By Ken Eulo - Focus In magazine, May 2002
Creative. Captivating. Filled with energy and emotion. These are the Qualities that define Nicolas, whose Contemplative gaze contrasts with his devilish smile that has won him fans around the world.
Dressed in casual, jeans and shirt, smile set firmly in place, he sat down recently with Focus In to share his incredible journey from a boy living in the former Soviet Union, to the young man who now heads up Orlando based World Gate Entertainment. Professional mime, actor, and show director, Focus In couldn't help wonder where he gets all of that creative energy?
"From a life Iong desire to discover planets that I could only dream
about." He says this with a wistful, star-crossed look, flashing in deep-set,
intense eyes. "I knew-I'd never get to visit those planets, so at a very
young age I decided to create my own planets.
Days on end, he'd sit in the dark theatre and watch those sharp-edged, offbeat
characters he would later inhabit-vivid, seamless and in rapid-tire
succession-in his solo sketches. Nights, his mother would come into the theatre
and look for him with her flashlight. Most of the time, he'd be asleep in his chair, exhausted from watching movies all day.
He starts to perform –
The dreams and nightmares of a four-year-old boy soon became performance sketches for his family and friends. He'd act them out, and people watched in amazement at the characters he'd create. He proved himself to be that rare talent able to illuminate his deepest thoughts.
As he grew, so did his dreams. He wanted to put fireworks
into his sketches, but none were available. Finally, he hung sewing threads
from the roof of his porch.
During the grand finale, he'd light them on fire to create the fireworks effect. The last performance, the roof caught fire and nearly burned the house down.
Gathering kids from his neighborhood, he began performing shows, which were always successful. Neighbors willingly paid to see his troupe perform. Having a shrewd business sense, Nicolas devised a pay scale: rich neighbors paid five Rubles, poorer neighbors paid twenty-five Kopaka.
Finally, Nicolas's parents had had enough. His mother called the school, and had him removed from all theatre activities. She wanted him involved only in serious studies. She brought in a home tutor: History, Math, and Languages. She wanted him to prepare for a serious profession.
"Keep dreaming. Keep hoping. Take action,"
Nicolas told himself, and found ways to sneak out of the house to take mime
classes. He was fifteen-years-old when he finished high school his mother
had already enrolled him in a university.
He went instead and registered for a theatrical university in Georgia, which he attended for three months without his parents' knowledge.
One day, his mother came home and found an acting book
Nicolas remembers – lying open on his bed. 'The argument lasted for days. Nicolas relented, and told his parents that if they allowed him to take a ten day holiday in Germany, he'd return to Georgia and enter the university of their choice. Say Cheese! Nicolas smiled, his parents agreed, and off he went on a holiday that still continues today.
Seeking artistic freedom –
Nicolas never did return home. Instead, lie stayed in Berlin for a while, a sixteen year-old boy with only four hundred Deutsch Marks in his pocket. When the money ran out, a friend offered him a small apartment in Dresden, Germany, which he gladly accepted
After moving into the tiny Dresden apartment, Nicolas's self-described "hopeless romantic" notion became mixed with fear and loneliness. “I lost all sense of place,” he says.” yet, at the same time, I was elated to be moving toward my dream planet.”
The apartment was really only one small room, a kitchenette, a cold shower, and no furniture, except for an inflatable bed that leaked. Every three hours during the night, he'd wake up to blow up the bed. After blowing it up three tunes, he decided to sleep on the floor. Mornings, he'd step into the ice cold shower and nearly freeze to death. Because he was in Dresden on a tourist visa, and only sixteen, nobody would give hint a job. All he had left was his talent, so he decided to perform his "blowing up the inflatable bed/taking a cold shower" routine on the streets. He took his last Deutsche Marks and bought whiteface mime makeup, powder, and headed out the door.
He called his sketch, "All Night Alone," and the people of Dresden loved it. Every Saturday, 3:OOpm sharp, there he would be – in show business. The rest of his days were spent at the library, where he read that Marcel Marceau, the world famous mime, was accepting new students to train in the art of mime at Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame Marcel Marceau in Paris, France. Paris. The entrance exam would take place at the end of September, so Nicolas began preparing for his journey to Paris.
Arriving in Paris -
"I arrived in Paris one day before the entrance exam was to take place," Nicolas says, still floating around the room, his hands cutting beautiful images in the otherwise still air. "Like Dresden, I felt lost, totally out of time and place. Paris just overwhelmed me. I couldn't speak French, only a little German and the city itself seemed so big, larger than life. And fast.
"The first thing I did was to call the school. Yes, the exam would take place the next day at 10am. I was so excited. I found a hotel near the school, and practiced my sketches all night long.
"'The next morning, I arrived at the school with only a small bag”. Everything I owned outside of what I was wearing was in that bag. Little did 1 know how unprepared I was. The other students were already lined up, already had entrance numbers. They had been registered weeks ago!"
Nicolas was told to go to the administration office. There he tried to explain that he had no letters of recommendation, no registration papers, nothing. Just his little brown bag.
Finally, they agreed to let him take the exam. He paid the three hundred French Francs, all the money he had left in his pocket. That night, he slept on a bench across from the school. He used the school to shower in the next morning.
The exam took three days. So did the park bench and the school showers. The final day, he was asked to perform his master sketch. He had no music, so he borrowed a tape from a café and used it as his show music.
He performed a simple man, a painter, who becomes an artist. To do so, the man had to sell his soul to the devil. But as an artist, he saves many people, thereby saving his own soul. Nicolas performed the sketch brilliantly, and was accepted in the Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame. He spent the next two years training with the world famous Marcel Marceau. From there, he attended the E.S.R.A., the internationally recognized Movie Director School in Paris. It was during this time that he worked with the highly creative Jean-Francois Tarnovski.
Coming to America –
In 1996, Nicolas created Bubble Nicolas, a show that brought him instant recognition. Walt Disney World bought the show and featured Nicolas at the Epcot Center in Florida. Once there, Nicolas decided to make Orlando his home.
"I immediately loved America," Nicolas says, sitting again like a graceful marionette controlled by divine inspiration. "The first time I did Bubble Nicolas at the Epcot Center, I realized that American people had the dream, and that I could share that dream with them. I knew we shared the magic. That's what it takes to create a new planet - magic!"
Today, Nicolas stays busy running World Gate Entertainment, which employs four hundred people annually. As a director, he is currently in pre-production for his new film, The Marionette, based on a World Gate show that has proven highly successful throughout Europe and Asia.
Those interested in receiving more information on where you can see World Gate Entertainment shows and for booking information should gather their energy and visit their website:
SHOOTING A FILM IS ONLY THE START OF WHAT THE RUSSIAN-BORN
Orlando Sentinel; Orlando, Fla.; Jun 4, 2002; Loraine O'Connell, Sentinel Staff Writer
Surrounded by apartments painted in sky blue, Easter-egg green, banana- pudding yellow and raspberry pink, the Russian-born, French- trained entertainer is directing his first film.
And no, it's not a silent film. True, there is no dialogue -- he is a mime, after all -- but there is plenty of music and dance.
"Go to him, Meghan! You don't want to leave!" Nicolas coaxes one of his tiny extras.
The little girl scoots back to her mark.
"Voila!" he says, flashing a toothy smile.
"I want to make good movie, like Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese," Nicolas says later. "In my dream, I would like to do science- fiction movies too."
To make that happen, 30-year-old Nicolas left home at 16.
For the film he is shooting now, he has no buyer, no distributor. But he
has something else: a history of making his dreams come true.
In 14 years of dream-chasing, Nicolas has studied mime with Marcel Marceau, attended film school in Paris and traveled the world performing mime.
He maintains an apartment in Paris but his home is in Longwood, where he moved after a stint at Walt Disney World. And it's in Central Florida that he's pursuing his filmmaking dream. He has hired local crew members, dancers and extras, including dozens of kids, to bring it to life.
The Marionette, a pilot for what Nicolas hopes will be a children's TV series, is only a small step toward the kind of big- screen films he would like to direct. But it has consumed him for 18 months – as co-director, co-producer and, of course, co-star.
Mingling with cast and crew in his bright red marionette costume with bangled cap and white gloves, Nicolas switches seamlessly between directing and acting.
As director, he paces, he tweaks, he exhorts -- all while taking greedy puffs of his Marlboro Ultra Lights and looking for the entire world like a chain-smoking bellhop.
As actor, Nicolas slips easily into his marionette character, taking herky - jerky steps toward the "villagers" as a 9-foot "kid" wields the strings that bring him to life.
Tentatively at first, Nicolas the marionette approaches the townsfolk, shaking hands, kissing fingertips and smiling; one young girl offers him her cheek to peck, but he steals a kiss on the lips, much to his own delight -- as well as the villagers'.
The shooting schedule is tight, and Nicolas and crew already have lost a
day because of a recalcitrant camera. Though Nicolas never loses his bonhomie,
the stress shows in his
face, even through the heavy layers of makeup that give him a reddish tint.
The pull of optimism. Nicolas performs in `The Marionette,' a film he is co-producing and co-directing. He hopes the 18-month project will serve as a step toward the ultimate: Making big-screen films.
"He's putting everything he's got into this -- and then some," says Janet Ritchie, a friend and veteran of Orlando's struggling film industry.
Nicolas is the first to agree. Unbidden, he'll crouch and whip out his credit cards, laying them on the floor as if dealing a hand of pinochle.
"This one, $10,000; this one, $5,000; this one, $8,000," he says, by way of explaining how he's financing the project.
Then there's the home equity loan he has taken out on his rambling Longwood home, where friends roam in and out, visit for a few days or crash for as long as they need to.
His friend and partner in the production, Bill Rodd, also has helped with financing.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
The Marionette is based on a stage show developed by Nicolas and another friend, Steven Rohmer, who plays "the kid."
The two met in Paris in the early 1990s.
As a street performer, Rohmer, 44, had developed a character on stilts called
"Little Rollo" that appealed to Nicolas, who was establishing a
name for himself in Europe as a
The idea of a "big kid" finding and befriending a marionette prompted Nicolas to write a script using the two characters. But the script languished as Rohmer continued to live in France while Nicolas chose America as his base of operations.
It was only two years ago that Nicolas persuaded Rohmer to join him in a stage production of The Marionette -- in Turkey.
The show was successful enough that Nicolas decided to put it on film. By then, he had settled in Longwood and met Rodd, owner of WnR Productions. Rodd helped write the script for the film version of Nicolas' fable.
As stories go, The Marionette is fairly straightforward: A boy finds a marionette, and the two share adventures. But it's also a story of friendship "without strings," as Nicolas says, a story reminiscent of Pinocchio.
Rodd, who is co-directing the film, notes that the story is "completely
universal – no dialogue, no letters, no numbers; in every language,
people all over the world will know
exactly what they're watching."
Although the partners don't have a buyer yet for The Marionette, they both
have great faith in their product -- and in Nicolas.
"I was always an actor, a performer, a show director," Nicolas says. "Even as a kid, I was taking the neighborhood kids and putting them together to make little sketches, little shows -- and we were selling tickets to the neighbors!"
He would use the proceeds to buy ice cream for himself and his friends. And he would dream -- a dream he recounts to virtually everyone he meets.
"When I was a child I always dreamed of flying to different planets. I wanted to have my own spaceship," he says. "When I grow up, I realize I can never fly to different planets, so I decide to create kind of my own planet – the world of the imaginary, of magic."
His parents, business professionals who had grown prosperous in communist Georgia, had other dreams for him.
"They were dreaming to make me good politician, good doctor. . . . They wanted me to be anything, but not the actor."
Early on, Nicolas rejected his parents' dreams to pursue
TO THE MIME FIELD
Sixteen years old and on his own in Paris, Nicolas headed for the Marcel Marceau school of mime.
However, in his enthusiasm to study mime with the master, Nicolas hadn't realized that he was supposed to apply for admission to the school. Instead, he just showed up on the day the school was holding admission "exams."
"I was 16, young, with big eyes, and I said, `I want to pass exam . . . pleeeease,' " Nicolas playfully recounts.
He has a reputation for charming people into doing his bidding – a reputation he delights in cultivating.
"I'm like a little baby," he cheerfully reports. "If I want something, I get it."
Whether because he turned on the charm or because they couldn't take any more of his importuning, the martinets at Marceau agreed to let Nicolas take the exam.
"When I paid for that, I had no money left," he recalls with guffaws.
He passed the exam, of course, but then came the dreamer's next wake- up call: Accustomed to free education in communist Georgia, Nicolas had never dreamed he would actually have to pay to attend the Marceau school. Or that school officials would expect the money up front.
Baffled but unbowed, Nicolas wheedled and cajoled until
he wangled a scholarship out of
After two years of the three-year program, though, he was ready to move on to another dream: studying film directing.
To finance film school in Paris, the resourceful mime not only continued to perform in Europe and Asia, he also formed his own production company, World Gate Entertainment, to provide talent for conventions and trade shows worldwide.
Besides recruiting dance, acrobatic and circus acts, the canny entrepreneur also stepped up marketing of his own act -- "Bubble Nicolas," a mime in a soap bubble.
In the mid-90s, Walt Disney World came calling, offering him a contract to bring Bubble Nicolas to Epcot for a while.
Nicolas recalls walking -- in slow motion, of course -- through the park encased in plastic that created 120- degree heat during the summer months.
"When I'd come out of the bubble, it was like
air conditioning!" he recalls. "But you don't think about that.
When you're inside your character, you give people so much love. When you
do shows, it's about giving love."
That's the one word easily deciphered in Nicolas' thickly accented conversation: "love."
"I love my teacher," he gushes over Marceau. "He's adorable -- wonderful, wonderful man."
Of his film crew, he confides, "These people, I love them so much. They give me so much love."
Whether on the set or in his home, friends and acquaintances never know when Nicolas will lay a hug on them and express his undying love.
But he's not spouting the kiss-kiss chatter of showbiz, his admirers insist. This slight mime with thinning hair has a big heart, they say. He definitely has a devoted coterie of friends.
"From the day I met him, I just fell in love with him," says Ritchie. "He can't do enough for everybody, so I can't do enough for him."
That includes cooking meals for the entire cast and crew during the 12- day shoot.
"I wouldn't cook for just anyone," Ritchie says. "He's such a warm, very loyal person."
WHAT WILL KIDS THINK?
Kids are attracted to his warmth as well.
"The kids take right to him. He goes around here and talks to all the kids," says Kim Swatkowski, who, with 2- year-old son Mason, is one of the "villagers."
"Kids can tell he's a kid-friendly guy. He's just got it -- whatever it is."
The Windermere mother of four is convinced The Marionette will appeal to American kids.
"I think children will love it. I have a 3- and a 4-year-old who I know would watch it. I think it would capture their attention."
However, Swatkowski acknowledges that watching mimes isn't exactly a favorite pastime among American audiences.
"They're boring," she says. "You watch a few minutes and move on. Then they can get annoying – but he's different."
Actually, his work is "an interesting sort of Eastern European or Russian cabaret departure" from classical mime, according to Thomas Leabhart, a professor of theater and artist in residence at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
"It's less poetically French and more athletic or acrobatic," Leabhart explains.
Still, there is skepticism among the film's extras about mime's entertainment value.
"Even if I were younger, I don't think I'd like it because you don't hear them talking and they don't have special effects," says Christina Grullon, 12, of Lake Mary.
Her dad, Freddy, is more sanguine.
"You never know what's going to catch on, just like the Osbournes" on MTV, he observes. "It might catch on because it's something different."
Look, The Marionette will appeal to some kids and not to others, says Sophia Wise, 10.
"It depends on the kid," the Maitland girl patiently explains. "If the kid is real active, likes sports, likes to be real noisy and rough, they might not like it. But a kid who loves to read and do quiet stuff will like it."
There really is no formula for predicting success in kids' programming, says Marjorie Cohn, senior vice president, production, at Nickelodeon.
"What's important is that there's knowledge of and respect for what children like and that there are good characters and stories," she says. "That's what they really respond to."
Both Cohn and Leabhart note that it's tough to translate
certain entertainment forms to
"Kids love going to magic shows," Cohn says, "but it's very hard to translate that to television. Mime could be a similar situation - - but [Charlie] Chaplin's films still are enjoyed by kids."
ON TO THE FAR EAST
A few days after shooting wraps up, Nicolas is off to Singapore and Hong Kong to give Bubble Nicolas performances.
"I have to pay those credit cards!" he jokes.
When he returns, he and Rodd – or "BEE-lee," as Nicolas calls him -- will begin editing their film.
They all have high hopes for The Marionette, of course, but Nicolas is dreaming big and pinning those dreams to the success of this project.
"I want to make lots and lots of money because I can help so many people," he says with the eagerness of a precocious 8-year-old. "I want to do something good."
Among the "good" he dreams of doing is creating a foundation to help kids stricken with cancer and creating programs to help talented young people around the world develop their skills, whether as actors or directors, artists or sculptors . . . or mimes.
"We need the art, the theater, the movies,"
he says. "We need the dreams."