The trailer for Maggie Whittum’s new film, ‘The Great Now What.’
With World Stroke Day is coming up on Monday, the Denver actor’s new film is a testament to the ability of art to heal.
I always wanted to get on stage at the Denver Center. Growing up in Steamboat Springs, it was a trek to get to Denver, but my parents really valued the arts, and made a point to bring me to the opera, the ballet and the theater. When I was 10, we made a special journey down to see The Tempest in the Space Theatre. The show was exceptional and has lived on in my mind for decades.
I thought I was going to be a professional actor, director and producer. I studied drama at Colorado College and spent much of the next seven years living abroad. In 2005, I was lucky enough to perform in a successful one-act comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I would return to this for the epic festival in Scotland for the next three summers. In South Korea, I got to appear on a quirky Korean children’s television show. I started an improv group there that still exists. I directed several shows and worked consistently as a voiceover artist.
I was blessed with so much. But living abroad had its drawbacks, so I came back to the U.S. in 2011.
I made some inroads with Denver theater companies. I specifically remember seeing The Diviners by Phamaly Theatre Company in 2011, and being extremely impressed.
I spent a year as a producing and directing assistant at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, then came back to Denver for another year. Then set out to get my MFA in acting at the Academy for Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. It was an intense and enriching program. I spent all day studying Shakespeare, scansion, stage combat, Alexander Technique, dance, voice and speech. I loved every minute of it.
Then, two days after the first semester ended in December 2014, I got a headache. Forty-eight hours later, I checked myself into the George Washington University emergency room. Two days after that, things significantly worsened. I was put on a ventilator, the left side of my body and right side of my face were paralyzed, and I had kaleidoscopic double vision.
I had suffered a massive stroke .
Terror is the word to describe it all. Piece by piece, my body stopped working. I could no longer move. I could no longer speak. I could no longer breathe. Thirteen days after that initial headache, I underwent a nine-hour brain surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was a success. I could breathe on my own again, and I went to a rehab hospital.
I thought I could get back all the things I had been before the stroke. But just as my body had crumbled before, my life crumbled after. I had to drop out of school. My engagement ended. I was not able to work for a very long time. I recognized, about nine months after my stroke, that I was now permanently disabled.
I moved back to Denver feeling destroyed and ashamed. But once I was back in town, I made a point to see all of the Phamaly productions. When I heard they were doing the musical Into the Woods, I was absolutely thrilled. I mustered up the courage to audition in January, despite having a paralyzed vocal cord. I was delighted to play Cinderella’s Stepmother.
When I finally stepped onstage at the Denver Center, it was a considerably bittersweet experience. Of course I wanted to be there, but not under these circumstances. I deal with a lot of chronic pain now, and many vision issues, but it was tremendously rewarding and validating to step on that stage and perform again. I got to make people laugh. I got to be a part of an extraordinarily talented ensemble. I got to feel seen again.
Phamaly is an extraordinary company, and I feel fortunate to live in a city where a company like that can thrive, because it wouldn’t be the same if I lived in Miami or Seattle. I can’t wait to see their newest show, Harvey, now playing through Nov. 11 at the Olin Hotel in partnership with Senior Housing Options at 1420 Logan St.
Into the Woods was a major step forward in my life. I am now creating a documentary film called The Great Now What about my experience with stroke and disability. With the support of other trauma survivors, I hope this will be a film about how creating theatre and art together can inspire a community to heal and connect with empathy, compassion and humanity.
Art heals pain.
Editor’s note: Maggie Whittum’s fundraising campaign for her film will be launched on World Stroke Day on October 29. Click here for more information
More about the Author: Maggie Whittum
Steamboat Springs native Maggie Whittum is a Denver actor who has appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as Puck) and Into the Woods (as Cinderella’s Stepmother) for Phamaly Theatre Company. Previous theatre directing and producing credits include All in the Timing, The Zoo Story and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. She has directed and performed in Scotland, Colorado, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing and throughout Canada. She also assistant directed under Tony award-winner Rebecca Taichman at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where she was named the Charles Evans Fellow in 2012.