Awakening Wonder, an Interview With Bob Stromberg
Bob Stromberg grew up in the beautiful and culturally deprived Allegheny Mountains of rural Pennsylvania. Throughout his early school years, his deepest desire was to be recognized “class clown” but, as the sensitive son of a school principal and a teacher, he found his aspiration unattainable. After receiving an art degree from North Park College in Chicago, he continued his studies for two years with legendary mime Tony Montanaro at Celebration Mime Theatre in South Paris, Maine. It was there that he met mask maker extraordinaire Michael Cooper. For over ten years, they clowned throughout New England, cutting their performing teeth in over 4,000 school and community shows. In 1989 Bob went solo with his unique blend of story, standup and shtick. In 1995 he joined his friends, masterful comic magician Bill Arnold and musical genius Michael Pearce Donley, to coauthor “Triple Espresso (a highly caffeinated comedy).” The play opened in Minneapolis at the Music Box Theatre in 1996 and closed in 2008… twelve years to the day. The “little play that could” went on to be performed in dozens of cities from San Diego to London to Munich, and still runs in the Twin Cities during the holiday season. Reviewing Bob’s signature performance as Bobby Bean, the Chicago Sun Times called him “a mesmerizing physical comedian” and the London Times described him as “a genuinely funny man.” In 2008 Bob wrote his one‑man show, “That Wonder Boy.” Following multiple runs in Minnesota, Connecticut and Iowa, he performed at the 2015 United Solo Theatre Festival and won the awards for Best One‑Man Show, Best Direction and Audience Favorite. Bob is thrilled to perform in THE BEST OF category in the 2019 Tenth Anniversary United Solo Theatre Festival. Bob lives in Minnesota with his wife Judy, occasionally still performs with “Triple Espresso,” and travels extensively as a featured comedian. Throughout his career, it has been his joy to advocate for impoverished children through the transformational work of Compassion International. Cynthia Darling: “That Wonder Boy” has been a big hit in Minnesota and New York. How does Minnesota—as a setting and a perspective—play into your show’s message and humor? Bob Stromberg: Well, honestly, as far as setting and perspective, Minnesota doesn’t even make an appearance in “That Wonder Boy.” But in real life Minnesota is a key element because had I not moved to Minnesota twenty‑five years ago, I would not have met my friends Bill Arnold and Michael Pearce Donley, with whom I coauthored our hit play, “Triple Espresso.” Without my experience with “Triple Espresso,” I would never have written “That Wonder Boy.” How has writing and performing a solo show like “That Wonder Boy” differed from your work on “Triple Espresso”? Bill and Mike and I wrote “Triple Espresso (a highly caffeinated comedy)” in 1995. Perhaps stupidly, we booked a performance of our play before we’d even conceived it, and had only a month to write a show. So, in an act of near desperation, we decided we’d each contribute a couple of proven performance pieces from our individual shows, and then make some quick “who, what, when, where” decisions, hoping to discover a story that would hold the comic bits together. Yeah, I know… crazy idea. The process was a haphazard, exhilarating panic and we figured we’d probably only perform our little show a few times. But apparently it was the right time and we were in the right place. As they say, “In theater, you can’t make a living, but sometimes you can make a killing.” “Triple Espresso” played in over seventy cities from San Diego to the West End of London, breaking box office records in many theaters along the way. Twenty‑five years later, we still enjoy doing the show two or three months out of the year. I’ve performed it thirty‑five hundred times, a feat I could never have imagined, and one that few performers ever have the opportunity to even attempt. But… it was the first theater piece I’d ever written and it was a huge hit, so I don’t think I fully appreciated the phenomenon that “Triple Espresso” was until I attempted to repeat its commercial success with “That Wonder Boy.” Our producer Dennis Babcock encouraged me to write a one‑man show. To me, it seemed like an obvious next step in my career. I was a comic/storyteller with decades of experience. I’d performed ninety‑minute sets many times. Performing a oneman show was well within my skillset, but writing one was another matter. In contrast to the fast “let’s throw something together” experience with “Triple Espresso,” I began introspectively mining my past, digging through my boyhood and following veins of memory, many of which I had not thought of in years. In the process I discovered a motherlode of poignant and comedic tales from a nearly idyllic childhood. How would you characterize your writing style in “That Wonder Boy”? I’ve been a comic/storyteller for forty years and my writing style clearly reflects that. I want people to enter fully into the world I’m creating with my words on stage. I want them to see and hear and smell and feel what I do, so that my particular experience becomes universal. How does your writing process and storytelling style play into the show’s key themes of art and suffering? In the process of mining my past, my axe hit something very hard. It was the memory of a professor who nearly changed the trajectory of my life. He told me that my preexisting condition called “Joy” disqualified me from ever producing “Real Art.” “Go into nursing,” he said. “Hospitals might be able to use a smiley guy like you, but… you don’t belong in the arts.” I knew I’d hit gold. His words, which haunted me for years, became the dramatic arc in my play. His words created in me a particular, yet very universal struggle to accept myself. I saw that, despite my idyllic childhood and apparent artless origins, I was a boy genuinely filled with wonder. As I confess at the end of the play, “I am a joyful guy. I may not be profound. The bristles of my brush may not be bursting with constellations, and I doubt any third grader will weep to my melody but… I am awed by life.” What is the relationship between fiction and autobiography in “That Wonder Boy”? Do you need both in the show? For what purpose? Well, that’s a great question because “That Wonder Boy” depends upon both. It begins with a very funny video telling the story of Thurl Wonder III, who arrived on this Earth as a baby crashing a space canister through a barn roof. It’s six minutes of comedic fiction that breaks down all the walls between my audience and me, and I’ve not even stepped on stage yet. Thurl then makes his entrance and continues telling his unearthly story. It’s obviously fiction… science fiction, and no one in the audience suspects the show will become anything else. But a distraction on stage becomes a device for me to invite the audience into my mind, the mind of the actor performing this show called “That Wonder Boy.” Then the fictitious story of Thurl Wonder and the true story of Bob Stromberg become thematically interwoven. People laugh harder than they thought possible, and moments later are emotionally moved, as their God‑given sense of wonder awakens. Honestly… as a performer, it’s an amazing thing to watch. Do you bring elements into “That Wonder Boy” of the high‑energy technique so evident in “Triple Espresso”? Oh yes. There are moments of high energy and there are “Triple Espresso”‑level laughs throughout the entire show. “Triple Espresso’s” entire purpose is to help people laugh like never before, and then feel really good about it. It’s a noble purpose. But “That Wonder Boy” has a deeper goal. I’m seeking not only to bring truly uncommon levels of laughter, but also to turn a number of emotional corners in hopes of awakening wonder in my audience. Honestly, I think that both shows are pretty unforgettable, but “That Wonder Boy” has a lot more heart. What are the challenges of integrating video projection and music into your show? Well, there are many. For video, each venue presents questions that must be answered. What kind of screen do we use? Do we use rear projection, and if so, do we have enough room between the screen and the back wall of the theater? How do we keep the screen out of the lighting cues? Should we use television monitors instead? If so, how many, and what sizes should they be? And, of course, another huge question… what’s all this going to cost? More importantly, before you answer any of these questions, you have to decide what images you want to project. In the same way, the sound design has to be created, before it can be heard. Then it must be mixed carefully so it has the proper effect upon the audience. So, there are lots of problems using visual and sound design, but it is so worth it for the audience. I couldn’t do “That Wonder Boy” without it. Which is why I’m so grateful for my team, who are all technical and artistic pros who know how to answer these questions. I’m helpless without a team of great people who make my solo show possible. “That Wonder Boy” Written and Performed by Bob Stromberg Directed by Risa Brainin Saturday, Oct 5th at 2PM Photo credit: courtesy of the production 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival Theatre Row New York City
CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.