On The Job: Behind The Scenes With Stomp
Although the troupe members end up performing a precision-timed, unique set of skills that require them to pull off near-acrobatics and defy gravity, all in good meter, auditioning isn’t as horribly scary as it could be. By creating an attitude based on openness and second chances, Stomp has its own way of building a cast that keeps the company at full strength.
Stomp’s process allowed them to get Marshall when other shows may have let her slip away, helping them to bring in not only a dependable, dedicated performer, but also to develop a rehearsal director, which is her other function in the company. “A friend of mine was in Stomp in 1994, and he suggested that I try out,” she recalls. “I was a dancer/actress, but I always considered myself very rhythmic and percussive. My brother used to have a drum kit when I was in high school, so when I was about 13 I had a secret desire to be a drummer.
“I didn’t think I could do it. I was terrified. I was expecting it to be a lot more drum-oriented, and that intimidated me. But it’s run like a workshop, so when I didn’t make it the first time, I got to audition again. There’s a lot of people who didn’t make it the first time, but they’re very cool about keeping their eyes on a lot of people who may not have made it in initially.”
There are a variety of factors that could lead to someone becoming a Stomper on their second or third try after missing their first shot. “Sometimes the auditions are for specific roles within the cast,” Marshall says. “A person can be talented, but we see them for another role. Also, sometimes we see people mature from audition to audition. They’re more expressive, more at ease with showing who they are and what they’re capable of. It’s very interesting to see who they keep and who they don’t. It’s a mystery, but it’s fascinating.”
Ultimately, it makes sense that Stomp’s forgiving audition procedure sets the pace for the production’s long-term success, a strategy that might be good for bands to follow if they experience turnover problems. “I think it’s just indicative of the nature of the show in general,” says Marshall. “It’s a very open atmosphere of allowing people to explore very different angles to a musical role. Although everything is set in advance, there are opportunities for improvisation and different takes on different pieces, and you see that openness in auditions. It’s not about being perfect: It’s personalities, how you work with people, and a lot of different things that translate to the attitude of the show.”
As noted above by Botchis, once someone has joined the lucky few who can call themselves Stompers, learning the show takes longer than it would to be a replacement in another production. Picking up the moves could take three to six weeks, depending on the person. The lucky guy or gal gets trained by a mix of current and ex-cast members, as well as show creators McNicholas and Cresswell. This team takes on the tricky task of teaching them how to get in synch with a constantly rotating group of seven other people without actually having them at the training.
While every number calls for its own combination of rhythm, balance and footwork, some require near-martial arts moves that make Stomp one of the most potentially hazardous assignments off-Broadway. Mastering the sequence is particularly critical in the piece called “Poles,” a tense number where all eight performers seem to battle for position with long broom poles, constantly shifting as they knock against each other’s weapon/instrument, weaving together an intricate team clave pattern.
“Poles’ was the trickiest to learn,” Marshall confirms. “Some are trickier than others because of how precise you have to be, and if you’re not totally precise in ’Poles’ it’s more evident. Plus, there’s more risk for injury, because you’re swinging poles in the air. That’s where the ensemble attitude is most important. You have to be dead on as well as trust the others, so that no one gets hurt.”
The piece is a good example of where Stomp crosses over into a unique type of composition. “What makes it more difficult is the nature of the music of it,” says Marshall. “It’s very dependent on the rhythm in your body: Where do you put your pole? How fast does it go up? To learn the combat, everything is taught slowly. Because while you’re anticipating the music of the piece, you still have to make sure the pole is covering your head, that your body is protected, and that your hands are far enough apart so there’s room for everyone else’s pole to hit in between. You can get your fingers smashed if you get it wrong, but you have to keep going.”