Nils Bergstrand performs The One Legged Man Show, an extraordinary musical performance about the true story of how Nils lost his leg after being shot in Thailand and became an amputee. One of my fringe forecast picks and one of the very best and original fringe performances I’ve seen, I was eager to sit down with Nils to talk about his show.
How would you describe your show in a sentence?
An uplifting and true story told with words and music of how an amputee came to be, of how I came to be me, and realised through this trauma that happened, what my essence is.
You say in the show the main way people react to your disability is with sympathy. Are there any other reactions and how do you respond to them?
Yeah, so there are a few different reactions. First, like sympathy, then you get a lot of distance actually. Sometimes here in the UK there are things you don’t want to disturb, or people don’t want to disturb, so that’s why you’re left alone. In America, it’s very much like “Hi son, thanks for what you’ve done for this country.” All of them assume I’m a soldier. And I remember this man coming up to me, I think he was an ex-soldier from Vietnam or something and he gave me a twenty dollar bill and said “Thanks for what you’ve done for this country” and I was like: “Well, I’m from Sweden…” And in Sweden a lot of distance as well, unfortunately. And then there’s fascination. Some people are too fascinated by it. They just see my leg, the prosthetic leg, and I don’t want to be [defined by] my leg, or the lack of it. Of course I understand that people are interested, and their kids, they don’t have any filters whatsoever. They’re just like “Wow, this is cool. This is amazing.”
Do you think people have a discomfort hearing disabled stories and might decide not to see your show for that reason? What would you say to those people?
That it’s not that scary actually. I feel that might be an issue sometimes with my show. That people will come here and they won’t like it. They’ll want a comedy show or something uplifting. What I want to say to them is: this is my story. I’m not going to aim to make you feel uncomfortable or anything like that. My aim is to bring something uplifting and enlightening as well, that you carry with you.
I read an interview with your wife where she said you’d had a lot of difficulty finding jobs because of your disability. Equal opportunities for the disabled is a huge issue right now in the arts; what has your experience been like?
In the past it has been difficult with agents, when they find out I have a prosthetic leg [they] are like “Oh no, I don’t think I can represent you”. Then, on the other hand, it comes in both ways. You’re not allowed by law to say something but I think that, sometimes, yeah, I haven’t really been given the chance to prove what I can do. Because I am very, very able to do things. It’s really hard to know, since it’s not so outspoken, and people don’t want to put anything in print or anything like that, but of course I’ve got like “Yes, we would love to have you…but…the thing is we can’t adjust the set or something or there are some steps, there’s a dance that you can’t do and stuff… I mean I don’t want to play the disability card either. I want to prove myself through my work. And people often say, “Oh my god, you can do so much more than we thought you could!” But of course it’s hard, because it’s very demanding physically to be onstage actually. Nowadays though I find myself in regular creative employment, working with directors and producers that don’t view my disability as a hindrance.
In the show you talked about your time at musical theatre school. Had you had training before that?
I was classically trained before. And I’d been doing quite a lot of small productions in Sweden. I’d been in the opera and the choir and doing a lot of things, and working as a theatre producer as well. But I hadn’t really been me as an artist, me as a soloist actually. When I was shot, I was about to audition for the master course at the opera school in Stockholm. But then after everything I didn’t want to do that [anymore]. And then after a few years, because I was depressed and stuff, and with the help from my singing teacher I got this idea to go to Royal Academy of Music.
How did that training change or affect you?
Confidence. A lot of confidence. And to actually realise I have something here. I can do things. I’ve been trained by some of the best teachers in the world. I mean, professionals from the west end and Broadway. You have to have people believe in you. I wouldn’t be able to be here without their help.
You’re a father now. How has that changed your life?
Y’know what? I’m really happy she has two legs. It’s amazing to see her, she’s so full of life. I never thought that would be an option. And of course, being a father and having a prosthetic leg, all the physical challenges it really puts on me. I’m really scared of dropping her for instance. And my wife, Chloe, she needs to take a lot of responsibility when it comes to sorting things practically because I can’t do that because I can’t really trust my physicality, movement, as much as I could before, so that’s a massive change actually.
How aware is she of your story and has she seen the show?
She’s only five months so she’s not really aware of that but she did actually. She was looking at me the other day when I took off my leg and she was, like, with big [eyes]. So I can see that she’s started to see that something’s…trying to figure it out. Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see actually, later in life, what she thinks of it.
If you could go back in time and undo what happened in Thailand, would you?
Yes, I would. There’s not a day goes by without me missing my leg…in one way. But of course, this is a question where like…I would love to say one day “yeah, I don’t miss…I don’t regret…” But I don’t regret… God, this is a hard question. I think, you know what, it’s like, it’s what it is. This happened to me, and up until thirty I had two legs, proper legs, and after thirty I had one and a half. So…would I change it? No, you know what, no. Maybe I take that back. No I wouldn’t change it, actually. Because otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here, I would be…I mean I would not be doing the show. Maybe I wouldn’t have met my wife… No, I wouldn’t have changed it actually. Even though it’s been a lot of pain.
If someone had a similar experience with trauma or disability and wanted to express their story through a show or an art piece, what would your advice be to them?
I would say: reach out. If you sit there and you’re really good at something, please contact people because people in the arts really want to help out. There’s a lot of charities as well. And let them help you. And make it easier for people to help you. Because a lot of amputees, you hear they hold back because they don’t want to be dependent. But it’s not about that, because we are not alone. So you need someone to help you. And then you can do it, rather than sit at home and wait for something to happen, because this is what I learned: that feelings comes through action and not the other way around. So I can’t just sit at home and wait to be inspired, wait to be good at something. You have to go out there.
Nils Bergstrand performs The One Legged Man Show at Spotlites George Street (venue 278) until August 28.