I grew up thinking my life was a musical. Call it the “theatre bug,” call me a “drama queen” or a great big ham – I lived for the world of the stage. For me, singing and acting were ways I could connect with the world around me. When I took a deep, grounded breath from my gut, I sang what my heart longed to express. Through theatre, I had a place in this world. I could make believe by inserting myself into characters from every era, situation and mindset, while still expressing my own individuality.
I was the kid who got sent to the principal’s office because when the teacher left the room, I would jump on her desk and start tap-dancing. I was the girl who forced every unwilling classmate to join me in a Les Miserables medley, assigning them their designated parts to pass the 30-minute school bus ride. When I fought with my brothers, I could only debate with them if we could do in the spirit of a musical theatre duet. They weren’t so keen on that.
Theatre was my identity, my passion, and my livelihood. I sacrificed my social life and gave up many opportunities to immerse myself in what I loved.
I’ve always been warned not to put all of my eggs in one basket, but theatre ran through my veins.
So what do you do when you’ve invested everything into your passion and you can’t follow it anymore?
I found out when I awoke from a coma shortly before finishing my senior year of high school.
A blood clot in my stomach had burst, causing me to lose my stomach and the ability to eat and drink. Although the medical staff as more concerned about keeping my organs and me alive, I was still trying to grapple with one frightening new concern: would I ever be able to sing and dance on stage again?
With a ventilator and a tracheotomy, I couldn’t even talk. The first time I was able to stand up, I was alarmed at how my legs trembled from the months of bed-rest. I lost the energy to even think about what I loved, and being unable to eat or drink in these new medical circumstances turned my once-steady focus to mush and irritability.
I remember asking every person I could find in the hospital if they thought I would ever be able to sing and dance again. I was faced with many apologetic “I don’t knows,” sighs, shrugs, and awkward topic changes.
However, I remember one occupational therapist told me something that wasn’t encouraging at the time, but is now. She looked at me compassionately, and said, “You never know – the human body is amazing. I had one patient who showed no signs of hope, and a year later, when he was discharged, he only needed a wheelchair!”
With time, patience, and dogged determination, I was eventually discharged from the hospital after multitudes of surgeries, setbacks, and frustrations, because what was the most important was my passion. Even not being able to talk or stand up on my own, I still visualized me singing and dancing. Without theatre, I felt disconnected, purposeless, a has-been. I missed the vibrant girl I remembered being the first to sign up for auditions who was now condemned to a realm of medical isolation.
I had always had a dream of combining song and dialogue in a musical of my own design. I love the idea of storytelling through theatre, but as a teen, I didn’t really have much of a story to tell. But sometimes, a setback is an opportunity in disguise. Suddenly, I had a tale of hurdles, triumph, and heart.
Eight years after my coma, I was finally headed towards a life of medical stability. I learned through experience that things can heal with time, and that’s not always the prettiest or easiest way. It was an extremely difficult journey, yet when I started to put together a musical of my life, things felt like they had happened for a reason. Now I had a story to tell and a message to share.
My one-woman musical autobiography, Gutless & Grateful, started out as stapled pages of my journal – a few pages from the thousands of journal entries I had completed when unable to eat or drink for years. I selected 16 songs—some of which I had written – that had always resonated with my journey and me, and loosely strung them together to sing for my own therapy. I’d perform Gutless & Grateful for my parents and my dogs, but mostly for myself. Through the songs, I could allow myself a safe place to feel the charged emotions I was still trying to process from years of medical trauma.
I called it my “world in a binder.” My parents called it “Amy’s little play.” It was no surprise when I had many looks of concern and gentle warnings when I decided to book a theatre in New York for my world premiere!
I performed Gutless & Grateful for the first time in NYC in October 2012. It was a frightening, bold, vulnerable, and breathtaking experience. In it, I told everything – the pain, the medical, the joy, the infuriating – with music, drama, and most importantly, humor. I had played “roles” before, but for the first time, I was honestly revealing my own medical and emotional struggles for hundreds of strangers every night. It was a risk to lay my soul bare, but the reward was in how my own vulnerability caused others to become vulnerable and be moved by my own struggles.
Since then, I’ve been performing it in theatres, hospitals, and groups in need of any kind of inspiration and encouragement. When I realized how combining powerful firsthand experience could transform lives, I developed my little-show-that-could into a mental health advocacy and sexual assault prevention program for students. After nearly losing my life at 18 years old, I’m now reaching out to students at that same pivotal point in their own lives.
Medically, my life is far from perfect, but now when a surgery goes wrong, I use it as more material for my show – if we can’t learn to laugh from hardship, we cant learn anything. And for me, when I learn, I feel alive – that just as trees grow, change and evolve with every season, I can too.
Through Gutless & Grateful, I’m sharing my story and helping others find the gifts and the gratitude in the hardships. And in healing other people, I heal my own self a bit more every day. I’m not quite there yet, but just like my show, I’m on the road.
As a performer, all I want to do is give back to the world. Being up on stage and singing is part of the joy, but what brings the process full circle is knowing that there is someone in the audience I am affecting and whose thinking pattern I’m changing. That is the power of theatre – stirring you to see things differently.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Amy Oestreicher.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.