Nils Riess' second act

Life after retirement: As we celebrate ONU’s sesquicentennial, we are checking in with retired professors and staff to see how they are living the mantra of lifelong learning. Some are going in surprisingly creative and interesting directions. This is the second story in the series.

Nils Riess, professor emeritus of theatre, didn’t view retirement as the end of the show, but merely a second act. “It’s switching gears to a new adventure,” he said.

Since retiring in 2013 after a 37-year career at Northern, Riess has embarked on quite the adventure as a film actor, landing roles in Netflix movies and traveling to film locations across the country in a 32-foot RV.

When he was a theatre teacher, Riess drilled a message of discipline into countless ONU theatre students. “It’s a job and you have to work hard at your craft. There is joy in it, but the joy comes out of the work.” Now, he’s following his own advice with great success, especially his favorite bit: “Keep learning and just do it!”

The first act
Riess came to ONU in 1975 to teach and direct. Hailing from New York City, he assured his wife, Susan, that they would stay in rural Northwest Ohio for two years tops. The two years stretched into 45 as the couple came to appreciate the charms of small-town living, although Riess says he’s sometimes still taken aback by the friendly waves and greetings he gets in town.

The theatre fit Riess’s vision of what he wanted to accomplish in life. As a young man, he began college with the intent to join the clergy. When a crisis of faith had him reconsidering his decision, he switched gears to acting because it allowed him to still touch people on a deeper level. After college, four years in the Coast Guard and an acting career, Riess felt inspired to teach and went to graduate school to prepare.

During his long career at Northern, Riess says the best aspect “was watching kids become better than me.” As the theatre department chair for 32 years, he also enjoyed collaborating with colleagues and students to bring an international outlook and cutting-edge productions, like the Moscow Ballet on Ice, to ONU’s theatre program. During his tenure, the Freed Center for the Performing Arts Center was built, the Guest Artist Program and International Play Festival launched, and ONU’s theatre program became widely-known and respected.

On a personal level, one of Riess’s crowning achievements was establishing lasting ties between ONU and theatre professionals in the Northern European country of Estonia. In fact, the first post-retirement position that Riess accepted was in Estonia.

Promoting the Arts in Estonia
Riess’s connection to Estonia stems from his family’s roots. Estonia is small, highly-developed country bordered by Finland, Sweden and Latvia. At the end of the World War II, when the Soviet Union took control of Estonia, Riess’s parents were forced to flee. Riess was born shortly after in a displaced person camp in Germany. His family immigrated to the United States when he was 5 years old and settled in New York City. Riess’s parents taught him how to speak fluid Estonian and they instilled in him a love and concern for their homeland.

In 1991, Estonia achieved its de facto independence from the Soviet Union after a peaceful revolution. Riess saw an opportunity to nurture the arts in a country emerging from the grip of an oppressive regime, while simultaneously providing unique cross cultural and study abroad opportunities for ONU theatre students.

Riess started by commissioning a play for ONU’s International Play Festival from Estonian playwright Paul-Eerik Rummo, who had used his plays to cryptically protested Soviet rule during the occupation, managing to outwit the censors. Rummo later became Estonia’s Minister of Culture and Education. From there, a relationship flourished with Rakvere Theatre, a professional repertoire theatre in Estonia, with opportunities for ONU students to intern at Rakvere, to provide technical support for their productions in Estonia and Canada, and to learn from Estonia directors, actors and technical crew who taught master classes at ONU. The collaboration between ONU’s theatre department and Rakvere theatre professionals in Estonia continues to this day.

Upon his retirement, the first project Riess undertook was in Estonia, directing the play “Beginnings” in a professional theatre. Recently he received the high honor of being knighted The Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana for service by a foreigner for Estonia.

Time to act.
After his post-retirement directing project in Estonia, Riess decided to pursue acting. As a professor, he had devoted his life to training budding actresses and actors, many whom subsequently achieved great success. Now, he was eager to get back into the industry himself.

Riess signed with an agent and began the hard work of finding work. Every morning he virtually pounded the pavement, researching jobs, sending inquiries and participating in interviews and auditions. In most interviews, he’d be given just 30 seconds to share a summary about himself, so he’d start by saying: “In retirement, I’ve developed a new hobby that has led to personal enrichment and really brought out in the best in me.” After a pause, he’d deliver the punch line: “It’s called napping.” He elicited laughs and quickly broke the ice.

Slowly but steadily the acting roles trickled in, although they weren’t exactly the roles that Riess had envisioned. “In my mind’s eye, I was the romantic lead. But the reality soon hit that I was the strange guy to everyone else,” he laughed, “so I’ve played roles from child molester to pigeon fancier to sleazy motel manager.”

Because the jobs required him to be on location, he and his wife purchased a 32-foot RV. Every acting job turned into a mini-vacation and the couple has traveled up and down the eastern seaboard, from Rhode Island to Georgia to Florida.

Riess has played substantial characters in two Netflix films “She Lights Up Well” and “Long Lost Gone.” He has filmed in a cave and on a park bench where a pigeon wrangler lured pigeons to land on his arms and shoulders. And he’s taken on roles in avant-garde films, which are his favorite kind. “The people who make these films are brilliant people,” he says, “they’re just off by half a bubble!”

With so many years focused on the dramatic acting of the theatre, Riess had to adjust his acting style to be more natural and subtle for the camera lens. For every role, he spends substantial time getting ready. “Be prepared, be patient, arrive on time, work hard—acting takes discipline,” he said.

For the past 18 months, Riess’s acting career has been on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But he plans to start looking for roles again in the coming months. He jokes that he hasn’t been discovered yet and he’s jealous of his former students who have been discovered. But in truth, while he’s savoring his second act, he’s thrilled by the accomplishments of the many ONU theatre students he mentored and taught over the years. “So many of my former students are working in the business,” he says. “And that’s what you’re most proud about, that you laid that foundation as a teacher.”