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A Conversation: Tobias Wegner Talks About LEO

The movement theatre piece LEO celebrated its premiere over 10 years ago. Since then, the production has captivated audiences all over the world and received several awards from critics for its innovative approach. Tobias Wegner, performer and co-creator of LEO, has been part of the production from the very beginning. In our interview, we look back at the beginnings of LEO and talk about special memories, unexpected challenges, and his unique relationship to the character of LEO.

LEO is now over ten years old and had its 1,000th show last year. How does that feel?

When I think about it and look back, what I feel above all is enormous gratitude, happiness, and also pride that the quality of the piece has remained so high over the years and the many performances, and that LEO is still in demand and performing in so many places today. Of course, I had not expected the production to be such a lasting success.

Can you tell us a bit about the early days of LEO?

When we started the previews in 2011, I had a rather queasy feeling and didn’t really know what to expect or how the piece would be received. Then a critic from Edinburgh saw one of the first performances at the Chamäleon and said he liked it a lot – that was a positive signal. After that, we went on to premiere at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, and that’s where it all started: In a small church in front of 30 spectators, with no backstage and no sanitary facilities, in this extreme festival rhythm, where set-up and get-out have to go very quickly. I had very mixed feelings then too. But everything went very quickly after that. We got great feedback from the audience and the press, won awards, and got our first international invitations. And then came a total change of pace, and after four weeks of festival madness, there was complete silence. In retrospect, I liken it to a tsunami wave – once the water recedes. In 2012, the wave came back with a vengeance and LEO played 150 shows all over the world.

What has changed over time?

In the beginning, when LEO started, I had never felt so in demand with a production or been invited to so many countries. For a while, I was on auto-pilot and tried to take it all in, do a lot and enjoy it. But at some point, the whole tour team realised that you can’t keep up that kind of intensity indefinitely. Other performers and technicians joined us and we spread the workload of touring on more shoulders. Then my kids started school – the show is older than my second son – and I tried to keep everything at a healthy level. With the pandemic, a lot changed again. My role in the production has changed, I’m not only on stage, but I also organise performances in German-speaking countries. As a result, I now feel a completely new connection to the piece. Not only performing, but also organising, setting up and really understanding all the things involved.

Has your relationship with the character changed over time?

LEO has certainly inspired me throughout, especially his way of dealing with adversity. Perhaps when I slip into the role, I fill it so well because I perceive it as a kind of ideal type. A person who doesn’t let things get him down, who is at peace with himself, tries things out, fails, and keeps going. Sometimes it’s not that easy to do that in the real world. As a result, I found it very inspiring to escape into LEO’s box again and again. He reminds me to keep things in perspective, to change my point of view, and to stick to the stuff that is fun or good for me.

Over time, we may have influenced each other too. Thanks to LEO, I gained so much experience, got to know so many people, and always bore a lot of responsibility. And whether privately through my family, my increasing age, or simply my personal maturing process: These were all developments that helped me to add even more facets to the character.

How do you prepare for new shows or upcoming tours?

I never completely let my training slide and try to maintain a certain level of fitness. I also need that for my general well-being. Of course, I have developed a routine with LEO and know what to expect and what I have to do during a performance – that helps to tackle it. But training or no, I couldn’t perform a teeterboard act these days. You can summon up that kind of specific and sometimes extreme exertion when you’re in your twenties, but later it takes a lot of effort, and it can be very dangerous. I think it’s ridiculous to think of myself as an acrobat in my early/mid-40s, that’s not who I am anymore.

How would you describe yourself now?

Performer, actor, artist, creator.

From the outside, LEO certainly looks very demanding and strenuous.

The exhausting part is often touring itself. Setting up, preparing, performing, tearing down, and then driving three people in a truck for two hours to the theatre, nothing about it is glamorous, and I feel after a few days that my muscles are tired and it’s exhausting. But somehow I also love this contrast to creative work. On a performance day, the processes with the technicians are perfect, everything is choreographed, and there’s no grey area, except when occasionally a bit of troubleshooting is required. At the end of the day, it’s an incredibly satisfying feeling when everything works out and the audience is delighted.

Are there any particularly good experiences that stick in your memory?

Yes, the 2012 performances in Iran were great. One day we played a double show and afterward even more people banged on the theatre door asking to see the show. In the end, we really did say, “Come on, we’ll play another one.” That was the third show. We only did that once and it was only possible because I was fit as a fiddle thanks to a week-long run in New York. In general, of course, I really enjoyed being able to travel to so many places with LEO. Places that you can only dream of as a tourist. I personally enjoyed the culinary discoveries in particular. Another great thing about being part of an guest production is that you are very well looked after. Usually you meet local festival or theatre organisers who are proud to present their cities and give you lots of tips. As I said, I am very grateful and happy about the many experiences.

And what were some challenging moments?

I don’t know how many LEOs we had to cancel due to technical problems. Maybe a handful – out of over 1000 shows. Never due to illness, but rather because, for example, you arrive somewhere and realise: the stage is too low, the screen won’t fit upright, or the beamer goes haywire and you can’t find the problem for ages. Then – like LEO himself – you mustn’t lose heart (laughs). A big challenge is, of course, festival mode, not least in Edinburgh, when you have to take down the set of the production beforehand and set up your own within 20 minutes. Or once I got stuck on a plane because some German airspace surveillance software crashed. I was supposed to fly to Montreal to perform at the Complètement Cirque Festival the next day. Instead, I spent the night in Munich on a camp bed in the terminal and flew to Montreal the next day on a new flight via Geneva. I was picked up at the airport by the director himself, who lives there. I then lapped up an ice cream, drank an espresso in the sun, and went on stage to perform in front of 800 people. I don’t mean to brag, it’s just a good example of how sometimes you just don’t control what happens.

With all the experience you’ve gained over the years, is there anything you’d like to pass on to aspiring artists?

Wow, that’s probably the hardest question – we definitely need a lot of budding artists! But I don’t know if anyone wants to listen to me, an old sod…

I think we have to leave that up to the readers.

I would say that in the end, everyone has to figure out for himself or herself what he or she is willing to give and sacrifice. And even then, there is no guarantee for anything, ever, in this profession. I was very lucky. Because God knows I wasn’t the best or the hardest working acrobat. I was lucky to have a mixture of qualities and skills. For example, after my training as an artist, I spent quite a while working in the field of contemporary dance and didn’t want to do the classical variety format. But that’s exactly what led to me to the Chamäleon, when they were launching a production called “My Life”, for which they were looking for artists with a rather unusual and broad skillset.

I might say if things aren’t progressing, use the time, prepare, and feed your brain. But is that always the right thing to do? Or I could say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket – but sometimes that’s what makes the difference, when you just keep pushing. And at some point, it might work out because you persisted. With all my experience, I can only sum up the following: you just don’t know. Everyone has to discover it for themselves. What definitely helps is to keep your eyes and ears open and to always say YES rather than NO. Especially in the beginning, when you are still searching and want to find out what suits and appeals to you. The best approach is to try to gain a lot of experience, to get involved and, if possible, to meet challenges with an alert mind and enjoyment – then great things can happen. That’s another thing I’ve learned from LEO…

More information about the piece and current dates can be found here.

Interview: Dagmar Helmer
Photos: Lucia Gerhardt