BWW Interviews: Amy Oestreicher
Theatre comes down to amazing storytelling, and Amy Oestreicher has an astounding story to tell. The gutsy 27-year-old is getting ready for the fifth production of her one-woman autobiographical musical, Gutless & Grateful.
Born with creative ambition to spare, Amy is the daughter of a prominent, well-respected Westport dermatologist. "I was your stereotypical theatre geek growing up," she recalled. "I was accepted into the musical theatre program at university of Michigan and thought I would go right to Broadway and conquer the world." But her life took a seriously unexpected turn shortly before her high school graduation when she developed a blood clot and her stomach "exploded" in the emergency department. None of her father's peers, nor any of the numerous doctors she saw before, during or after 27 surgeries (yes, 27 surgeries) could determine what caused her condition, and for three years she couldn't eat or drink anything.
She could have put her life on hold, waiting until a miracle doctor came along to reassemble her and send her home to resume her normal activities. But, as they say, "Normal is a setting on the washing machine."
Instead, Amy channeled the "most beautiful spirit" of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor when she was barely out of her teens. Her grandmother's path crossed the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, but she never let herself become bitter. She was always grateful for what she had. "It's weird that I went through something difficult at 18, and I felt there her spirit was with me."
The difficulties were not just with her mysterious condition. Amy said that when she was 17, her voice teacher molested her, and she kept that a secret. A week after she finally told her mother in April, she said, "all this happened." Even holding "such a secret in for a long time was obviously not going to cause it," she said, "but [it] could exacerbate it." When she woke up from being a coma, there was "a lot of shock to take in.
"It's funny how things sort of happen organically," said Amy. "When I couldn't eat or drink, I locked myself in my room and journalled [sic] hundreds and thousands of pages, songs, [etc.}. Creating was my way of coping." She said it was like being in high school. "It doesn't feel as if you exist." She was, no doubt, feeling the usual angst of high school students, intensified by the trauma of being molested and then devastated by her mysterious and hard to treat illness. "I was always looking to create. I never picked up a paintbrush before, but then started to paint. I was selling pieces for $1,000 and had three art shows."
But painting was just a small part of helping her heal. It was time for her to return to what she always wanted to do - performing. "I wanted some kind of story of how I found my life after going through obstacles. I picked out some songs that really resonated with me," she said, including some songs that she wrote. And she got back into theatre.
Curtain Call, a Stamford-based community theatre, held auditions for Oliver! Amy nailed the role of Nancy, even though she could barely walk and unable to eat or drink anything. The following summer, she got a role in Cats with the Staples Players.
In 2011, Amy was inspired to put together a theatrical memoir. She was featured on The Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda for the segment, "Everyone Has A Story." Kathie Lee and David Friedman wrote the song, "Still Alive," which was performed on the show. About a year later, Amy reconnected with Jerold Goldstein, whom she met at Curtain Call when she was 13 years old. He encouraged her with the show. Hence, the birth of Gutless & Grateful: A Musical Feast. Amy had some exposure to one-performer shows such as Jefferson Mays' I am My Own Wife at Playwrights Horizon and Golda's Balcony (with Tovah Feldshuh) in Hartford. She continued to develop her one-woman show, which changes a bit with each production. She has performed it at Bridgeport's Bijou Theatre (where "Amy Oestreicher brought the audience to their feet last night...several times" and the Triad (now Stage 72) in New York City. Her show includes a three-piece band and one of her brothers, Matt, who is in the house band for Amateur Night at the Apollo every week, plays the guitar in it.
When Amy was 15, she also met William Finn. She'd sent him a huge fan letter and they stayed in touch. Finn, of course, turned his own medical ordeal into the Off-Broadway show, A New Brain. When Amy was in the hospital, her mother called him and said her headmaster was going to surprise her at the ICU with her own private graduation ceremony. Finn showed up as well. When her show was a go, Finn asked her to do her be part of his Mr. Finn's Cabaret at the Barrington Stage Company last year.
"My show was also accepted as part of the United Solo Festival, which is actually an international showcase of one-person performances - a huge honor," said Amy. "I feel as though my mission is to tell my story to the world.
"I feel like this show will always be a part of my life and just as I do, it will keep growing, evolving changing - I even have plans to revise it a bit eventually to incorporate my unexpected journey into marriage and relationships - I did revise it after my botched up surgery a bit - it went terribly wrong, but at least I got a few laughs out of it! I am really just skimming the surface here - my story is very complex, but very inspirational."
Gutless and Grateful: A Musical Feast will be featured in October as part of the United Solo Festival on Theatre Row. Amy hopes it will have an extended run Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway because her story "inspires so many people....My biggest fear is I didn't want to fade into obscurity. I need to be productive. The show, she said, makes her "feel connected to world and community."
And it promises a happy ending. Amy is studying performance, visual arts and playwriting at Hampshire College and next year she will marry Brandon Thetford, a man she met during one of the frustrating periods of her ordeal. The moral of the story is that there is definitely life after the worst things you can experience. Visit her at www.amyoes.com.