're working for.
LH: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that's a really good point. And it's just the western way of doing things is very different to the eastern way, or the Middle Eastern way of doing things. And also, there's differentiations within Europe. I’m really particularly interested in the musical festivals that you did, which countries were you doing those and is there one that you could talk to us about that you really enjoyed?
TM: Well, what my favorite experience was in Hungary in at the Signal Festival, it's one of the biggest music festivals in Europe, I guess. And it was back in the day, I was part of a band. And we won this Austrian BAM contest. One of the prizes that we that we had was to go to a cigar festival and play there. And it was just an amazing experience to perform there and see all the other bands and see you know, the whole festival and be part of it. So that was that was a really, really nice experience.
Other than that, I've done a lot of performances in like four bands for other bands like show performances, dancing, acrobatics, and the I think that really nice part of being a dancer or acrobat is that you that you really get thrown into all sorts of different shows or different settings. So you can really learn about that a lot. I mean, I also produce them in other countries have created shows. But anyway, as an acrobat you get to you sort of the specialty act. And so you can see you can also dive into these different goals. I mean, we did we did cruise ships, we like you said we did millionaires weddings and S&M parties. We did everything. And I think that's something I find really interesting, is to dive into these different worlds and learn from them.
LH: Absolutely. And you speak two languages, right?
TM: I speak German and English fluently and I speak French and Spanish a little bit. In Mexico, there was just no way to get around with English. I have basic Spanish, but I working there just helped me a lot to improve my language skills.
LH: And tell me how have you been working in this industry during lockdown? Have you been doing a lot of things remotely on zoom and things like that? Are you planning a lot of projects, you know, for the next six months?
TM: Well, I'd say most of the freelance stuff is cut down completely. But I was lucky enough to have signed to the Opera here in Vienna. So I have a fixed position as a stage manager there. And now, I mean, these, it's on and off, really. We had a couple of really nice months to September, October, where we performed every night and it was brilliant. It was great atmosphere. But then it was another lockdown and another lockdown. And we had just finished rehearsing a lot of productions. A lot of shows are sort of in the pipeline now. And we have done the general rehearsals, but we never actually performed it. So yeah, we're basically waiting for it to open. I can't wait to get back to the actual theater and work there.
LH: Absolutely, and that's one thing on I want to ask you, I noticed that you're interested in pyrotechnics. That's one of the things you specialize in. And can you talk to me about that?
TM: Well, that was that was when I first started at the age of 18. I was hired by a shell company called the Phoenix shows. And my boss Mark Raw, he really introduced me, although I was hired as a dancer originally, he introduced me to all sorts of different departments that that because the show group was specialized in combining human physical performance with technology and effects, so power techniques, and laser projections, 3D projections. He really taught me everything about power techniques. I was in charge of laser programming. So I did set up quite a lot of fireworks and pyrotechnics. Back in the day, I mean, it's been a few years now. But this is something I've definitely always enjoyed. I feel like it's become a lot harder to do this stuff since 2000. I believe it was in 2004 or 2005, a few clubs burned down. The regulations really tightened up, which is fair, of course. But because of that, also, it became much harder to create something really nice with power techniques. I feel like the golden age for lasers in pyro is almost over. But also my personal path has changed a little bit, so I'm not doing pyrotechnics that much anymore, but I definitely enjoyed doing it.
LH: So if I came over to your house, I couldn't, I wouldn't expect to have a full firework display or lighting or anything?
LH & TM: Laughter
TM: Probably not, no!
LH: Just so I just, by the way, somebody said that your book is absolutely fantastic on the chat. And if anybody has any questions, please do put them in the comments. And I know that you're teaching as well? Freelancing at different universities? Could you talk to me about that, how it's really important to impart your knowledge onto the next generation?
TM: Oh, definitely. Teaching came out of my book, obviously. I was teaching at the university in Vienna and I did a lot of like workshops for Circus Academy. And for me, it's something on the one hand that is really nice to take a written book and bring it into a different format and work with people about it. Just like the spoken language is different than the written language. By teaching, I learned a lot too. And I really enjoy the exchange with the students. And it's in a way, it's also like learning from them learning about the younger mentality and see how they approach the whole industry.
And I think especially now, with this whole pandemic, I think it's really important to sort of reinvent the theatre and reinvent the performing arts. And it definitely has to start with communication, it has to start with becoming more efficient, becoming more fluent, finding a new sort of art form. And this is something I'd be really interested in over the next few years. Because I, I believe it will take another couple of years for it to come back to where it used to be. But I'm definitely I mean, this is something I'm actually looking forward to sort of rebuilding it up and seeing where it will go.
LH: What did you study originally, by the way?
TM: Well, I started being on stage. Then I started at the University of Vienna. But then I felt like it's more like science, more theories, and I wanted to have more practical knowledge. And so this is when I did my diploma for stage technology and learned about staging, rigging and lighting and I've worked a little bit as a technician. But I would say it helped me to create and to understand what is actually possible with the technology that we have, and how to use it for creating something.
LH: Having those acting skills, not only are you able to use the camera, you're confident using it. most of the people I've spoken to on camera have been very fluid, so I thought but afterwards, they told me ‘Oh my God, I was so nervous’. And these are all really successful people. How do you feel having those acting skills has helped you in your career, both onstage and offstage. Tell me about that?
TM: Well, I always say like being on stage is something that I would love my kids to experience too, not because I want them to be on stage, but I want them to feel that that moment and be comfortable in front of an audience as I think this is something that you always have to do in life, whether it's a job interview or applying for a visa. I think it's good to be able to focus, even if you're nervous, use the nervosity to actually perform better and not make it stop you.
LH: Yeah, use that energy that could come across as a sort of a jittery thing and change it into like a better way of using that energy.
TM: And the physical part is something that that is there for you for the rest of your life. I mean, physical performance, being in shape is something that that also makes you more stress resistant and more. I think that's a big part of performing too.
TM: The book is written for people with an understanding of being on stage or being backstage. It's been two years already 2019 I hosted the collaborating conference in Vienna, which was sort of a get together of all sorts of creative people, not only from the stage. And the goal was just to make them exchange ideas and inspire each other. And I think the core content of the book is about communication. So it's not just for backstage people. It's definitely for anyone who works creative who wants to improve their creativity and communication.
LH: And which section, if you had time, obviously, would you like to expand upon?
TM: I think it's chapter three, which is about intercultural exchange. I mean, not just the international cultures, but also working cultures, because in theatre the culture of a dancer is completely different than the culture of a technician, in the way they speak and the way they dress. And this is something that I sort of felt was important for my book. But I didn't quite know where it should go in my book. I feel like this field is just so open, there's so much more to discover, and so much more research.
LH: It's a big subject. Also, you wrote me a note when you gave me a copy. I’ll read it out to everyone. It says, ‘Dear Laura, big exclamation mark. It was such a pleasure meeting you. And thank you for doing such a brilliant job introducing me to 101 people. Here are too many more meetings in the future. Timo.’
I think both of us absolutely love networking and meeting new people. And also a mutual friend of ours connected us. Because at the time I was working at Rose Bruford College, so yeah, it's just a big love of mine, as well as the whole social capital arena. I wrote my dissertation on that subject. I love the whole networking collaborating thing as well.
TM: So yeah, I love that. Like, there was so much energy, it was really, really great.
LH: Oh, absolutely.Is there anything that you want to let us know? Are you planning another book or what I'm working on?
TM: Well, I think there's two things that are, let's say, on the top of my list right now, and one thing is definitely to translate the book into German. I have to say, I really underestimated the language barrier with the people around me here. What a big thing it is to read an English book. I feel like I owe it to my students and the people that are working with me to have a German version. I'm currently looking into German publishers that are willing to bring out a German version. So that's one thing. And the other thing is to actually have another round of the collaborating conference. Because I get still get a lot of really nice feedback, how people connected and how people exchange and how they still have all these contacts and these ideas from back then. With this pandemic, right now, we might have to change a few things. I don't really want to make it an online conference because I feel like people should actually meet and talk and feel each other to do this.
LH: The other thing I was thinking, what about changing it into a children's book?
TM: That's interesting. Yeah. I got a few emails in the last weeks Actually, it's funny now, in the pandemic, people seem to have more time for reading. I got a few emails saying like, ‘Oh, Timo, thanks for the book. It's set reading at the university now, or I found your book, and it's become really important for my master studies.’ It's a really nice feedback.
LH: Are you encouraging your daughters to get onstage or think about the performing arts industry?
TM: Well, one of them performed already. At age five in the Sound of Music. I don't put any pressure on them. Not at all. But obviously they see it My, my wife was in the state ballet in Vienna for 10 years. And so they're very used to being backstage and very used to seeing shows.
LH: It's been amazing to speak with you. Have a lovely rest of the evening in Austria and hopefully speak to you really soon. And hopefully see you again in person.
TM: Yes, I hope so too, Laura. All right. Thanks a lot. Bye, everybody.