Theatre director and playwright has toured South America with his solo Attempt on Dying and other works; with Bolivian artist Diego Aramburo, he has been developing a long-term process of text exchange
Boris Nikitin travels through the ambiguous aspects of reality. Examining the documentary format within theatre, the Swiss actor, director, and writer questions the manipulative potential of this genre.
“It’s just a matter of perspective,” he says. “What we assume to be real is potentially fictitious. Because you can only fake something that appears real. I realised that this is the prerequisite to understanding emancipation. If I can deny reality as it is and see it as a social construct, it means I can change something. I can have an impact on reality because it’s not complete.”
These concepts permeate the work of the director, who presented two shows at the 2023 edition of FIBA – International Festival of Buenos Aires. The programme featured a selection of the Swiss contemporary scene, titled “Experience/Switzerland”.
Boris participated with two very different – yet intertwined – pieces: “Hamlet”, where performer Julian Meding takes on the role of a contemporary Hamlet, rebelling against reality; and “Attempt on Dying”, a solo in which the director explores his vulnerability and recounts his father’s passing after struggling with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
During 2023, he also presented “Attempt on Dying” within the 17th edition VERBO – Performance Art Festival, in Fortaleza and São Paulo [BR], and later in Bogota [CO], in a double programme, which also featured “Magda Toffler or an Essay on Silence”.
In the following interview, which took place during FIBA, Boris talks about his research on reality and the documentary format, the pieces presented in the festival, and “The Conversation Project“, a long-term process of text exchange with artist and curator Diego Aramburo [BO]. The final material, which tackles the different realities around the duo (in Europe and South America and through the Coronavirus pandemic), should result in a publication.
Your work discusses the documentary format and the way it portrays reality. When did you start reflecting on these issues?
I think I always had an interest in the documentary format, in the staging of it. It’s curious that the documentary always comes with the presumption that the things it portrays are real. And when I was studying in Giessen [DE], in the 2000s, there was this new wave of documentary theatre, with people on stage talking about their stories and representing themselves, under their own names. It was received as something authentic, nonfiction or non-acted. And there might be a danger of reducing the possibilities of what a person can be.
So, I was very much thinking about the manipulative potential of the documentary genre, and that’s how my work started, seeing documentary and propaganda as siblings. It is just a matter of perspective. And I somehow transferred it to the whole concept of how we perceive reality as an everyday experience, how we are taught it.
It can be that my experience of being gay, but hiding it as a teenager, masking myself, thinking that I was not as I was supposed to be, maybe I had to reject that concept of normality. So, it led to those reflections, that maybe things that you’re being told are real are much more ambiguous.
Do you think it has to do a little bit also about your background, coming from different cultures?
Yeah, lately I’ve started to think more about that, that it could be because my mother is Slovakian, my father is half French, half Russian-Ukrainian. But that came after I had started the reflection on documentary, it was the cherry on top of the ice cream. So it can be that being the child of immigrants, reality had always been an ambiguous thing for me, because semiotics is not homogeneous.
You say this awareness that reality might be fake can have an emancipatory effect. How so?
I was very interested in the fact that what we assume to be real is potentially fictitious, because you can only fake something that appears real. And later, I realised that this is the prerequisite to understanding emancipation. If I can deny reality as it is and see it as a social construct, it means I can change something. I can have an impact on reality because it’s not complete.
In your work, you discuss what’s fiction or not, and use the tools of theatre to frame it, to discuss reality.
When I started to work in that direction, I’d use the theatrical space as a real space. I thought it was interesting to play with the part that people perceive as nonfiction, the auditorium and chatting, with the lights still on, and how it could be manipulated. It is interesting how quickly we accept the narrative, how our body and brain adapt to it. Because theatre, in a way, is a machine of perception. And from there also take it as an experience of the outside world, to discuss how reality is staged. That enables me to think of the way how theatre has been constructed with all the rules, all the hierarchies and my role in it. It’s a model of the theatre space expanded to the world outside.
In “Hamlet”, you examine these issues through a very known fictional character. What was the connection with Shakespeare’s play?
An important starting point was that, in Shakespeare’s play, there is always this question, if Hamlet is really like that or if he is just faking it. And I thought that’s very interesting for the questions I have to reality itself. And Julien [Meding] is a performer with a particular attitude, people sometimes wonder, is this person really like that? Finally, I wanted to play with that in a piece that partly pretends to be non-fictional but has the title “Hamlet”.
I think that’s the experience the audience has: is it serious, or is it just a joke? And then they have to navigate through their own emotions, maybe their pissed off and angry, later they might identify with this character.
The Shakespearean question “to be or not to”, I would like to translate it into “to be and not to be at the same time”. Not a question, but more as a statement. It’s neither fictitious nor real. It’s both at the same time. I like that as an aesthetic state, but I think it also could derive from a political idea of sovereignty; not to fully adapt to one concept of identity or reality, but to always remain a player. In the end, you could say: well, it’s freedom.
You mentioned how the public might get uncomfortable. Do you think we’re provoked also because there’s no right answer, since everything is so dubious?
It can be. We worked very hard to keep Julian’s performance as ambiguous as possible. And I like very much this insecurity as an aesthetic state of mind. But maybe some people just miss more clarity or find the performance too repulsive. And it’s interesting, we were talking about how we identify or not. And even though it’s very ambiguous, even though there is this ambiguous gender style, I think people identify somehow. Not just with the character, but with the whole idea within all these layers.
The piece makes a lot of different proposals to identifying. First, making people think it’s going to be a very annoying performance. Then suddenly there is a transformation and people start to identify and many are very moved.
I mean, we live in a time defined so much by images. But that’s not reality. That’s just images. And I think that’s what people do at the beginning of the piece, they see the strong image of Julian. But it’s not an image. It’s a process, a relationship. I think that has to do with the fact that we’re mortal. It’s about our body living through a time.
You were talking about mortality, and it’s very interesting to see the two pieces, “Hamlet” and “Attempt on Dying”, together. Because they’re so different in style, but the stories are intertwined: you mention your father’s death in “Hamlet”, and in the solo. How was that process?
We had started working on “Hamlet” when my father got sick, so I could not disconnect these two things. It felt natural to use my artistic work as a possibility to channel all the experiences, thoughts and feelings and organise them. By appropriating the experience of mortality and of death, I could write things down and try to make something beautiful out of it.
A year before, I was in the hospital myself because I had a little aneurysm. Then later, I went to Athens for a project, and I was asked to do it in this hospice, and there were a lot of old and sick people around. And one month later, my father got his diagnosis. So, it was a time when I had a lot of experience and confrontation with death and vulnerability. And I thought I should share this experience, and I put it in “Hamlet” and then, later, in “Attempt on Dying”.
And even though you’re dealing with mortality, there is always the question of what’s fiction: whether it’s gender, identity, or even your father’s disease to a certain extent.
Yeah. I mean, I totally believe there is a clear reality out there, and that is very much connected to our physical experience. And generally, the fact that we are born and will die. I believe the rest is interpretation. I don’t think there’s any reality or truth in who is allowed to marry whom or if abortion should be allowed or not. Those are constructs and fiction, and we have to debate them.
In “Attempt on Dying”, you also bring up this idea of vulnerability becoming a tool, a strength.
Well, that happened by accident. We were invited to Athens in 2016 to show “Hamlet”, and I was asked to write a director’s note. So, I was thinking about the piece and how we work, how this character is exposing himself to the audience, making himself visible. And I thought, well, visibility is vulnerability because you expose yourself. I was writing this sentence, and suddenly I saw really blinking the word “ability”. And it changed completely. Because theatre is the place where we can make ourselves purposefully vulnerable and transform it into an ability.
I was also thinking back on my father’s last days and how the doctors were asking what we wanted or what he wanted. What shall we do next? And it stressed me. But then I thought, you know, maybe it’s not a question of what he wants, but of what this body does. And maybe we don’t have to fight against it. We might trust that the body will know what is going to happen next.
And it was A.L.S., it was clear there was no way back. So, just letting go. It was a relieving thought because there’s nothing more stupid than to fight against your own mortality. And sometimes you can just expose your vulnerability, and maybe it will be very liberating.
You talk about coming out not only as a gay man, but in a broad sense. Is that also a way of dealing with not fearing life?
Yeah. I kind of realised that I could connect these various thoughts, thinking of reality as fiction, these social constructions. When I was starting to work as a director, I was partly suffering, I hated this act of being in front of others. It’s so stressful. So, I had this idea that to be an artist is to re-enact your coming out all the time. And it has become a very helpful metaphor. It helps in a micro-social or micro-political sense to always go: don’t listen to the voice in your head that wants to censor you. Just, you know, go on. It’s like coming out all the time, not procrastinating, because what are you waiting for? You’re going to die anyway. You cannot prevent death from happening by procrastinating in life.
About “The Conversation Project”, you’re also dealing with these questions of reality and identity. How is the process?
We have made so many conversations, but we also wrote so many things. And all the conversations were transcribed and reworked again and again. I think the process needs a lot of time to work on it. Because it’s not fiction as a genre. It’s two people talking with each other about reality. We partly talk about personal stuff, but we also try to just describe what is happening around us. When the pandemic hit, we suddenly started talking about numbers and we got this statistic mindset, which was not there before. And then, of course, we start to make interpretations and that is a delicate thing if you want to publish. Because it’s not a reality show, I don’t think that it’s interesting to just have this idea of authenticity.
The process was mostly having conversations, but you were also exchanging texts?
It’s a mix of both. I think the conversations are the main thing. And reworking the conversations. But the base is our exchange. Which is, of course, the challenge because it’s two people talking in a hermetic space, it’s a private thing. But at the same time, that’s why I think that it is becoming interesting through time, you know, making statements and two weeks later it’s already not true anymore. This experience we all made in the pandemic, this extreme experience of time and how things constantly change.
Also, you were in very different contexts, you in Europe, Diego in South America.
Yes. And we have this image that, as an artist, you have to look beyond your boundaries. But then you realise we’re totally stuck in our realities. We cannot break it, and we cannot access the other person’s reality. So, I like this idea of investing more time into it.
And that’s what I see as a bit the difficulty of the or the challenge of “The Conversation Project”, which is why I think it is interesting. What makes it really exciting is the duration of it and the idea that it’s not a typical exchange, that one can see how things change through time. Not as a novel, but from an artistic point of view. That’s an exciting thought, even if in the end it’s just a conversation between two people talking about the world.
Boris Nikitin, born in Basel and the son of Ukrainian-Slovakian-French-Jewish immigrants, is a theatre director, author and curator of the biennial festival It’s The Real Thing – Basel Documentary Platform. For over thirteen years, his productions, texts and happenings have been dealing with the representation and production of identity and reality.