Episode 189: Theatre is my life line
At 15, Amy Oestreicher believed that she was going to be a performer and go to Broadway. Life threw a curveball at Amy to make Broadway the farthest possible goal imaginable. How did she use theatre as a life line? How was she able to harness her creativity? You don’t need to think you’re an artist to create. This is a story everyone should listen to.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 189 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode189.
Today, we’re talking about lifelines.
How many of you have ever thought of theatre as a lifeline?
I have, for sure. I meet students every day who tell me that theatre saved their life in one way or another. I remember a particular student telling me, after being through two hurricanes, that being in a play was the only thing getting her through.
Our guest today has a deep connection with theatre as a lifeline for very good reason. So, I don’t think I’ve ever done this before so I don’t know if I’m going to do it right or wrong. I’m just going to do it.
This is really a warning because I don’t think you should be warned away from intense topics but this podcast contains intense topics and mention of sexual assaults. But, at the end of it, we have theatre as a lifeline.
So, let’s get to it, shall we?
LINDSAY: Hello everybody!
Today, I am talking to Amy Oestreicher.
Tell everybody where in the world you are located.
AMY: I’m in Connecticut.
LINDSAY: All right, cool.
Amy has a story. It’s something that really… I think it’s really a good story to share. But then, also, the aftermath, I think the aftermath of your story is what’s really interesting. I think it’s what’s going to be really interesting to our listeners. We’re going to get into the bulk of this and we’re going to talk about empathy a little bit and you will see, you will see, dear listener, why empathy is going to be the hallmark of our conversation today.
All right, Amy. What happened to you when you were 17?
AMY: All right. Well, you know, I was born a Theatrefolk.
LINDSAY: You’re one of us, eh?
AMY: Oh, my god, don’t even start but I was definitely born a musical theatre ham and extremely, like, Type A driven. That was what I knew my life was going to be – I was going to go to college and study musical theatre at the University of Michigan and be on Broadway and that was it.
When I was 15, I’d been studying with a really big voice coach in New York who I really, really looked up to. When I was 17, he molested me and that was obviously a complete shock to me and I completely just left my body and don’t remember anything that happened. I really kept that inside for almost a year – until I finally told my mother in the April of my senior year.
We were going to go for therapy and all that. And then, I just had a really bad stomach ache that wasn’t going away. My dad took me…
LINDSAY: Cool. Now, before we get to the stomach ache part which is the part that I knew, I think that you’ve just hit on something which I think is really important to mention about how many of those people who are listening have students who have mentors or teachers – you know, not necessarily in the classroom but just like you had someone that they looked up to who were not good people.
AMY: Yeah. Whenever I talk on podcasts, I’m always like, “You have to say how old he is!” You know, he was 60 and I was 15. And so, you know, I really looked up to him. He actually wrote a letter to my parents, asking if he could be my godfather. It was a whole kind of typical grooming thing.
But, you know, I really looked up to this guy because he was one of the top teachers in New York and I think we really connected because I was always kind of an old soul when I was younger and I always connected to trees and spirituality and he seemed to have this deeper side, too. You know, I really looked up to this teacher as someone that not only could give me theatre and vocal skills but you could kind of nurture that kind of part of me that loved the inspiration behind creating and theatre and art.
And so, when he started molesting me, not only did I lose faith in my mentor and just have this whole confusion but I also kind of lost trust in what had always really inspired me in theatre. You know, you start to question everything you know. And so, my world just kind of changed overnight. I think, well, should I go on with my story?
LINDSAY: Yes. Yes, because, unfortunately, you are only just beginning. This is not the awful part.
AMY: It’s a happy ending.
LINDSAY: Yes, you know what? I apologize. That was a flippant thing for me to say.
AMY: God, if you were a playwright, you’re like spoiling my story.
So, anyway, my dad took me to the emergency room that night and everything just escalated really quickly. Apparently, on the way there, my mom said my cheeks just perforated because there was so much pressure building up inside the abdomen. If this sounds really dramatic, it is. So, I actually wrote a full-length drama based on this, by the way.
So, when I got to the emergency room – again, I’m just telling what I’ve been told – the surgeon cut into me and my stomach literally hit the ceiling of the operating room because there was so much internal pressure. I guess I had gotten sepsis from a blood clot. If I’d gotten there minutes later, it definitely would have gotten to all of my internal organs and I would have died. So, it was really kind of like divine timing.
I had just gotten my college acceptance letters that week. Now, I was in a coma for months and I woke up nearly a year later having no idea what was going on, thinking I was still going to Michigan. You know, I had been healthy my whole life so it was really like waking up in The Twilight Zone. I think it was also a big advantage on my part because I didn’t know how to be sick and I was also kind of like the same stubborn brat I was before I got sick.
You know, as a kid, creativity, it was literally my life force. I was always creating something. I got sent to the principal’s office because I would tap dance on my teacher’s desk when she left the room. So, that had always spurred me on.
I think the biggest fear when I woke up from a coma was, “Oh, my god, I’m going to be a has-been at 18.” As a performer, all you want to do is connect to the world and I really thought, “I’m not going to make my mark.” I had so much ambition and all that. Now, I can’t even go to college?
And then, the doctor tells me, finally, that I don’t have a stomach anymore and I can’t eat or drink and they don’t know if I’ll ever be able to again. So, you know, it was a lot to take in at once.
But I think what really kept me going is my creative spirit really never died. You know, it’s amazing; it was all I knew how to do at that time. I think that’s really what made me not feel victimized and really feel like myself even when my life had changed overnight. I mean, I’m like glossing over how terribly frustrating and ups and downs and all that stuff but I think that general mindset was kind of the constant that helped me through the many, many ups and downs.
And so, I was discharged from the hospital months later because, you know, I was medically stable and I was not in a life or death situation anymore. I think I credit that because my amazing family just literally stayed in the ICU with me for all those months which is why this full-length drama I’m working on is kind of like a comedy because the six of us living in a small ICU for months – believe me – they were ready to kick us out by the time I was okay.
Anyway, I was discharged from the hospital because I was stable, but the only thing was I didn’t have a digestive system anymore. So, the doctors were basically like, “Okay, you’re stable now, go home, but you can’t eat or drink and we’ll send you a bunch of IV fluid every weekend and we’ll stay in touch.” It’s kind of easier to be in the nest of a hospital when you’re protected against everything. All of a sudden, everything becomes a trigger. I couldn’t be with people. It was a very scary way to live.
LINDSAY: Gosh, yeah, I can’t imagine! I mean, how many folks have been through the same thing that you have been through are there?
AMY: No, I was written up in a medical journal because I don’t have a diagnosis. They’re not even sure exactly what happened. It’s just like this kind of thing. I mean, there are people with short gut syndrome and some symptoms are similar to Crohn’s and things like that. But, no, I was really…
You know, I’ll get to how long it took me before I had a drink again but, you know, one of the things that took so long is not only waiting for my insides to heal; we had to track down a surgeon who had enough guts and thinking skills. They literally had to figure out how to do something to make me a digestive system. There was no manual to this, you know?
But coming out of the hospital was really difficult. The not drinking was just awful. We were discharged in the summer but, a month after being discharged from the ICU, I saw that a community theatre was holding auditions for Oliver and I was pretty weak at this point. I mean, I could walk around, but not in great shape. But I’m like, “You know what? I think it would be good for me,” because, when I thought of theatre, I always thought of the community. Like, if I was in the ensemble, at least I would have something to do.
And so, I went for the audition. I was just kind of had my trachea device pulled out of my throat so I didn’t know how much singing I could do, but I remember belting a song and coming out and thinking, “Oh, my god, I’m still really good!” And so, they called me up and they gave me the lead of Nancy in Oliver. Of course, they double-casted me in case I fell over and died, but it was such an amazing experience.
You know, of course, there were moments of a lot of difficulty. Seeing everyone else have water bottles, those things would just be there, you don’t think about how hard those things are, but it was. But, I think, doing that was the community feeling I needed to really feel like I had some sense of sanity and I think that’s what theatre has always been for me.
LINDSAY: You know what?
LINDSAY: I want to really hit this home for folks in terms of growing up – that theatre was the thing for you – and then you had an experience where that trust in theatre and that love of theatre was taken away. And then, an additional thing where you sort of realize that it wasn’t taken away – that it was your lifeline, in a sense.
AMY: You know, that actually comes up a few times in my story. I’m going to go back to the drama that I wrote – you know, one of the last lines is “you’re my theatre, you’re my art, but you’re no longer my story,” and I think it’s because the art really helped me.
But the thing about being in this community is, you know, now, I do a lot of theatre outreach for, like traumatized populations and military and things like that. It’s supposedly like the Greek plays of Sophocles were originally meant for military veterans to actually re-enact what had happened so they could share it with their community. There’s so much healing when we can tell our story and I think that’s why theatre is such an important thing for people. I know it was for me.
And so, doing Oliver was a big part of my healing process. But then, when the show was over, I still couldn’t eat or drink and I was kind of left with like, “Oh, my gosh, what to do now?” It’s amazing how what I learned is that creative energy, that was the only thing making me feel sane because, you know, just to give you perspective, after something like this, you should definitely be in therapy.
You know, my parents took me to a therapist out of the hospital and that therapist tells my parents, “You know, she can’t eat and she can’t drink. It would be cruel of me to make her sit in a room and talk about her feelings. She’s just hungry. Let her get better and then we can start working on that.” I think theatre was the only therapy I could be capable of because he was right. In a case like that, you can’t just sit and talk about how miserable you are because you’re just not able to eat and drink. You should be miserable, you know?
After that show, I just tried to find different ways to harness my creativity. Like, one of the things I did, you know, you learn how to be resourceful. I started a chocolate business because I was so hungry and I missed just going to Stop and Shop and buying candy. I found that, if I could make art with the candy and create, it was a way I could be with that hunger in a way that somehow was manageable. I found little things like that – just creative ways.
To jump over a large expanse of time, after three years, I was 21 and I had my 13th reconstructive surgery. This was going to be the biggie that was going to hook me up to eat. It was 19 hours and it took three shifts of nurses and doctors. I thought, “After this, oh, my god, I can eat.” But then, you know, because this is not like a tested kind of official surgery, they were kind of just seeing how things go.
My wound just burst open a week later and I had to be aired back across the country which was, obviously, you know, the whole thing about healing from PTSD – you know, post-traumatic stress disorder – is you feel like a trigger or anxiety and then you’re supposed to tell yourself, “Oh, no, the trauma has passed. It’s not here.” You know, I would feel like, “Oh, my god, my stomach, what if my wound burst open?” I would tell myself, “No, that was before, this is now.” And so, it was just, you know, terrifying to be shipped across the country.
And then, also, what was so scary was to hear doctors really not having any answers. Like, if you can’t put your faith in doctors, what do you do? And I found the answer, actually, because I was stuck there for months and now I was just mad because I felt like this had been done to me.
And so, what happened was that, you know, my mom started bringing me cheap art supplies to the hospital just so I had something to do. You know, I’d always been into theatre but never really painted. But picking up a paintbrush and painting for the first time was another way I found freedom in that creative energy. I found that it was a way of expressing. It was a healthy way of getting things out. I think, you know, the only healthy thing is to get things out. And so, that really helped me transform all that uncertainty and anger and the art really got me through, especially when I didn’t have the words to really express how I was feeling.
Anyway, that led to actually putting together one more musical about my life – Gutless and Grateful. I think, without the art kind of stirring off all those feelings, I don’t think I ever would have been able to verbalize them and how Gutless and Grateful came about was taking all the journal entries I had written and some songs and I thought, “You know what? I miss singing. I miss the stage. I want to put together just a cabaret act.” That was really how it started.
I premiered it for the first time in 2012. You know, the news stories had talked about my medial stuff but my sexual abuse no one had ever talked about. So, I remember I was even embarrassed to talk about it so I put one sentence in, thinking, “Oh, my god, I hope the reviewers don’t hear it.” That was how much farther I had to go in my healing and it’s been amazing.
I’ve been doing the show for almost six years. Now, I’m a keynote speaker for sexual assault. As you know, I’m doing mental health programs. I think I credit the show for bringing my healing full circle because it was really an excuse to keep talking about it and, more importantly, to keep connecting with it. I think, after every show, people line up and just start telling their stories.
The thing about Gutless and Grateful was, for the first time, I was telling my story but, you know, I actually felt relatable because it wasn’t about just, like, Amy whose stomach exploded. It was the universal kind of narrative of fighting adversity and dealing with uncertainty and I think what makes theatre so great is it kind of pares down everything to the essentials of what is the nature of human struggle and I think that’s really what made me feel normal.
The long story and the statistics are it turned into six years I’m able to eat and drink and 27 surgeries and a lot of ups and downs – and, still, a lot of ups and downs – but I think the one constant has been whatever trauma produces – you know, anger, frustration, fear – you know, I think I started viewing that all as energy and that energy is something that, as artists, we can turn into something else and I think that’s what never let me get into the victim mindset that I could always do something with that.
LINDSAY: That whole notion of human struggle, I think, for thousands and thousands and thousands of years, it doesn’t matter how we’ve changed, we all struggle and that’s how you deal with that struggle. You’re right; it just makes it a universal thing. People in the audience don’t have to have had their stomach exploded to relate their own struggle.
AMY: And that was all, you know what, my TED Talk was about I called it being a detourist because, you know, who hasn’t had a detour in life? And it was a way to kind of break down the “why I’ve been through this and I’ve been through that” because I’ve always felt that I don’t think we should find our uniqueness based on what we’ve been through but what we choose to do with it. You know, calling it a detour and just being a detourist is really just having the ability to show up when life doesn’t go as we expect and just even though we don’t know what the path ahead is, we’re curious and we explore.
I trained acting through Stella Adler’s school and one of the first things we learned was having awareness without judgment. It’s the same kind of thing and I think, as actors, one of the main things they try to get into is that we have to have empathy and non-judgment when we’re embodying characters and that just makes us better people.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s something that’s come up time and time again in talking to teachers about 21st Century students. How do we teach that? How do we teach empathy? How do we get everyone to sort of… well, teenagers, you know, it’s a time where all you’re doing is looking in, you know? How do you actually find the skills to look out at other people and empathize?
AMY: Right. I mean, in a scene, you’re forced to be an empathetic collaborator. It’s forced, like, give and take; otherwise, you’re not being a generous scene partner. It was actually really interesting for me because I finally did go to college at 25 years old and I spent a semester at the Eugene O’Neill Center which was amazing. But, you know, it was very group devising work and acting work and I knew the biggest message – as with any good theatre company should be – you know, it’s really the power of team and listening and building trust within your company.
LINDSAY: Oh, absolutely, because, well, it all comes back to that word “community,” doesn’t it? That’s the thing that speaks, I think – whether it’s a community of actors or a community of people who are watching who are having their own struggles. It’s all about community.
LINDSAY: Just hinging on that word “empathy,” how do you teach people to have empathy for you instead of pity?
AMY: Well, that, I will say my goal with doing Gutless and Grateful is, you know, I don’t want people to be inspired by my story. I really want them to be empowered and, you know, doing my show has expanded into workshops and lectures where I kind of boil down – again, this stuff is always easier seen in retrospect – I found that what helped me through, you know, one of the first questions people ask is “How’d you make it through?” you know, I call them like my four hardcore skills to resilience.
They may seem like kind of cheesy inspirational words but they were actually very serious survival strategies that helped me survive which is hope, gratitude, creativity, and sharing your story. I hope I’m making and, you know, starting it off in those general terms. I’m showing that, you know, “Look, I was just a theatre kid – like anyone else. If you had told me that I was going to go through all this, I would have been like, ‘No, I’m not going to even try.’”
I think it’s amazing that it shows, when the human spirit is tested, you know, if we are willing to take that journey, anyone can really use these kinds of resources and make it through. I think what really psyches us out is when we think about the bigger picture. I know, if I had known the bigger picture, like, “Oh, it’s going to be six years,” I would have just said, “No, not happening.”
LINDSAY: It’s so true. It’s so true that the big picture is daunting… just life! Let’s not even talk about what’s it like to go through six years of surgeries. Just life – the big picture – is daunting for a lot of folks. But it’s one day at a time, right? Actually, I like the notion that it’s kind of one expression at a time and one sharing story at a time and just finding ways. It is empowering to think about how creativity and how theatre can – change your life isn’t exactly what I’m looking for here but – can move your life forward.
AMY: Exactly. You know, it teaches you basic life skills and I think the best way to learn anything is by practicing it and I think you using your assets to do that to show up.
LINDSAY: Oh, yeah, like, to show up to be there for somebody else as opposed to just yourself.
LINDSAY: To speak up and also just that whole notion of self-expression and trying to find the words – whether it’s words or whether it’s paint or whatever it is. Try to find a way to express instead of leaving it inside. I think it’s all things.
So, what does the future hold? Theatre has been your lifeline and your survival tactic. Now that you are doing TED Talks and you have done more than a lot of people have done when they think of a life in the theatre. You know, if you’ve already written a musical and a one-person show and you’ve already performed that and you’ve already been a TED presenter, where will you go next and where will theatre take you next?
AMY: I think, you know, first of all, doing Gutless and Grateful has been an amazing experience. I really thought of it as just going to be a one-time thing and I’ve been touring it to theatres for the past whatever years. But what’s been even more amazing is being able to take it to conferences and schools and use it for so many different things – for trauma education, for women’s leadership, for business – you know, I never thought I’d be the keynote speaker for entrepreneur conventions and things. That has just opened my perception of the detour.
Also, you know, as an artist, we want to keep challenging ourselves. And so, if I just did Gutless and Grateful for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be happy. So, now, I’ve kind of gone back to my artistic roots. I think performing that show over and over again was a very huge part of my healing. But, now, I’m really diving into a bunch of other projects and really feeling how creating things has always made me happy.
I mentioned that I’m actually 30 and I’m graduating college next week which I’m super excited about.
LINDSAY: Yay! Awesome! Congratulations!
AMY: Thank you! But my final project was actually, you know, I conducted hundreds and hundreds of pages of oral history interviews with my family about my grandma who survived the Holocaust and I’d wanted to make a documentary drama kind of thing. And so, I did it for the first time this weekend and it was just so powerful. You know, honestly, it felt good to create something that wasn’t about myself.
I think there’s a time for doing all this self-devised, you know, it’s important. But I think, you know, it did its job and it moved that story out of me. Now, I want to capture other stories. You know, I feel like this is only the beginning with this piece. I call it fibers because my grandma survived the camps because she was an amazing seamstress so the Nazis forced her to sew their uniforms. I’m really excited to keep workshopping this piece.
Also, I have three full-length dramas I’ve developing at once which are all going to have a production next year. So, I’m really excited about that. I feel like, if this had never happened, I would have probably… I definitely would have been creating but I don’t think I would have been creating from this kind of a place. You know, it gives you an awareness that you didn’t have so you end up having to be very thankful for it.
You know, I want to go back to artist but, you know, having always been informed by what I’ve been through and, like I said, my first talk was about being a detourist. My second TED Talk which won’t be live till this summer was all about healing through the archetypal heroes’ journey which is like a storyline that we see in every adventure novel. You know, it’s the narrative of going into the darkness and battling demons and coming back to society with a gift to give. But I talk about how, once you’ve come out of that darkness, it’s not like you just go back to that ordinary innocent world you knew.
It’s what Joseph Campbell calls “mastery of the two worlds.” You’ll always have those two words within you and I think, for those of us that have survived trauma or adversity, just the job becomes learning how to balance them because the trauma never goes away. You just have to figure out how to manage it so it can inform what you do and not run your life.
LINDSAY: You come to a new sense of stasis.
LINDSAY: You know, you have a new world that becomes your world.
AMY: Right, and I think that’s why theatre can be such a great tool because it gives us a container to manage that other world – at least for me.
LINDSAY: What a great way to put it! It’s like a container, particularly if you are dealing with trauma or you are dealing with… there’s so many levels of trauma, you know.
AMY: Oh, yeah.
LINDSAY: To put it into containers so that you can live your life.
AMY: You know, it’s not just trauma. It’s a detour. It’s anything that hasn’t gone like you expected. Actually, on my blog, I have a “Why Not Wednesday” column which is a weekly thing where I have any detourist write in about any kind of detour in their life and it does not have to be a huge life-shattering trauma.
It can be like, “Oh, I got a new job.” It can even be a good trauma. Like, one person quit their job as a doctor and became like a surfer in Hawaii and it led them to this and that. What’s so fascinating is I have over a hundred stories right now but what I love is each detour is different but you can still trace the same emotional arc.
More importantly, you can see that, in the process of actually just writing it, some of them are realizing themselves for the first time what they got from it and I think that’s the power of expressive writing and of creativity. We don’t get out of trauma automatically knowing what the gifts are. We have to do the work as artists. I think, in creating, we find that meaning, you know?
LINDSAY: As we wrap this up, it’s like, “Well, what is a life without detours?” I think that, when we’re all 15 years old, we’re all thinking, “This is the path that’s happening and it’s a straight one and there’s no detours and I know exactly how my life is going to work out,” and life just doesn’t work that way.
AMY: You know, I had a director that would always talk about a funny thing happened on the way to the forum and he would always use that as an example – that, if this and that did not happen on the way to the forum, you know, there would be no story. The guy would just make it to the forum and everything would have been okay. It’s true. I’ve never forgotten that. You know, theatre is… you know, a plot twist.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s what you want! If we had a story where, you know, A gets to B, the end – theatre is not like that and life is certainly not like that.
LINDSAYA: Amy, thank you so much for talking to me today!
AMY: Thank you!
LINDSAY: It’s a pleasure! I just love theatre – lives in the theatre – and about how people, they go with the detours and you’re using theatre in your life in a way that is not the traditional, and I think that’s important. I think it’s really important for people to see that there are many ways in which creativity and theatre can be incorporated into a wonderful life.
AMY: I mean, as a closing statement, I would say that creativity was my life force. Again, I never got one ounce of therapy through any of this because there was never a circumstance, really, where I could.
You know, theatre is a lot of trial and error. You know, improv and messing up and play and learning to fail. I definitely struggled with a lot and definitely had a lot of medical setbacks, a lot of emotional setbacks.
But, again, going back to theatre as a container, I mean, I think, when I viewed it with that perspective, I felt like I couldn’t fall. I always had that lens of creativity and maybe it’s just how I grew up that I was always like that but, now, when I give presentations, I say, “You don’t need to think you’re an artist to create. You need to adapt those skills. Take out a napkin and start doodling but find some way to express yourself where you’re not pressuring yourself to just think yourself out.
Believe me – I think the one thing I’ve learned is that our minds are so overrated.
LINDSAY: I hear ya! I hear ya!
Thank you so much, Amy!
AMY: Thank you!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Amy!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Any links to today’s episode can be found show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode189.
We’ve been talking about lifelines today and we actually have one that we would like to share with you. I don’t know – it seems a bit weird to do but I really think of this as a lifeline.
Are you a Drama teacher just starting out? Have you gone back to the classroom after a break? Or maybe you’ve been in the classroom for twenty years teaching English and, all of a sudden, you find yourself with a Drama class on your schedule? Or – how about this – you are a one-man band – you are the only Drama teacher in your school? Where’s your lifeline?
We’ve got one for you. We’re really proud of our education arm here at Theatrefolk, especially our Drama Teacher Academy.
If you want a lifeline, we’ve got one. Join DTA and get involved. Get involved particularly with our private Facebook group. Any question you have? Answered. Any struggle you have? Hundreds and hundreds – that’s right! Not tens of tens or twenties of twenties – I don’t know if there’s such a thing as that but hundreds – hundreds of teachers know exactly what you’re going through. Any success you have, you have a cheering audience.
I just want to share that with you – that, if you need a lifeline, we’ve got your back here and you can check out what we have to offer – DramaTeacherAcademy.com. Or you can look in the show notes – Theatrefolk.com/episode189.
Okay. So, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. Just search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.