Amy Oestreicher on Telling Her Story on Stage

Editor’s Note: Amy has written for us before, and her story is a powerful one. With the Power of Words Conference coming in two weeks, we asked her to share more. We will also post her TEDx talk within the next week.
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Bringing Gutless & Grateful to the Transformative Language Arts Network Conference last year was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I couldn’t be happier to be presenting again this year! In my workshop,  I’m sharing my near death experience and unique personal story with humor, hunger and heart, and helping others realize their potential as storytellers who can heal through their own word and powerful personal stories.

I’ve presented this workshop on college campus, at conferences, theatres, hospitals, and many other audiences from Hawaii to Pennsylvania, to survivors of sexual assault to business entrepreneurs, medical professionals to law students.  Everyone has a story to tell – some of us just don’t know it yet! Once we discover this, it’s incredibly empowering, and my greatest joy is watching people realize this for themselves.

From the time I could remember, I have always possessed an intense passion for the world of words and music. All my life, I had dreamed of pursuing a career in theatre.  However, at 18, I was rushed to the ER, and to summarize very briefly, my stomach exploded, I was in a coma for six months, and I was unable to eat or drink a drop of water for over three years.  After 27 surgeries, I was miraculously reconnected with whatever I had left.  However, to persevere through those tumultuous years took great inner and outer strength.  I relied on my creativity to get through.  My therapy was purely based in the world of theatre, art, writing, dance, music, and whatever else I felt was an area that I could express myself appropriately.  The arts were a way for me to express whatever felt too painful and overwhelming to put into words.  They also helped me process what I was feeling.  But most importantly, they served to be the greatest reward acting as a medium where I could still engage with my community, reach out to others, and make a difference in this world while utilizing my passion.  Arts were my way of connecting with the world, sharing my story, and spreading my message of hope, strength, and finding beauty in whatever life brings you.

I was not able to fully appreciate the beauty of my detours until I was able to share them. As a performer, all I’ve wanted to do was give back to the world.  But now I have an even greater gift to give: a story to tell.  Until I could put into words what had happened to me, I couldn’t fully heal.  Telling my story is the magic push I needed to move forward, and that is what inspired me to bring my workshop to TLAN for the second year in a row: to help others bring out the story burgeoning inside of them.

As actors, writers, creators, humans, we tell stories constantly.  I first told mine over four years ago.  Not only to myself, but to complete strangers and New York theatre-goers.   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’m truly touched by how my story has affected so many people and it only serves to spur on my creativity more and more.  Even on the more difficult days, knowing I can have an impact is just one extra nudge to get me going in the morning.

It’s really the ability to give back, and to have my work serve as a lens, a mirror, a window that others can look through, or look into, and see themselves or whatever they need to see at that moment.  To feel whatever they need to feel.  That’s how I connect with my world – that is my aliveness.  As a member of this human race, it’s how I can contribute.  Isn’t all we ever want: to make a mark on the world?  

Gutless & Grateful,” the honest one-woman musical story of my life.  It’s my story, shared through a medium I’m passionate about. I was finally able to heal and move on once I was able to share, and now I’m so excited to help others share the story within them in whatever medium that they feel most comfortable in.

Why share at all?   It takes “guts” to talk — and sing — about my sexual abuse, my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better. But I share to show that things do get better with patience, trust and resilience. I share to give courage and a sense of belonging to people who are struggling with all kinds of mental health or physical challenges, but also to help build a campus that gives everyone the kind of awareness and generosity of spirit that makes that world a better place. If we all share our “detours,” we see that our detours are not detours at all. Every road leads somewhere — we just need to hang in long enough to catch the flowers along the way. The more we share our stories, the more we realize we’re not alone.

Through the transformative power of words, we can all share our stories.  I can’t wait to hear yours!

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Amy Oestreicher B&W 2006Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking.

As the creator of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness  and Broadway Theatre for college campuses.

To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others thrive through difficulties.

As Eastern Regional Recipient of Convatec’s Great Comebacks Award, she’s contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others. 

She has devised workshops for conferences nationwide,  and is this year’s keynote speaker for the Hawaii Pacific Rim International Conference on Diversity and Disability.  Learn more: amyoes.com.

Dramatherapy as a Lifeline in Transforming Trauma by Amy Oestreicher

Trauma affects every individual differently.   In the face of adversity, drama therapy makes healing possible for all, re-anchoring us in our soul’s dream.

For me, that dream was musical theatre.

Let me rephrase that. I grew up assuming 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.

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.

Amy Oestreicher, Gutless & GratefulMy 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.
With no formal diagnosis, roadmap, or reason to have hope at all, creativity became my lifeline and what allowed me to thrive. Devising theatre from within helped me find words for the loss, grief, and frustration I felt, and words led to gratitude.  To cope with not being able to eat or drink for years, I typed thousands of journal entries to to prove that I was still alive, kicking, and breathing – isolated from the entire world and from my entire former life, but still here, and still desperate to live some kind of substantial, meaningful life.

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.

My show dared to explore a very personal topic – what could have been a tragedy – in a comedic, yet poignant musical –  the culmination of years of struggling in the dark, and the spark in me that refused to die.  Although my circumstances were unexpected, a nuisance, difficult, hard to grapple with, and frustrating, by reenacting my story for others, I rewrote my own narrative.

We are instinctively creative beings.  Through the transformative power of dramatherapy, we gain adaptability and create a positive, empowered attitude toward obstacles, physical or mental struggles, hardships, and trauma.  Our vision is a world where “detours” in life are everyday blessings.

As we enter the new millennium, the world is faced with massive challenges as well as opportunities to solve them.  Communication is a very powerful tool. Words have the power to engage, to move ideas from the fuzzy margins to the focused center of our attention, and to inspire us to think in new ways. Theatre, arts, expressive communication, language, and learning can move us to the center of life’s stage.  Gutless & Grateful empowered me to move forward and spark a sense of rejuvenation, renewal, and hope from within.

When I started sharing my own story, I realized that I wasn’t alone.  Other people were struggling with what I had faced in isolation for years – shame, fear, PTSD, anxiety, depression, loneliness- I wanted to encourage people to start speaking up, and bring marginalized voices into the spotlight. I traveled to theatres, hospitals, classrooms, old friends and leaped at any opportunity to speak my truth and feel it resonate within my body, reintegrating the pre-coma and post-coma halves of myself, and reuniting them with aliveness. When I realized how combining theatre with 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 can’t learn to laugh from hardship, we can’t 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. 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.

Passion may not heal 27 surgeries, but passion has healed my heart. Theatre has re-anchored me in that passion. And for that, I am Gutlessly Grateful.


If you want to see Gutless & Grateful, there are upcoming shows!
Boston, February 29
New York, March 11


Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, speaker for RAINN, 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. 

Amy’s passion for the arts as a means of healing and expression led her to devise storytelling workshops for the Transformative Language Arts Network National Conference, the Eating Recovery Center Foundation, and The League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling. 

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.

More info at amyoes.com

Living Out Loud: An Interview with Regi Carpenter

964428_472055702879249_308558429_oRegi Carpenter is soon to teach an online class for the TLA Network called “Living Out Loud: Healing Through Writing and Storytelling.” The class will take participants on a journey through writing and storytelling toward greater gifts in finding and keeping our true voices. Here’s a short interview Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg did with Regi about the class:

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG): What catalyzed you to design this online class? 

Regi Carpenter (RC)IMG_0946: I taught another online class for TLAN last year and absolutely loved it. IN fact, several of the people from that class have become friends and co-collaborators. So when the opportunity to do another class came around, I was eager to do it. This time I want to create a class that allows people to hear, speak and listen to the power of their inner voice and their speaking voice. As a storyteller I know how powerful the spoken word can be. I want to help other artists discover their power  when they give they give voice to their creativity.

CMG: What can participants expect in this class?

We can all expect to grow, to share, to experiment, to take risks and to learn how to witness other people’s creativity in a fun, stimulating and supportive environment.We can also expect to learn how to listen to and voice our creative works out loud.

CMG: How did you learn more about finding the courage to live out loud, and what does living out loud look like in your life?

RC: This is a good question. Although I have been a performer since my twenties I think I used performing as a way of shielding myself from true intimacy and sharing. I used it as a way to be LOUD!!! Over the last decade I have been focusing on removing the affectations of performing in order to truly share myself with my listeners or readers. I am most interested in being present, being aware and available to my creativity and to the creativity of others. Now the Living Out Loud means being willing to share and speak who I am and what I yearn and long for and celebrate out loud rather than hiding behind a piece of paper, a costume or a mask.

CMG: What do you see as the connection between personal courage and callings, and how we interface (or could interface) with our communities, justice, and larger social change?

RC: I believe living according to one’s convictions is a powerful and liberating place to experience life. When we have the courage to truly be ourselves and serve others through our work we can change our lives and the lives of others. I believe it also allows us to connect with others who are unlike ourselves and see compassionately into their lives and experiences. In this way, we set aside socially constructed barriers and create authentic communities and friendships and families that serve all rather than some.

CMG: How does someone find and keep the courage to live out loud?

RC: I am reminded of Dr. Seuss’ book “Horton Hears a Who.” Cindy Lou Who shouts out, “I am here. I am here. I am here. I am here,” and ” A person’s a person no matter how small.”We get the courage to be ourselves one step, one word, one sentence, one choice, one moment at a time. Living out loud isn’t a faucet that suddenly spouts water powerful. It begins as a trickle that grow into a stream and finally a steady river with a course and a power all its own. We get courage by being ourselves and sharing that self with others no matter how weird, funny or painful that may be.

Regi Carpenter is an internationally known spoken word artist, author and educator. She has been performing her stories of small town life in northern New York for over twenty years. A featured teller at many festivals throughout the United States she conducts workshops and classes fro people of all ages who want to learn to write and tell stories from their own lives. Her book, Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner: Stories of a Seared Childhood will be published by Familius Publishing in Sept. 2016. Regi also teaches storytelling at Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY.

 

“Your Memoir as Monologue” and the Creative Life with Kelly DuMar

kelly_new_head-copy-225x300Kelly DuMar – who is teaching the online class “Your Memoir as Monologue” starting Jan. 4 —  is a poet, playwright and expressive arts workshop facilitator who loves leading new and experienced writers through dynamic writing exercises and meaningful sharing that leave you feeling engaged, intrigued and surprised by the depth of your experience. Her award-winning plays have been produced around the US and Canada, and are published by Brooklyn, Heuer, Youth Plays, and Smith & Kraus Audition Anthologies. She’s also author of a non-fiction book, Before You Forget: The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children, and a chapbook, All These Cures. Kelly has been a leader of new play development in the Boston area for over a decade, and she founded and produces the Our Voices Festival of Women Playwrights at Wellesley College, now in its 10th year.  She’s a certified psychodramatist and a playback theatre artist. Kelly is honored to serve on the board of The International Women’s Writing Guild and the TLA Council, and she facilitates Let’s Talk TLA, a bi-monthly teleconference where she interviews a notable TLA practitioner. Here’s a brief interview she did with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG): What inspired you to put together this class?

Kelly DuMar (KD): Ten years ago, I founded a play festival for women playwrights. Not just experienced playwrights, but also inviting women who might never have written anything for the stage before. Since then, Our Voices has grown from an evening of staged readings of Boston area women playwrights to a day-long workshop which has supported nearly a hundred women playwrights to develop plays with actors and directors. Every year, I wake up the day after producing Our Voices and think – it can’t get better than this one. Every year, as they’re saying goodnight, the playwrights tell me I must be super exhausted, but I’m not tired. I’m so filled with energy after this jam-packed twelve-hour day. I didn’t spend energy, I created it. Producing Our Voices lets me spend my day listening to women show and tell their unique stories as creatively as they can in a safe, supportive environment. I love how one participant last year describes her experience in Our Voices, because she nails why writing monologues based on life experience can be so validating:

“Writing is my solace and joy, coming to me in bursts of laughter or darkness.  I have stories to tell yet, at times, I shrink from sharing, doubting my own voice.  Through more workshops and conversation, I hope to strengthen that confidence in my point of view and reinvigorate the process to write the things I don’t yet dare to consider.”

CMG: How would this class potentially benefit students?

KD: We need to re-learn how to be playful as adults. In my training as a creative arts counselor, I discovered the healing power of imagination. I saw how the joy and power of dramatic play could help people heal, grow and change.  The dynamic skills I learned and practiced as a psychotherapist have helped me grow as a creative writer and I use them to help writers of all kinds. My workshops involve unique, playful, surprising ways to evoke storytelling. I believe workshop experiences should be safe places for self-expression where feedback is non-judgmental and encouraging.

Kelly at the Power of Words conference while Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, ronda Miller, Teri Grunthaner, and Seema Reza look on

Kelly at the Power of Words conference while Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, ronda Miller, Teri Grunthaner, and Seema Reza look on.

It’s empowering to believe we’re creative. I grew up thinking I wasn’t creative and wishing I was. It was only when I took risks to get out of my comfort zone that I opened the door to a creative life. So many people think they aren’t creative, but everyone is. Creative energy gets blocked for a lot of reasons. It can be unblocked pretty easily in a playful, fail-safe environment.

The healing power of writing is real and accessible. People are so amazingly resilient! Writing is a natural way to find out how resilient you are – and sharing what you write inspires other people to feel hopeful and resilient.

We need support to grow as writers. A creative life is risky business, and every writer needs a support system to thrive. I wrote my first short play when I was forty years old without any guidance. I soon found a playwriting group in Boston, Playwrights’ Platform. I was afraid to open my mouth for the first few meetings, but Playwrights’ Platform soon hurled me into writing, critiquing, directing and producing plays and theatre festivals. Our small first steps can have a big impact.

Collaboration is rewarding, and writing for the stage requires it. Writing can be lonely. Writing for the stage gets us away from our desk, into a theatre, and into a collaborative relationship with actors, directors, and audiences. Here’s what an Our Voices participant shared about writing for the stage:

“One of the things I love most about writing plays is the possibility of witnessing one’s words and dramatic vision come alive on stage. So much more gratifying than slogging alone through a three hundred page novel.”

CMG: How has doing this practice helped you develop your art of words, and a better sense of how to live meaningfully?

KD: I love monologues. Listening to them, helping others write them, and writing them myself. First person narratives are gripping invitations to audiences, particularly when they present a dramatic journey, and moments of survival of someone – a person, a character – who has enlisted my compassion and concern.

CMG: What do you love most about this work?

KD: The invitation to enchantment. The theatre, darkened, the stage lit. Whether I’m in the audience or behind the scenes, I’m involved and transported by possibility. The theatrical question explored, What if. . . is my invitation to change others and be change myself, through storytelling.

CMG: How did you find your way into your TLA passions?

Kelly at THEATRE EXPO 2015KD: As a psychodramatist and playback theatre artist, playwright and poet, I naturally gravitate to making connections with other writer/artists/helpers. Psychodrama is the most powerful method I’ve encountered of helping people use imagination to grow. I grew up writing and wanting to be a writer, but chose to pursue graduate school as a “helper” instead. Soon, my training in psychodrama gave me access to my imagination, and it was only then, I feel, that I really began writing what I call my truth and beauty.

Find out more about Your Memoir as Monologue: How to Create Dynamic Dramatic Monologues About Healing and Transformation for Performance at http://tlanetwork.org. Special holiday discount if registered by 1/1/16.

Into the Storm

by Mel Ryane

Teaching Will by Mel Ryane_email“Why Shakespeare?”

I was recently asked why I thought little kids tackling the works of William Shakespeare would be a swell idea. And, why did I write a book about it and what was that like?

In King Lear, Shakespeare places his protagonist into the torrents of a colossal storm. The withered King bellows in rage while battered by wind and rain. His voice is drowned by thunder and his body lit by flashes of lightening. It is here that Lear meets his inner and outer demons. The scene is one of reckoning and the most beautiful metaphor for any of us attempting to effectively manage the tricky business being a person.

Here are two things I know to be true:

  1. Nothing worth doing is easy
  2. Nobody gets the life they thought they wanted

Okay, maybe out there, some twelve-year-old mapped a life plan and ticked off the goals one by one. The perfect education, the successful career, the blissful relationships, the family, house, car, travel and then a peaceful, pain-free passing. If such a person exists I wouldn’t wish to know them. This would surely be the most boring person on the planet.

No, I’m pretty sure Shakespeare got it right. We will be stymied by storms, we will be challenged and have to rewrite our plans. We will be struck down and have to haul ourselves back up. And with any luck, like Lear after the storm when he finds clarity and sees that he was always loved by Cordelia and finds grace when he has the chance to love her back, we too will find meaning in our stories.

So, back to the question: Why didn’t I adapt Pat The Bunny for little kids or Clifford the Big Red Dog?

Because I remember being a child and my storms were big. Because I’ve observed kids in school yards and their storms, too, are filled with torrential rain and blasting gales. They are tossed to the gravel, sometimes physically and often emotionally. Shakespeare’s characters are motivated by power, revenge, or love. So are we adults and, I guarantee you, so are kids.

I had a notion that if I could encourage a child to stand up, spill the big, fat words of Shakespeare’s verse, identify with power, revenge, or love and do this in front of an audience, empowerment would be achieved. I had an idea that in climbing the highest mountain, and Shakespeare is pretty much the Kilimanjaro of play writing, kids would glimpse their own greatness. It is my belief that once we experience even a smidgeon of our greatness we’ll spend our lives in search of that sensation again.

This is why Shakespeare. His climb is the highest and most difficult. And, guess what? I was right about kids and the Bard. They get it.

In my years of working with children and the works of William Shakespeare I have been thrilled as they, over and over, surpassed my expectations and, more significantly, their own.

I was in a creative desert when I landed on the idea of starting The Shakespeare Club in a public school. I’d left my acting career at the point, like King Lear, when I first tasted bitterness on my tongue. I didn’t want to be a bitter person. I forged ahead and fought my tempests in search of purpose and point. I wandered a Hollywood landscape learning, changing, exploring and when I found myself, flat on my back in a kind of California wasteland, the idea of kids and Shakespeare floated into my head and I pursued. As it turned out, it was another storm. I was a fish out of water. I was an idealist, a romantic and the kids buffeted me like a rag doll. This is the nature of story. This is plot. We were all characters and we all wanted power, revenge, and certainly love.

A couple of weeks into The Shakespeare Club I was having dinner with my friend, Maggie. I’m pretty sure I looked shell-shocked as I recounted my tales of trying to inspire these kids and how they were running the show that I, as the adult, was supposed to be running. Maggie found my stories funny, with a “you’ll laugh about this later” kind of chuckle. I didn’t see any comic potential in my anecdotes. From my perspective I was center stage in a tragedy of my own doing. Shortly after our dinner, Maggie gifted me with a beautiful journal she’d made with Shakespeare’s portrait on the cover. She handed me the notebook and said, “Write this stuff down. I will only give you this if you promise to keep notes.” This was how, after my first year of The Shakespeare Club, I was able to write a memoir. I kept the promise and wrote copious notes for the entire six years of my running the club.

I learned pretty quickly in working with children that I could only empathize if I remembered what it was like to be a child. This thinking led me into the structure for the book which is my experience with The Shakespeare Club entwined with my own story of being a child, wanting to be an actor, becoming a professional and then the difficult career leave-taking that had me bereft until I found joy in marrying Shakespeare and children. The book is set up in two block of ten chapters with an intermission and encore. Those ten chapters represent the ten beats of an iambic line of verse. I don’t expect anyone to notice this, but is my little secret that gave me a structure for the book. I had the first draft down in six months and took another four to revise. I guess it’s true that I found a way to laugh in looking back at that first year but I was also slightly re-traumatized every time I went in to tweak the writing. The first year for any teacher can be a tough one. And then it gets better. The kids learned and I learned. An appetite for greatness had been set in all our hearts. No matter how challenging the text or the relationships we knew there was a prize. Empowerment.

I’m often asked who the audience for this memoir is and, though I risk sounding grandiose, the list is pretty vast. First, I would say, teachers. There has to be some satisfaction for a teacher reading of an amateur attempting their vocation. Then parents, theatre professionals, volunteers, and anyone who ever had to give up a dream. Finally, I like to say, anyone who was ever a child.


Mel Ryane is the author of “Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t” (Familius). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, dog and cat.

She will be presenting at the Power of Words conference in September 2015.

 

Welcome, Teri Grunthaner!

Teri (to the right) with writer/artist/facilitator Dixie Lubin in the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, KS

Teri (to the right) with writer/artist/facilitator Dixie Lubin in the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, KS

The TLA Network is happy to announce our interim coordinator Teri Grunthaner, who will be answering your emails, keeping records, corresponding with folks, and helping get out the word on our projects, classes, conference, and other opportunities. We’ve asked her to share a few words about her background, and here’s what she has to say:

When I was 18 years old I moved to Humboldt (CA) and joined the circus. Well, it was a club at the university I attended, but it was a circus nonetheless. We performed original theatre productions full of juggling, acrobatics, physical theatre, and shenanigans. We dug deep into ourselves and developed characters that reflected our shadows, guides, and projections. We embodied our stories. We played with our reality and our dreams.

Concurrently, I was taking classes on economics, politics, religion, and environmental studies. I joined other student clubs and community organizations that advocated for social and environmental rights (like MTA), experimented with alternative business and government models (like CoFed), and developed sustainable and appropriate technologies (like CCAT). My membership in and contributions to a community drum ensemble, philosophical study group, and spiritual song and dance circle nourished my soul, and I realized that all of my involvements were in an effort to bring me closer to beloved community.

Then one semester I took a class that changed my life – Theatre of the Oppressed. Dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression suddenly became crystal clear to me as we integrated critical politics, storytelling, and dramatic techniques. I realized how powerful theatre (performance-based and not) was as a means of personal and communal transformation, and decided that I would do my work through this medium.

IMG_1658In 2013 I began a masters program in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in Drama Therapy at CIIS in San Francisco. Though I loved my program, I also loved a man who lived in the Midwest. After a year of school, I decided to move to Kansas to be with my partner and continue my education once we deliberated our life plans together. We now live together in East Lawrence, developing the urban permaculture homestead and social justice community center known as the Cosmic Beauty School.

Though my formal education is on hold, I am still working to develop and offer drama therapy groups for social and environmental healing and transformation, addressing such issues as racism, sexism, and apathy/despair in the midst of global catastrophe. I am grateful to be involved in the TLA Network and honored to be contributing as the Interim Coordinator. I have already received much inspiration, connection, and knowledge, and look forward to the many, unpredictable ways our work together will synergize. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me – from TLAN help to creative art therapy collaboration, I’d love to connect with you!