Act Like Your Life Depends On It: How Theatre Saved My Life
By Amy Oestreicher
As actors, we tell stories constantly. I first told mine over four years ago. Not only to myself, but to complete strangers and New York theatregoers. Fresh out of my 27th surgery, I performed words from journal entries I wrote years ago as a way to pass the time between the endless series of medical interventions. Every time I “perform” what happened to me, I find myself somehow transformed in the process.
Theatre has the power to change lives, both for those directly involved and those who watch. Theatre teaches us we’re capable of anything — and usually tells us this at times we need it most.
I grew up as 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. Even all the way up to high school, I was the theatre-girl. It was my identity, my passion, 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 — it was all I thought about, lived and dreamed. I’d write songs in my assignment notebook as I waited for the school bell to ring, then hop on the train to the next open call I’d read about in Backstage. 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.
So what do you do when you’ve invested everything into your passion and you can’t follow it anymore? I’ve always thought about what would a world-concert pianist would do if he injured his hand, or a dancer breaking a leg…
…but sprains heal and wounds can eventually mend. Dire circumstances felt much more long lasting; when at 18 I awoke from a coma. Although the medical staff — that suddenly became everyday faces — was 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. From months of bed-rest, the first time I was able to stand up, I was alarmed at how they trembled, as if my legs were Jell-O. 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 changing of the topic. However, I remember one occupational therapist gave me words that to her, felt like words of encouragement. 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!”
(These were not exactly the words of encouragement I was looking for.)
With time, patience, and dogged determination, I was eventually discharged from the hospital. What I’m glossing over are the multitudes of surgeries, setbacks and frustrations, because what was the most important was my passion — I never forgot how I missed the stage. 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, now condemned to a realm of medical isolation.
I had always had a dream of combining song and dialogue in a show 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, 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 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 humor, most importantly. 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 moved by my own struggles.
Since then, I’ve been touring it nationwide to theatres, international conferences, colleges, and anywhere I can get myself booked, with a dream getting the show in a small off-Broadway house. 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. Nearly losing my life at 18 years old, I’m now reaching out to students at that same pivotal point in their own lives.
As a performer, all I want to do is give back to the world. Being up on stage and singing is one part of the joy, but what brings the process full circle is knowing that somewhere in the audience, I am affecting someone and making them think in a different way. That is the power of theatre — stirring you to see things differently. Doing what I love, my passion once again can freely flow through my veins, and I’m a person now, not just a patient or a medical miracle.
A director once told me as a theatre teen, if I wanted to be on Broadway so badly, then write a show and put myself in it. Gutless and Grateful on Broadway some day? I’ve seen crazier things….
Performing theatre showed me what I’m capable of, but more importantly, that we are all capable of understanding each other. That’s how theatre creates a world based on compassion
Now get out there, see a show, do a dance, and make your mark on this world.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, speaker for RAINN and TEDx, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning health advocate, actress and playwright, eagerly sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, performance, art and speaking. As the writer, director and star of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres across the country, earning rave reviews and accolades since it’s BroadwayWorld Award-nominated NYC debut. As a visual artist, her works have been featured in esteemed galleries and solo exhibitions, and her mixed media workshops emphasize creativity as an essential mindset.
Amy’s “beautiful detour” inspired her to create the #LoveMyDetour movement, a campaign inspiring people to flourish because of, rather than in spite of challenges. As the Eastern Regional Recipient of the Great Comebacks Award, Amy has spoken to hundreds of WOCN nurses on behalf of ostomates nationwide. She is a regular lifestyle, wellness, and arts contributor for several notable online and print publications, and has written for over 50 online magazines and blogs. on Her story has appeared on the TODAY Show, CBS, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, among others.
She has devised workshops for the Transformative Language Arts Network National Conference, the Eating Recovery Center Foundation, The League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling,and other international conferences.
Determined to bridge the gap of communication between wellness resources on college campuses and students, Amy is currently touring college campuses with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre. For information on keynote presentations, private coaching, workshops and signature talkbacks, visit amyoes.com and follow her on Twitter Instagram, and Facebook.