When a handicap is inspiration rather than an obstacle. The story of actress, dancer, and director Zuzana Pitterová

As a child, she did not perceive being different too acutely. Then she went to high school and the PE teacher cast her out from his classes straight away. That was when she realised for the first time – and painfully – that her body was limiting her in our society. Luckily, aside from an encounter with a PE teacher with zero empathy, she also met a drama teacher while an adolescent who never took her handicap into consideration at all, like it did not exist. “I just lived theatre – people recognised me,” says Zuzana Pitterová. This is one of the reasons why, today, she is an actress, dancer, and director who leads a project at Prague’s DAMU tailored to people with physical handicaps.

“This is generally seen as an issue: handicapped people are restricted in movement; they have to overcome obstacles. But, thanks to my creative experience of many years, I believe that art has the ability to stop us from perceiving a body solely through obstacles, through the notion that our body is just something that allows us to move and push forward. A lot of our abilities reside in our head. Through creativity, that can open up avenues towards our body and the way we perceive it. It can help us start perceiving the body as a creative tool, as a toy that can inspire rather than restrict us,” Zuzana Pitterová explains the leitmotiv of her project, which has been in progress into its third semester at DAMU now and, for this year, has included advanced students from the Department of Authorial Creativity and Pedagogy for the first time.

The essential study discipline at the Department, founded by Professor Ivan Vyskočil, is the late actor and psychologist’s discovery: dialogical acting – acting with one’s inner partner. And Pitterová’s project also works with dialogical acting.

I felt like I didn’t belong

She experienced a phase in life when she started to collapse into the frustrating feeling that her physical disadvantage was pulling her down and hindering her; that her difference would occasionally suggest she did not belong somewhere.

“As a child, I didn’t perceive being different too acutely. I was a little wild, but I took it as a fact that I simply couldn’t do some things. With that said, there was still a lot that I could do. I couldn’t run and faced problems tackling stairs, yet I also swam and rode a bicycle… I tended to perceive life through the ‘lens’ of what I could do and was capable of, rather than the other way round,” she remembers.

A radical change in her self-perception came when she joined an eight-year grammar school and the PE teacher cast her out from his classes straight away. “That was actually the first time I realised that my body was limiting for me in our society. I really cried a lot about that at the time. Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t belong with the other kids.”

Zuzana’s mother, who had always taught her to never give up too early or worry about things that could not be done, proved a great supporter at the time.

“She was never this ambitious mother who would try to push me in whatever direction at all costs. She was always trying to understand me and support me in whatever I wanted to do. She took that fateful step. Unsuspecting, she took me to the theatre when I was 10 years old, and I was hooked. She was also the first ‘victim’ of my monologues and dialogues from the plays that I acted out vehemently in our flat. She also fostered a sense of responsibility in me, forcing me to exercise every day even though I hated it as a child and never really wanted to. But this sense of order has remained within me to this day.”

Somewhat later, Pitterová found the other source of her strength in drama classes. “The teacher never took my handicap into consideration, like it never even existed. Or, in turn, she made it an element that we built into a show on purpose. I just lived theatre, people recognised me, and I started to accept the idea that a physical handicap was not an obstacle,” Zuzana explains.

So, you want to be an actress?

Zuzana applied for a secondary acting school; she was admitted with the notion she would focus on voice acting more than anything else.

“I knew I would really love voice acting. At first, I believed I could be a versatile creator and artist even with my body. Then I started doubting myself again,” she remembers.

When preparing school shows with schoolmates, some of them were quite vocal about their doubts as to her acting ambition: how can she act with physical limitations? Her handicap turned into a major issue again. “It was really tough. I was seriously thinking that I had no business being there, even though I worked with director Filip Nuckolls as a student. He was very open-minded and certainly didn’t see my physical handicap as a restriction. But I didn’t really fit in with my schoolmates; they were into their looks, diets, and casting sessions, which was never my world. I loved theory lessons, which almost nobody actually attended.”

Actress, dancer, artist…

Pitterová kept on dreaming her dream of becoming a creative artist, filed an application with DAMU’s Department of Authorial Creativity, and was eventually admitted to theory studies – at the Department of Theatre Studies, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague.

When she heard of an open audition for dancers for the Simulanten Bande show at the Archa Theatre, she did not hesitate for a second, went in – and succeeded. “Choreographers Veronika Knytlová and Tereza Ondrová, also known as VerTeDance, built the performance around two healthy and two physically handicapped dancers. The principal idea was that we all have limits of some sort, whether physical or mental. The show was a breakthrough for me. We toured the world with it and I received an international jury award from the Czech Dance Platform. It confirmed to me that taking the artist route was the right thing to do for me, that I could pursue it to the extent of my capabilities and that there was no need to give it up – and even more: I don’t have to try to hide my handicap – in fact, it can lend another dimension to my creative output,” Pitterová says.

The choreographers wanted her to try everything she was physically capable of, going for the extreme: falling, doing handstands, and busting the myths of how much a physically handicapped person is actually limited.

In addition to fully enjoying each show and every small push of her own limits, she rediscovered her motivation to study authorial creativity. She did not push hard for that goal, though – she just decided to try and take the admission tests again.

It worked. She was admitted to a master’s course, and eventually received the Dean’s Award for her final thesis, The Author’s Personality in Their Work.

At this point, she is a doctoral student and works on a dissertation centred on her project, Dialogical Acting for Physically Handicapped Persons.

“Our Department is amazing in that each of us has enough room to be an individual with both positive and negative personal traits. Here, we learn to find our focus, find the best in ourselves, and then draw on that. Each of us is going in a slightly different direction – some prefer acting, some writing, some applied theatre… I try to always stay on my artistic path,” she says adding that an international dancing project at the Archa Theatre, led by the legendary Japanese choreographer Min Tanaka, was another great experience for her.

“He never addressed my physical handicap. He made it part of the choreography without explaining in detail what he meant by it or expected from it, and it was up to each and every viewer to understand and sense what it meant on stage. I had a lovely wooden walking aid made especially for this show, and my handicap sort of pushed it to the next level,” says Zuzana.

In the meantime, she completed internships at Czech Radio and started directing audio books at the Tympanum publishing house. Working on audio books is a labour of love for her. “I was immensely happy to win the Bystrouška Award bestowed by children listeners along with Klára Oltová recently. We were given the award for Stella and Sixteen Huskies, a sweet story with which we really ‘had our way’ creatively, in the best sense of the word.”

Touching freedom

Working with a physical handicap in a way that makes it fit in with a concept as an obvious element; using a handicap as potential – this is at the core of the aforementioned Dialogical Acting project that Pitterová leads.

What does it actually look like? “The principle is that one of the eight members goes on stage and improvises. The space and content are all theirs. They can seek inner partners or changes that inspire them; everyone can go as far as their creativity and personal limits let them. The assistant professor makes suggestions and provides feedback, but to me, dialogical acting is primarily about discovering creative potential in yourself and finding a yourself different from the one you already know. It is like an acting simulator that comes from within, rather than one based on external stimuli.”

Pitterová has no doubt that, like other creative experience, dialogical acting has the power to make a person progress, transform them and open up new horizons. In connection with physically handicapped people, she also stresses that people can reassess their approach to their own bodies thanks to dialogical acting.

“They can touch freedom with the help of their fantasy,” she says, remembering a boy in wheelchair who imagined climbing the stairs, stepping onto the roof, spreading his arms, and flying over the entire country, watching it from above.

“We were watching him, believing in every word he said – he was so sincere, so convincing, so authentic. He was describing getting up from the wheelchair, even though he couldn’t do that, but he enthralled us so powerfully that, figuratively speaking, we were all getting up along with him. It was one of those moments when, while your body cannot move, fantasy makes movement possible anyway.”

All my joys

The Dialogical Acting project makes a huge sense to Pitterová, as it allows her to combine an artistic aspect with her personal and professional experience, and it is also highly fulfilling to see project participants changing over time.

“Initially, they were all closed in – now, they are much more open, creative, authentic, and self-confident, including in their personal lives,” she says.

Twice a semester, project participants offer her their reflections, describing their observations and experiences. “One participant recently mentioned to me how dialogical acting has helped him change his attitude to his own body. Having fallen from a tree, he was confined to a wheelchair. Initially, he still believed that it would change and tried to communicate with his body for a few months, but when he learned he would not heal, his relationship to his body shrank to the bare essentials. It was only as a result of his work in dialogical acting that he began to perceive his body differently, ten years later. The way he sees his body is no longer filled with regret over the fact that it will never heal – he sees it as a partner that is still there in his life. Nevertheless, it is important to say that this is not psychotherapy: it is a creative process during which participants create their own art forms, and it is a joy to watch the intensity of their imagination and the things they can create on stage. Amazingly, the topic of handicaps is slowly dissipating – there are more important things in life,” says Pitterová, adding that she would like to continue the project after completing her doctoral studies and open a new group for more applicants.

With that being said, there is more to her own life than just working and studying. When asked about personal joys that make her life better, she mentions her dog without a hint of hesitation. “I ride a recumbent bike with him. My partner has made a special case for the dog to sit in on the bike, so I take him along when riding,” she laughs. She also mentions having recently fallen for paradance – dancing in wheelchair. “Handling the wheelchair is completely new to me; I am learning all sorts of tips and tricks, and I enjoy it immensely.”