On The Job: Behind The Scenes With Stomp
The physical demands of the Stomp job requires the NYC cast to actually carry 16 people, or double the amount of performers needed on any given night. This way, a constant rotation can be scheduled that, under normal circumstances, won’t require any one person to do more than six shows a week. Making sure each Stomper is well rested prevents mental and physical burnout, which in turn provides further safeguards against injury on the job.
While the performers are doing their thing in front of the audience every night, they have no way of knowing that an equally intense kind of dance is also going on backstage to keep the show moving with its exceptional, non-stop smoothness. For Botchis and his fearless assistant stage manager, Lucy Thurber, the job of keeping everyone equipped as they move on and offstage requires another perfect performance. “It’s really like choreography,” Botchis says of their unseen efforts. “We have to be like traffic directors.”
The challenging nature of Botchis and Thurber’s assignment springs from the highly old-school design of the Orpheum Theatre. While the stage floor is a roomy 16’ x 22’ with an imposing height that makes it one of the few off-Broadway stages capable of dropping a full curtain, there is precious little room behind it and absolutely none to the left or right. “The backstage is tiny,” says Botchis. “The Orpheum is an old vaudeville theater. Back then they didn’t have big rolling set pieces. Everyone would just bring their stuff with them in a trunk, so they didn’t need a big backstage. And we have no wings, no stage right to exit to – the stage is as wide as the audience.”
As tight as it is back there, things got a little easier for Botchis since the Stomp creators took out the number known as “Q Tips.” It required him to maneuver a dozen full-sized oil drums by hurtling them either downstairs or into the theater’s concrete “backyard,” which it shares with a Tibetan restaurant – all in a matter of seconds as the show plowed forward. “That was a real cool number, but they took it out, which is great,” Botchis says, “because I don’t have to do a barrel dance anymore.”
With 21 numbers to keep together during the show’s 100 minutes, Botchis gets to plug in his problem solving skills every time a new piece goes into the set. “If new numbers are coming in, I’ll meet with Luke and Steve and they might say, ’We’re doing this, here’s how it works, and we need you to find these barrels and figure out how they’re going to get on stage,’” he explains. “So I’ll say ’Here’s our problem,’ work it out on paper, and then we’ll do a dry run with a watch saying, ’Can we do it in 30 seconds?’
“The elements are always the same: Space, time, and materials. So far we haven’t hit the impossible thing where we have to say, ’No, this will not fit in here.’”
Once a new “instrument” from everyday life has been added to the show, Botchis is put in charge of messing with it somehow. “Everything has been modified in some way,” he says. “A broomstick is not just a broomstick.” Those aforementioned poles, for example, have actually been wrapped as much as possible with clear, heavy tape to help prevent sharp shards from suddenly breaking off and flying around the stage or, even worse, into the audience. Likewise, the Swan Vesta matches (an English brand with their own distinctive size and sound) that flick around inside their box for the “Matches” piece have actually received a soaking in salt water before they get into the mix – a necessary measure that prevents them from igniting under the performers’ feet if they fall onto the floor.
To prove that they really have got Stomp down to a science, the production gave DRUM! a rarely issued Backstage Pass, giving us the chance to squeeze in and see this miracle of logistics with our own eyes. Showtime is at 8:00, so we sauntered in about an hour before that, just after the performers wrapped up last-minute rehearsal of any numbers that might need attention, then slipped behind the stage to see just how small the Stomp nerve center really is.
Space back there is, as they say, at a premium. An array of barrels, buckets, sinks and brooms line the tiny area, combining with small staircases up to the unisex dressing rooms and ladders up to the stage’s second level to eat up valuable real estate. A small video monitor is elevated over everything to give Botchis, Thurber and any waiting performers a view of the action unfolding onstage.