Looking at performer Nataly Zukerman, it's hard to tell that anything is wrong. There is, though.
"When I want to take a step my body has to think about it," she says. "There is a hiccup before I can use my legs."
When Zukerman was 12, she was paralyzed in an accident at camp. Despite a broken vertebra she learned to walk again but lives with an invisible disability. She describes her injury like this: “My doctors would say that my spine is an electrical conductor and was damaged during my accident. So, when I want to take a step my body has to think about it."
I met Zukerman the day she landed in Boston from Israel, to begin her three-week residency at Israeli Stage for “The Other Body,” a play she wrote and performs, which explores her experience as a woman artist living with an invisible disability.
“For many years, I tried to pass as someone that doesn’t have a disability. But when you’re an actress you have to use your body, so I have a limp,” explains Zukerman. As an actor, she was passed over for roles because her limp was “not in character” and gradually began doing more work behind the scenes.
Zukerman is a stage director and artistic director for theatrical festivals in Israel. She uses her talent as a collaborator, teacher and dramaturg to shape stories with fellow artists. As she grew with her disability, she recognized her desire to perform and created her show, now touring in Boston.
“I made ‘The Other Body’ when I was 34. Most of my friends are making work since their 20s, so I made work, but it was behind the scenes. But I love performing. That was something that I owned for the first time in my mid-30s.”
"I sometimes feel like I can’t trust my body. I always speak about my legs as though they are a different identity than me."Nataly Zukerman
“I was really scared of my body for a very long time. I sometimes feel like I can’t trust my body, I can fall all of a sudden, or my legs tremble. I always speak about my legs as though they are a different identity than me, because they have their own will and they do things I don’t want them to do,” explains Zukerman. “It’s quite hard to live your life in that position when you can’t trust your own body. So I use the stage to talk about it and realize I’m not alone.”
Zukerman has been performing “The Other Body” for four years. Throughout her performance she uses the audience as a scene partner, to gauge their reactions to activities that seem trivial to the average person.
“There’s a point in the show where I just try to put on pants. And it’s a really hard action for me to do, but when you see me you wouldn’t think that was a hard action to do. It’s kind of like exposing the disability instead of trying to pass as someone who doesn’t have a disability,” says Zukerman, who explains her performance as a kind of “game” she likes to play with the audience.
A common question Zukerman gets is: Should people feel sorry for her, or not?
The answer is a bit complicated: “Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. It’s not a feeling I try to project onto the outside world. It started with trying to deal with my disability and how to face the outside world.”
Arts organizations are slowly beginning to address mobility issues, such as auditions in spaces that are inhospitable to actors and the inflexibility of directors when casting parts that normally require movement.
Zukerman has her own ideas about creating a more inclusive theater. “I think it’s about empathy and education. There is a small mirror of something much bigger, and if we don’t talk about inclusion starting from kindergarten, it’s easy for people to forget and be set in their ways. When you look at other people, it’s about not thinking of them as 'others' but as people living next to me, and with me, people who I have to communicate with — that’s really the only way to solve it.”
Nataly Zukerman is performing in the Boston area via the Israeli Stage through April 9. Here's a schedule of performances for "The Other Body."