Tales of growing up in Port Allegany recently filled a studio theater in New York City.
In fact, those tales won a Port Allegany native several awards. Bob Stromberg performed on Theater Row on 42nd Street in New York at the end of October as a part of United Solo Theatre Festival, which featured 150 different performances from six different continents.
On Sunday, Stromberg was honored with The United Solo & Backstage Audience Award, the Best One-Man Show, and his director, for “That Wonder Boy” also won Best Direction — three out of the top five awards presented at the festival.
Stromberg told The Era Wednesday “That Wonder Boy” is an autobiographical work — that tells the story of how he overcame his happy childhood. “I had a college professor tell me, ‘You shouldn't be an artist. You haven’t suffered. Go into nursing or something. Great art comes from suffering,’ and that really bothered me for many years,” said Stromberg, “The idea is that to create great art, you must suffer greatly. I grew up in this idyllic family in a wonderful town with so much goodness in my life.”
Stromberg grew up in Port Allegany, and went on to be a comedian, author and musician. He currently lives in Hugo, Minn. The opportunity to do “That Wonder Boy” in New York came about after performing the show in Minneapolis, Duluth, and Connecticut.
“It started as a play in two acts, and each time we had a run of it, we would refine it, and make it better. It’s down to about 94 minutes, and my director, Risa Brainin, and I said — this is really good.” He explained that as some of the toughest theater critics would say the same thing, they realized that maybe there really was something to their show.
Stromberg says he and his team hadn’t heard of the United Solo conference before, and didn’t know much about it — but they sent in a script and were invited to come perform in New York. In fact, 800 productions were submitted to perform, 150 were selected. Stromberg was excited about the opportunity, but since the show requires a quick 15 minute setup and teardown, he would need to bring his whole crew along with him, and he really couldn’t afford to make the trip. Reluctantly, he considered crowdfunding the expenses to bring his show to New York.
“It was going to cost us $15,000 to even go. We started an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the money. At first, that was kind of painful. I’ve been doing entertainment for 40 years, and I’ve never needed to ask for money for something like this,” said Stromberg. He explained that as he posted it, and started to watch the funds accumulate, and as he got messages from fans and supporters, he realized, “I’m allowing people to be a part of something they want to be a part of. It was a beautiful thing to have that support. I felt like I had 300 people going with me! I’m not going alone. I’m taking them with me on this adventure.”
So on Oct. 30th and 31st, Stromberg took the stage in the little 60-seat studio theater on 42nd Street. “It didn’t take long to sell both shows out. We had friends from Pennsylvania and Connecticut come out to be a part of it,” Stromberg said. “We knew it was going to be a competition, but we did the show, and enjoyed it, and didn’t think anything else about it — until I got a letter on Friday inviting us to come back out.”
Stromberg said that he thought he may have won the “Audience Favorite Award,” which was based on an online poll. “We had people voting that hadn’t even seen the show,” joked Stromberg. He said that when they called his name, he was grateful to win that award, but a little disappointed, because it wasn’t really an artistic award.
As he sat back down, he heard his name being called again, and then his director, Brainen was called as well, as the show took Best One-Man Show and Best Direction. “We took three out of the top five awards. I mean, I couldn’t have one Best One-Woman Show, really, so I guess we won three out of four that we could have,” quipped Stromberg.
Stromberg says, “It’s really not just about winning the award, because that’s just a piece of paper.” What he’s excited about though, is that it’s recognition for the show itself. “Anything like that, good reviews, awards — those things help the show move forward and give it more opportunites. That’s what I’m excited about.”
The Era asked him if he could share any of his Port Allegany stories with our readers, and he shared one story that really sums up the theme of the show.
“When I was a kid, I had a music teacher and her dress was caught up in her girdle during the Christmas concert. And yet, despite the embarrassment in front of everyone, she went on to serve her community for the next 20 years. Because she knew who she was. I want to be like that. I want to live my life like I know who I am and what I’m here to do.”
Stromberg shared the closing remarks from “That Wonder Boy,” “I’m a joyful guy. I may not be profound... I’m sure no third grade will weep to my melody. I’m awed by life... But when deep suffering comes, as I’m sure it will, I know grace will hold me up… I know who I am, disgustingly cheerful, annoyingly hopeful, and born to fly.”