Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
Premiere of a Careerstory by Karen Saatkamp Gerboth '93
photos by Jeff Smith '96, Josh Podvin '03 and Karen Gerboth '93
1. About Neurofibromatosis
2. Defining Moments
Dan Stroeh ’01 was a freshman when he heard the news: large tumors on his spine and in his pelvis. The diagnosis: neurofibromatosis. At 19, Stroeh (pronounced STRAY) had a painful and incurable disease.
His lifelong dreams of acting, of being on stage, of galvanizing audiences with his natural talent seemed over. But the faith focused Stroeh fought back, and in the process rediscovered himself and his passion for writing.
He wrote about his struggle, and he chronicled his condition with brutal honesty and humor.
Those once blank pieces of paper soon became a 41-page play, and with it, Stroeh returned to the stage, receiving the highest honor awarded to a graduate or undergraduate playwright in the country along the way.
Follow this nationally recognized playwright as he turns tragedy into triumph and proves indeed it is no desert.
Dan Stroeh ’01 never liked to run. Even as a child growing up in Loveland, Ohio, he despised the idea. Circle after circle. Lap after lap. Stride after stride along a pointless path.
He just couldn’t fathom it, and yet, he dreams about it — intense, vivid dreams of his feet pressing the pavement, propelling him past people in pursuit of the unknown.
It’s a dream Stroeh graciously shares with those who fill the seats around his dimly lit stage as light cascades down his face.
It’s a dream that begins his award-winning play it is no desert, and it’s a dream he can’t quite understand, considering he hasn’t been able to run in six years.
Stroeh suffers from neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder of the nervous system, which causes tumors to form in the body. Stroeh’s tumors have settled along his spine and in his pelvis, leading to severe weakness in his legs.
Because of the location of the tumors, surgery is not an option for the 23-year-old. Instead, doctors are trying to prevent further growth of his non-malignant tumors with rigorous courses of chemotherapy.
At one point, shortly after his diagnosis in 1997, Stroeh was receiving chemotherapy 24 hours a day for 28 days at a time, followed by 14 days off, then back on for 28, then back off for 14 for an entire year.
“I’m often asked what that moment was like for me,” Stroeh tells audiences as he stands behind a chair before a backdrop of black. “That moment when all I knew was that there were growths.
Was I scared? Was I angry? Did I cry? And the answer is no. No, I wasn’tscared or angry. It was just one of those things. This seems overly simple, I know, but it’s the truth. You see, fear and anger are not part of my life.
My life is guided by a higher power than doctors, nurses and growths. I know that God will never give me more than I can handle. I know that he will use this whole situation for good.”
Dazed but undaunted, Stroeh returned to Wittenberg while undergoing the torturous treatment, this time with braces around his legs, a black cane, a Hickman catheter in his chest and a hip pack full of chemo.
Although he tried to settle back into college life, the pain consumed him as he struggled to continue his studies and make his way back to his first love, the stage.
Headaches and backaches became the norm, and an all-encompassing fog washed over him as the chemo pumped through his veins. No casting calls came his way, and his world seemed blurry 24 hours a day.
“The chemo tore at the edges of my brain all the time. No matter what I did I was easily distracted. I lost anything resembling tact. I essentially became a bumbling idiot.”
Lonely at times, severely limited by the medication and starved for “artistic fulfillment,” Stroeh searched for other creative outlets aside from acting and quickly discovered the art and power of writing in Greg Fraser’s class.
Throughout his life, Stroeh often wrote and regularly kept journals, but this was different. This was WRITING. Stroeh learned what it meant to be a writer from Fraser, former visiting professor of English.
“He developed a commitment to reading other writers and studying their styles and strategies,” Fraser says. He also became “passionate about his practice.” Poetry, short stories, autobiographical fiction, essays and plays.
Stroeh tackled them all with help from Fraser, and then from Wittenberg English professors Kent Dixon and Susan Carpenter along with theatre professor Steve Reynolds.
He absorbed literature, and he wrote about everything, including his illness for the first time. Over time, Stroeh slowly began to offer up pieces of his soul as he documented his journey with the incurable disease.
“It was a freedom and a release I had never experienced before. It was a healing. The more I wrote about my situation,
I answered honestly when people asked how I was. I started telling my friends the truth.” His self-described addiction to writing led him down new paths of discovery about himself and about his newfound passion.
Hour after hour, Stroeh would spend writing, determined to dig deeper into his world and peel away each layer.
“He learned to maneuver the unknown, and although his condition made it more difficult, it also prepared him for a psychological study of himself,” Fraser recalls.
Stroeh also entered a race with time, writing as much as he could during his 14-day hiatuses from chemotherapy
“Most of it was terrible,” he says, “but the bigger issue was that I was writing.” Not content to submit one story in a class, Stroeh would turn in three or four, or a collection of poetry, or even a play or two depending on the assignments.
“I started to understand that I’m blessed, and I began to appreciate the little things every day,” Stroeh says. Then it happened. The chemo stopped. His treatment ended for the time, and Stroeh seemed unstoppable.
Six, seven, eight hours a day Stroeh would write. “Suddenly the world that I only glimpsed while on drugs starts to pour out and flow all over the page. I find that I have so much to say, I can hardly contain it.
I get to the point where I’m writing for countless hours every day. My friends yell at me because I’m constantly forgoing a night on the town to sit in a coffee shop with journal and laptop. They hate it. But they don’t understand.
They don’t understand what a healing it is. “You see, I fight all the things I hate about the world, about society, about the past, about the future, about my problems, about MYSELF on the page.
I exalt the things I love, I dissect myself, I immortalize my friends, I puke out my fear and aggression and apprehension. I write about women of whom I am enamoured.
I feel connected in a strange way to this ghostly group of some of the greatest people in history. I do things on the page that I could never do myself. I take risks. I cuss — loudly. I make love.
I’m insane. I’m mean. I’m irresponsible. I’m healthy. ...” Professors took notice, and on one occasion asked him to present an excerpt from one of his short stories for which he won the Lester S. Crowl Creativity Award from the English department.
“In reading my story, I realized that I had the audience in the palm of my hand, and I could control every nuance,” Stroeh says.
The story soon evolved into his play it is no desert, which chronicles, without pity or blame, Stroeh’s life with neurofibromatosis, including his trips to the National Institutes of Health for treatment, the diagnosis process, his support system, his unflinching
The play opened on campus in March 2000 to sell-out crowds and standing ovations.
Performance after performance, night after night, Stroeh shared his story, and then, with assistance from Steve Reynolds, professor of theatre and dance, and department chair, Stroeh entered it in the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival (KC/ACTF).
A national theater education program, KC/ACTF aims to identify and promote quality in college-level theatre production.
Each production entered is eligible for a response by a regional KC/ACTF representative, and productions entered on the participating level are eligible for inclusion at the KC/ACTF regional festival.
Works may also be considered for invitation to the KC/ACTF national festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Last year, more than 1,000 productions and 19,000 students, both graduate and undergraduate, participated in KC/ACTF nationwide.
In January, Stroeh was asked to perform it is no desert at the Region III American College Theater Festival in Milwaukee, following its selection as one of the top original plays from theatre programs in Ohio, Indiana, Illi nois,Wisconsin and Michigan.
“We really didn’t know what we had until we were invited to the regional festival,” Reynolds says, “but Dan nailed it. He did an absolutely stunning job in Milwaukee.”
From there, Stroeh practiced some more, testing out more set adjustments and pushing himself even further as he waited for word on the next step in the selection process. He didn’t have to wait too long.
Just a month after his Milwaukee performance, Stroeh received the good news. His play, it is no desert, had won the presti gious National Student Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival.
Never before has a studentat Wittenberg wonthe award, nor has anyother Ohioan or academic institution in the BuckeyeState.
The honor, the highest one given to a undergraduate or graduate play wright,
has vaulted Stroeh
to professional status, earn
“The play was the best thing we saw,” said Gregg Henry, artistic director for KC/ACTF. “The play is funny while dealing with a difficult topic. It stuck with us,” and it continues to have an even greater impact the more Dan performs it, Henry adds.
“We all agreed that it should receive the National Student Playwriting Award.” On April 23-24, Stroeh performed his two-hour monologue in the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab before a national crowd in the country’s capital.
With a set consisting of only a desk, a chair, a wheelchair, a hospital bed, a phone and a stand, Stroeh dazzled the D.C. audience with his humor, energy, poignant reflections and passion for the stage.
Laughter filled the black-box theater when Stroeh recounted his few minutes of fame as Hamlet in high school.
“It was only the final scene, and it was for drama class, but still, it felt wonderful, even if it was only a couple of us theatre geeks trying to show the football players who were taking Intro to Drama as a blowoff course that Shakespeare really was exciting.
The football players hated it, but I had fun.” Eyes fixated firmly on Stroeh as he described the lengthy diagnosis process during which he was shuffled from physician to physician and endured painful, and at times unnecessary, tests.
“It’s sort of like being a twig dropped in rapids. You get handed down a long line of doctors each giving his or her take on the specific ways the quote-growths-unquote will show themselves.
Neurologist to neurosurgeon to oncologist to pediatric oncologist to urologist to neuro-oncologist to geneticist. All these overeducated people poking and prodding me, discussing what it could possibly be.
The same strength tests. The same questions. MRIs, blood tests, urine samplings, and on and on.” Muffled sniffles echoed quietly, and tears streamed lightly down faces as Stroeh shared the one time he felt beaten by his condition.
It occurred after he had accidentally dented his mom’s brand new car. “This feels like the bottom to me. This feels like the end. I can’t take it. I can’t take being this bumbling idiot anymore. I sit on the porch and weep.
For the first time since my diagnosis, I weep and weep and weep. The concrete at my feet grows wet with tears ... I just keep crying and shuddering. And I look up at the stars in that deep, dark sky above my neighborhood, and I realize I can’t ACT.
Who am I kidding? I can’t even DRIVE. How can I act? ... It’s as if the inside of my head has filled up with chemotherapy and my brain has become submerged in phenylacitate. I’m no longer in control of body. I’m no longer in control of my life.”
Family, friends, alumni, area residents, visitors and members of the Wittenberg community sat silently in D.C., transfixed by Stroeh’s honest yet humorous story. “You can’t become a great playwright by a miracle,” Reynolds says.
“It’s a craft, and Dan paid his dues. Clearly, he was ready for this moment, and it was amazing.” And it’s just the beginning it seems.
On May 19, three weeks after his premiere in D.C., Stroeh performed it is no desert at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater in Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati Arts Association also named Stroeh its 2001 Emerging Artist. Papers across Ohio have published stories on Stroeh, and interviews still continue.
“I’m not brave,” Stroeh says. “I’m just living. The disease is a part of my life. It’s just me. It’s what I am.” To understand this is to understand this man for whom daily prayer, family and friends come first.
“I don’t feel centered if I don’t pray,” Stroeh says. “My faith has made me stronger, and it is the focal point in my life.” It’s also the centerpiece of his family’s life.
His father is a pastor in Loveland, and his oldest brother is now an assistant pastor in Olympia, Wash. Growing up, Stroeh and his siblings, John ’91, Kristin ’92 and Dave ’92 and his parents, Tom and Joan, always put God first and always
“When I was a little boy, my family would go camping all the time, and we loved to hike. And my siblings always wanted to take these long, long hikes — miles and miles of hiking.
Of course when I was a pudgy six-year-old, this was hard for me, and I’d whine and pant and scream ‘My legs aren’t as LONG as yours!’ We would never stop, though.
We always hiked the whole trail — no matter what. But, when I got tired, when I couldn’t go on anymore, when my fat little legs couldn’t take another step, my family would carry me.
They’d pick me up and put me on their shoulders, and go on hiking. John would tromp along with me for a while and when he got tired, he’d pass me to Kristin, when she got tired I’d go to Dave, then I’d get handed off to Dad.
And they’d do this for the entire hike. Step after step, mile after mile, they’d carry me.”
Though painful at times to watch their son and brother relive again on stage the moment phenylacitate first burned inside his veins or when doctors sent electric shocks through the nerves of his legs, his family couldn’t be more proud, and Stroeh couldn’t be happier than he is right now, giving the performance of his life.
“To be up here, sharing myself with you. This is an exchange. A covenant. I agree to be honest, to be utterly vulnerable.
In my world, a world driven by my need for control, and plagued by my continuing loss of control, that is a real gift,” Stroeh tells audiences. It’s a gift Stroeh cherishes, and one that he will take with him when he starts chemotheraphy again soon.
Although he hates the haze it brings, Stroeh knows he will need the pain-filled treatment off and on for the rest of his life. “The tumors can’t shrink, and there is a chance they can become malignant because of their size,” he says.
For now, though, Stroeh looks forward to staring again at a blank page, waiting to discover what world and what words will flow from his fingertips. “I’m ready to start the show.”
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Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112