Two weeks before her Senior prom, actress/playwright Amy Oestreicher‘s life took an abrupt turn. A blood clot caused her stomach to literally explode. She narrowly survived. And then she faced the real challenge… the long, hard road of putting herself back together.
She went through nearly 30 surgeries, a six-month long coma, organ failure, and long-lasting medical trauma in which she couldn’t eat or speak for years. She eventually put together a solo show based on her journal entries of this period of her life called Gutless & Grateful. Here, she tells how her early influences in the arts, particularly music and theatre helped her turn her personal journey into an inspiring and personal one-person show.
|Amy Oestreicher in Gutless & Grateful
Staying Authentic to Your Own Path
By Guest Contributor Amy Oestreicher
I had always loved musical theatre and was always fascinated by how the art of song and story could be so seamlessly woven together to share a universal message and to inspire others.
Coming out of a coma just as I was supposed to be entering my freshman year of college was confusing to say the least. Suddenly, the career path that had seemed to apparent to me my entire life was pushed to the wayside while I took on the more pressing task of fighting for my life. It was easy to wonder “why me” or question how my life would ever maintain a steady course again.
With no clear road map on how to get my life back on “track”, I just stayed true to what had always felt like home – expressing myself through the arts. Although I had lost my ability to speak for a while, I committed myself to arts that I could express – I lost myself in the world of painting and mixed media and ended up putting on three professional art shows.
The Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda ended up hearing about my story and my art, and had me on for a segment they do called “Everyone Has A Story.” It was there where I met David Friedman – a kind soul and a very talented composer. I went right over to him and told him I admired his work and would love to put together a cabaret act with him. Two years later, using excerpts from my thousands of journal entries, and songs that effectively expressed my journal – some songs being original – Gutless & Grateful had its New York premiere.
Theatre was what I always felt like I was born to do. It felt like a natural medium to tell my story. Through all the years of obstacles, triumphs and setbacks, I had essentially experienced the frustrations and trying circumstances in isolation. I didn’t appreciate the full scope of what I had undergone, and more significantly, the impact it might have on others, once I got my story out there.
As a performer, my main desire was and is to connect with my community and share a message that will inspire others – for me, that is the true beauty and power of theatre.
This was really the first time I was telling my story in my own words – not through whispers from neighbors, or from news stories or documentaries. It was my way of reclaiming my identity as a performer, and also coming back to the world of the stage with an even stronger message. Helping yourself is a reward in one respect, but to know that your own struggles might serve to heal others is truly transformative and uplifting. It is the most alive feeling in the world.
“Except that now I was telling my own story rather than playing an ingénue in Guys & Dolls. Now I was a solo performer.”
I have always trained proficiently in singing, dancing and acting and grew up seriously interested in the study of theatre. I was accepted into the University of Michigan. I thought my life would be very straightforward and well planned. However, life has taught me that you can have all the intentions, planning and even training in the world, but sometimes life goes another way. Then you have to examine what new lesson you are being taught – and then learn and grow from it.
For example, as a dancer all of my life, upon waking from a coma, it was alarming to me that suddenly I could not even sit up in a chair, let alone stand. It was hard for me to believe I would ever dance again. But every day I did little things – whatever made me feel like I was doing something – flexing my toes in bed, rotating my wrists. I relearned. I started from square one after each of my 27 surgeries.
It was certainly frustrating, but my determination and passion for what made me feel vital kept an unnatural energy burning through me. As soon as I was able to, I was diligent about training, and even though it was easy to look back at old tapes and envy the ease with which I would complete everything as a pre-comatose teen, I kept looking forward and envisioned myself as a mosaic – broken apart, but putting myself back together. Maybe the reassembly would be different, but somehow also beautiful (unexpectedly so).
Along the way, I faced people who discouraged me. I nicknamed one of my favorite doctors Dr. Doom because he never had a single positive thing to say until I was discharged. I will never forget an innocent occupational therapist that told me to never give up, because one day I might even be able to walk on my own without a wheelchair.
There was no way I would settle for walking as my greatest strength! And even as I became healthier, it was hard for others to not see me as “sick” even though I felt my determination and passion could conquer an entire army. If I did listen to one person that told me “not yet”, “too soon”, or “when you get healthier” I would have never put up my art shows, taught yoga and I definitely would not have performed my autobiographical solo show Gutless & Grateful several times in several different states over a three year period.
“But I think the most important (and difficult) thing for me was patience.”
Beating the odds and defying expectations is one thing, but I believe for the psyche it is detrimental to ever let yourself believe you can’t do something, even when the odds are against you. It’s that spark of “well maybe there’s a tiny chance” that lights a little fire in your soul, it’s that something that keeps you going, that wakes you up in the morning, that put the little smirk on your face that warms whatever you do with heart and an unbeatable spirit.
It’s natural when someone tells you you can’t do something to think about it a bit. And many times, I admit, it was hard not to believe them. I went to auditions with bags attached to me. I attended hot yoga daily while connected to an IV pump. I have gotten many funny looks over the years and some awkward situations made me feel very embarrassed and upset.
I would occasionally pity myself for a bit. In the process of putting together Gutless & Grateful, it was easy to compare myself to colleagues that were doing theatre, but “bigger” and “better” than I was – on Broadway, on tours, seemingly “breezing through” their career. But I think the most important (and difficult) thing for me was patience. Telling myself that I will get there – this is my own unique path, and as long as I am still doing what I love, in whatever shape or form, I am staying authentic to my own path.
“Suddenly, I was telling my story in my own words.”
When Gutless & Grateful premiered in New York at the Triad in October 2012, I felt like everything had really come to fruition. I stopped comparing myself to others and realized that I had stayed true to myself and in doing so, I was still the same performer I had always aspired to be. Except that now I was telling my own story rather than playing an ingénue in Guys & Dolls. Now I was a solo performer. It took a bit more work, and the path was a bit rockier, but I now had the privilege of performing theatre that was connecting with audiences on an even more personal level – inspiring others with a journey of my own that I had never anticipated.
After the run, I would get hugs from total strangers who told me “I didn’t know anything about this show – my wife dragged me – but I’m so glad I came!” I had messages in my guest book from audience members who disclosed that I had helped them through a very traumatic time in their own lives. Suddenly, I was telling my story in my own words. It was now no longer Amy Oestreicher the woman who’s stomach exploded, but Amy Oestreicher the actress, telling her inspiring story on stage. I was so grateful for this experience, and it felt like springboard for even more opportunity.
After years of isolation, it was not just difficult getting back out into the world again, but more specifically figuring out how to get back into the professional world of networking and managing a career in the creative arts. I wasn’t sure how to get out there. Honestly, I was intimidated by the wide world of theatre and felt as though I didn’t know how to form connections.
So I did it the old-fashioned way.
I posted flyers everywhere humanly possible, researched the contact information of every news source I could get my hands on, and spread my name – relentlessly and shamelessly – wherever I could (I mean, I’m writing here on The SoloPerformer.com site, aren’t I?). There were no shortcuts and it wasn’t easy. But it was worth it. The hard work taught me valuable lessons about publicity and business, and I have gradually created connections that are truly invaluable.
The single skill has proven to be most useful is straightforward, raw persistence. In every respect I’ve learned to just keep going and never give up. Even when I was exhausted or overwhelmed by the idea of what I wanted to accomplish, I just kept at it. One opportunity at a time, one contact at a time, day in day out. I literally was a girl waking up from a coma trying to find her place in a big world.
Persistence gradually transformed into a faith that with determination, I would get there. I could get anywhere.
Now, I’ve toured Gutless and Grateful across the country for over five years – not only to theatre venues, but to conferences, colleges, support groups, hospitals, organizations – you name it.
Want to know what accomplishment I am most proud of?
Finding myself and feeling happy for the first time since I came to. It was scary to be in a high school class getting ready for my senior prom one minute, and then suddenly being thrown into an alternate universe, where my body was plugged into machines and my own existence felt very alien to me. It was difficult (such an understatement!) grappling with the reality that I would never be able to even consume a drop of water again.
I could have given up millions of times. But I didn’t and I am appreciative of my own insanity to keep believing. I got depressed, but I never threw in the towel. But more than that, I refused to simply survive. Now I can truly say I am thriving. I’m doing what I love on a larger scale than I ever could have imagined. I’m reaching others in unforeseen ways. I am on stage, performing my one-woman show. And I love what I do.
So here’s my advice to anyone dying to put a solo show together:
You have to really want it. REALLY want it. That’s the only way anyone else will want it. Then, start from anywhere. Don’t compare yourself and your work with what you currently have. Don’t accept what you start with. Visualize what you’d like to be, where you’d like to go and manifest it – will it. The most important thing is to really tune into your passion and work from there – wherever it may lead you – no matter how crazy. If it is authentic, it’s worthwhile. And with a bit of dedication – and raw persistence – it will happen.
The next steps
I never thought that words from my “sick diary” would have commercial success.
And then I never thought I’ve be touring the same musical to international conferences for five years.
And most recently, I’m thrilled that college students have reached to to me to perform…as me! I’ve now licensed my autobiographical show to six different high schools and colleges!
Here’s the most important thing to remember:
It starts with your story. Then one day, it becomes everyone’s. That is the power of theatre.
Amy Oestreicher is a visual and performing artist, author and PTSD peer-to-peer specialist. You can watch her discuss her journey via her TEDx talk (here) or visit her website at: amyoes.com
Catch upcoming shows here!