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

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Look Who Came Up the Beanstalk by Doug Lipman

When I saw her in the 6th grade classroom, I was surprised.

It was the first day after spring vacation. After eight weeks “in residence,” I thought I knew every child in the school. But there she was, an unfamiliar face in the third row.

I said, “Hi! I’m Doug. I’m the storyteller. What’s your name?”

No answer.

The boy in the right front desk said, “She doesn’t speak; she’s French.”

Calling on my two semesters of college French, I said to the new girl, “Bonjour! Je m’appelle Doug.”

Framed in her shoulder-length, dark hair, her face lit up. She returned the greeting in French.

I would have added the French words for “I’m the storyteller,” but I didn’t know them. True, I’d had two semesters of French—but they were both first-semester French. I could only make a few simple statements in the present tense.

My stomach sank. I had a new student who didn’t understand a word of English—and six storytelling sessions to go. But I had been hired by this well-to-do suburban school to use storytelling as a tool to teach the subject of diversity. I wasn’t going to shirk from the added challenge of telling to a more-diverse class.

That day, I told my story largely to the French student. I exaggerated my tone of voice and used as much body language as I could. I looked at her after each line of the story to see if she understood. When she did, she rewarded me with a golden smile. When she didn’t understand, her face showed her puzzlement—and I tried again with added pantomime for her along with a new set of words for the rest of the class. When all else failed, I tried to use a French word as an additional clue for her.

Telling to the One Who Doesn’t Understand

By the third session, I appreciated what an extraordinary listener she was. Her face was a perfect mirror for my story. Now I looked at her as much as possible while I told, not just for her, but for my pleasure in a supremely alert, encouraging listener.

In this session, I got stuck making her understand a crucial part of the story. Mime failed me, as did my minuscule French vocabulary. Then I had an idea. “Would someone look that word up for me in the French dictionary?”

Silence. The teacher’s look seemed to tell me of too many demands on her, of helplessness at being saddled with this disadvantaged student so late in the year, and of resentment that I should expect her to have a special dictionary for an inconvenient, late-entering student who didn’t even speak English.

The boy in the right front desk said, “We don’t have one.” I stopped in shock, feeling the enthusiasm drain out of my body.

I had been proud of this school, which had chosen storytelling as its art form for the year and diversity as its theme. But now a breathing piece of diversity had flown across the ocean and landed in this classroom, and the school couldn’t be bothered to have a French dictionary!

The next time I showed up to tell stories, the boy in the right front desk held up a French dictionary. “Look,” he said. “I got it from the library. But it’s hard to find the words fast enough.”

I said, “Thank you. You are a good friend.”

That day, I had prepared “Jack and the Bean Tree,” an Appalachian variant of the familiar English classic “Bean Stalk” folktale.

The telling went well. All the children were with Jack and me as we explored the world in the clouds. At the end, they applauded.

Then the French girl raised her hand.

Five Words That Changed Us All

I was so surprised to see her hand go up that I didn’t say a word. She had never initiated communication with me.

I called on her. Slowly, she said several words in French, the longest phrase she had so far tried out on me. I repeated what I heard. She said it again, correcting my mispronunciation.

I hadn’t understood any of it the first time. But having spoken it, I caught the first word, “Jacques,” and wrote it on the blackboard. Trying to involve the rest of the class in my decoding process, I said aloud, Like the song, ‘Frere Jacque.

As I said it, I recognized the last word, too. “Magique?” I asked. She nodded. This sounded like French for “magic.” I wrote “Magique” on the board.

What were the words in the middle? I said to her, “Jacques, hmmm-mm, hmmm-mm-mm, magique.” She repeated the whole phrase. It sounded to me like “et le” (“and the”) followed by an unfamiliar word that started with a “Z” sound. I wrote “et le Z” between the other two words.

She shook her head bemusedly and gestured toward the board. With my nodded permission, she went to the board, erased the “Z” and wrote “s H-a-r-i-c-o-t.”

At that moment, I thanked the stars for my interest in the folk musics of North America. One kind of music I had been drawn to was the French Louisiana style called Zydeco. Long ago, I had read that “Zydeco” was a misspelling of the first two words of an early song in that style, “Les Haricots (“The Beans...”)

Trying to hold the interest of the rest of the class, I pronounced the entire phrase aloud, “Jacque et les Haricots Magiques.”

Stories Sew Us Together

Immediately after understanding what I had just said, I spoke the English equivalent. My voice caught as I said, “Jack and the Magic Beans.” I just stood there, facing the board.

There was silence in the room behind me. It was that special silence that only falls when an entire group grasps something, all in the same instant. It took my breath away.

All at once, we understood that “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a story with a secret life in other worlds. We understood that the Appalachian “Bean Tree” shares something with people who didn’t seem to have any stories, with people in some place called France, who ‘don’t speak.

These people, we realized together, also fear for simple heroes facing terrible giants. They somehow have magic beans in their imaginations, just like we have in ours.

We understood, deep in our bellies, how stories are stitches that hold humanity together.

I don’t know if my other lessons that year had any effect. I don’t know if the other classes in that school ever made a connection between my folktales and their lives.

But that one day, in that one class, I know that—without any intention on my part—multiculturalism actually climbed the thick-trunked vine of story and emerged, dazed and breathless, into the far-away castle of our classroom.

The blog editor asked Doug about his work. He said,
In 1970, I was a struggling teacher of troubled adolescents. I had given up connecting with them when one day, by accident, I found myself telling them a story. They responded! Ever since, I have pursued the power of storytelling.
Over the decades, I have coached hundreds of people on their storytelling, writing, and recordings. I am the author of three books on storytelling (Improving Your Storytelling, The Storytelling Coach, and Storytelling Games), scores of published articles, and over 150 issues of my own email newsletters, including “eTips from the Storytelling Coach” (http://StorytellingNewsletters.com).
A professional storyteller since 1976, I have performed and led workshops on three continents and led many online courses and webinars.  My ongoing search for effective ways to teach the transformative power of storytelling has led to projects such as a new paradigm for coaching storytellers and an exploration of the seldom-noticed Hidden Storytelling Skills.