Wednesday, June 28, 2017

I Interview Playwrights Part 959: Amy Oestreicher





Amy Oestreicher

Hometown: Good ol’ Fairfield Connecticut

Current Town: Westport CT now…but officially just signed my lease in New York! Where I belong@

Q:  Tell me about Gutless & Grateful.

A:  Well…. 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. I found comfort in the words of my favorite composers. I read scripts like they were novels. I would play with my playbills from various shows I had seen like they were my Barbie dolls. 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.

Growing up, 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 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, 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 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 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. 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 cant 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 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 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. 

Now it's been 6 years touring Gutless and Grateful - the 70 minute musical that started from a hospital.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  A lot of great projects! I’m always touring Gutless & Grateful, not only to theatres, but to colleges, conferences, organization, military support groups, temples advocacy groups – you name it – as a mental health, PTSD, disability, sexual assault and leadership program, so this show is always in my heart…but more exciting for me, I’m developing plenty of new shows at once! . I’m developing a musical, LEFTOVERS with director and dramaturge Susan Einhorn, which is a musicalized version of my “Musical chair-like” transition out of the surgical ICU. Other projects include a multidisciplinary solo play, “Trust/In Development,” based on my most recent TEDx Talk, using Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey to portray the “heroic adventures” in recovery, and after completing a residency at Art Kibbutz, I created a documentary drama based on 300 pages of transcribed oral histories from my grandmother and her nine siblings, after surviving Auschwitz. Judaism has been an overflowing source of playwriting inspiration, and its resilient stories have also inspired two short plays, “Factory Treasures” and “We Re-Member,” based on the garment factory that my grandparents established after immigrating to New York.

But most importantly…I fell into a coma the week I received my college acceptance letters (that’s in Gutless & Grateful for all the deets) For a while, I thought college was not in the cards for me.
But I graduated in May from Hampshire College. It showed me that there is truly no “It will never happen.”

Anything is possible and I look forward to defying more of my own expectations.
Oh, and finishing up editing on my book, My Beautiful Detour. Out December 2017!

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:
- In third grade, I got sent to the principal’s office for tap dancing on my teacher’s desk
- I wrote a one-woman musical for my bus driver and got really offended when she didn’t want to perform it. I called it Michelle the Mensch. She said it was distracting her from driving. I didn’t get that.
- I was so obsessed with the musical Les Miserables as an eight-year-old, that I bought the huge unabridged Victor Hugo novel and intended to read it. However, I got much more pleasure bringing it to school every day and leaving it on my desk, so people could think I was really artsy and deep
- My babysitters were petrified of me because they knew every time they’d come over they’d be a victim of my latest skit.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Submission fees (aren’t all playwrights broke???) and equity auditions…I’m non-equity but auditioning for Les Miz is on my bucket list. I played Eponine in two non-professional productions and I HAVE to play it one more time before I’m too old!!!

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Adam Guettel -- Floyd Collins changed my life. And so did Anne Bogart as a director.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Anything multimedia/multidisciplinary – using art, music, movement, projections, puppetry, you name it! I just saw “Soot and Spit” directed by Kim Weild, Written by Charles Mee at New Ohio Factory Theatre – I had the privilege of writing up an interview I did with Kim on the show for Huffington Post and BroadwayWorld. I left simply speechless. I still am. AMAZING!
Also anything collaborative, devised, immersive, site-specific…I spent the fall studying at the Eugene O’Neill Theater center and let’s just say I had no idea so much was possible through theatre!

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Start from anywhere. Seriously – just WRITE! Don’t edit as you write. Do that after!
Don’t compare yourself and work with what you have. But don’t accept what you start with. Visualize what you’d like to be 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 real. And with a bit of dedication, it will happen.

Q:  When not writing on a computer, what's your go-to paper and writing utensil? When on computer, what's your font?

A:  I love pacing around in circles texting to myself. I wrote a whole script that way! I’m a chronic pacer – antsy as heck. 

My Font? Oh, you know, that pesky stage formatting requires Times New Roman!

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Website: www.amyoes.com
Facebook: facebook.com/amyoestr
Twitter: @amyoes
Instagram: @amyoes70
You Tube: youtube.com/amyoes70
Watch my TEDx Talks at amyoes.com/tedx
READ ABOUT THE OTHER PLAYS I'M DEVELOPING! AMYOES.COM/PLAYWRIGHT

I’m so excited to be bringing this to Feinstein’s/54 Below. It’s a beautiful venue and I thought it’s especially fitting since the food is amazing…and this is a musical (comedy) about how my stomach exploded and I couldn’t eat or drink for six years! Spoiler alert – I can eat and drink now. So let’s just say I am REALLY looking forward to grabbing a meal afterwards!

Show Information:
When: June 30th at 9:30pm
Where: Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street)
Use the discount code AMY35 but only if you make reservations beforehand!
Buy tickets at https://54below.com/events/amy-oestreicher-gutless-grateful/
There is a $25-$35 cover charge and $25 food and beverage minimum.
Tickets and information are available at www.54Below.com.
Tickets on the day of performance after 4:00 are only available by calling (646) 476-3551.

I also book Gutless & Grateful myself not only to theatres, but to colleges, orgs, conferences, temples, as a leadership, mental health, arts program/workshop - learn more at amyoes.com/gutless!

Oh...and about that audition for Les Miz...I'm in New York now and I've got my headshot/resume handy :))


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