On The Job: Behind The Scenes With Stomp

A set list taped to the wall gives an indication not only of all the numbers that pack the show, but also of all the items that the stage crew has stowed away, somewhere back there. It reads “Brooms … Matches … Hands & Feet … Brush Up/Pedal Bin … Fives … Sinks … Plungers … Mop Up … Poles … Scrapers … Bottles … Zippos … Suspension … Newspapers … Basketballs … Teachests … Walkers … Bags … New & Improved Bins w/Wobble Boards … Encore.”

The space is so narrow and some of the props so bulky that it seems tough to believe everyone will be able to maneuver around each other. Making matters worse is the fact that once the house lights have come down, near-blackout conditions have to apply to avoid having a distracting glow spill out from the back of the stage. But the performance behind the performance has to go right, or the miscues will quickly wind up affecting the rhythm of Stomp’s show.

Checking out conditions from our position squeezed between a small wooden stairwell and three industrial-strength metal sinks (without water), we see Stomper Anthony Johnson grab a broom and sweep his way onto the stage so casually that it’s tough to tell that the first piece has actually begun, playing again to a packed house on this Wednesday night. Within three minutes the rest of the cast for the night – Morris Anthony, Maria Emilia Breyer, Mindy Haywood, Peter-Michael Marino, Stephanie Marshall, MikelPariS, and Henry W. Shead, Jr. – has grabbed a broom from Botchis or Thurber and swept their way into the front.

With everyone in front, Botchis and Thurber disappear, then magically show up on the opposite sides of the backstage area via the warren of stairs that crisscross the place. Now sporting a handy light strapped to his head, Botchis keeps one eye on the action on the monitor, while Thurber starts dishing out water from buckets into those oversized sinks. The first casualty of the evening comes up as one of the earlier numbers ends, with Breyer’s knee causing her obvious pain after a collision of some sort. She gets little sympathy, however, as the other performers start to fly around, with barely enough room to walk past each other as they head up and down stairs to dressing rooms, up ladders, or back out on stage for the next piece.

With “Sinks” next up, the lucky Stompers who do this number shoulder the heavy items, while Botchis and Thurber help tighten the waist straps. Soon after they’ve been expedited, a tribal pounding of poles kicks in, as the performers often begin making noise before they even appear, adding to the ambience. A little later, “Zippos” is what it must be like in a submarine, as all lights go down and total silence is needed as the hushed “click” of lighters opening and closing provides all the music of the piece. Next, Botchis pops up with the oil drums that will turn into giant, incredibly awkward boots for the “Walkers” number. To turn them into footwear, a tray of Rollerblades is produced and attached to the top, and three Stompers climb on and in, before going out and literally stomping through their number.

As Botchis predicted, the action becomes pretty much nonstop from this point until the end of the show. When the walkers return, Botchis guides them in one by one like the controller of an aircraft carrier, helping them down and getting the oil drums out of the way almost at the same time. Someone knocks over a cup of water, so Thurber breaks her routine to wipe up the potentially dangerous wet spot, then turns one of the ceiling fans on it to dry it as fast as possible.

Things just keep moving faster and faster, as the show speeds through its final set of numbers to the end. Keeping track of the well-oiled machine that the performers and stage crew have become is pretty impossible at this point, with ten people heading full-speed in different directions for about 20 straight minutes. But the payoff comes. After the slightly flexible stage floor has absorbed its final blow, the audience erupts into a highly appreciative round of applause. “You hear that?” Shead says to no one and everyone as he heads for the dressing room to towel off. “YOU HEAR THAT?!”

Yes indeed. And afterward, Botchis and Thurber agree that tonight was a particularly focused performance. “It was a good show,” Botchis says. “The cast enthusiasm was good, which is important. If just one person is down, it can bring it all down.”

While a lot can go wrong, and often does, Botchis doesn’t consider the show a failure just because there’s a little, or even big, miscue. “That’s why it’s live and not a movie!” he points out. “My experience has always been that the audience loves stuff like that. They were part of the thing when it went wrong, and afterwards they’ll be like, ’I was at Stomp and this happened, but this is how they handled the mistake.’ Nine times out of ten they want you to win, because they’ll have a better time.”

Between the concept, the dedication of the Stompers, and the expertise of the production crew, Stomp has evolved into a high-octane spectacle that should continue to endure for some time. “I sometimes watch the show, and I forget what we do is pretty amazing,” Stephanie Marshall says. “I have tremendous respect for all the Stompers and creators. It’s very clever in that it’s accessible to everyone. People leave hitting mailboxes or the grating on the store next door. And as a performer, it’s a great gig.”

Ask Paul Botchis, and he’ll tell you that Stomp’s long-lasting appeal is even simpler than that. “That’s easy – it’s great energy,” he says, another night of directing the traffic under his belt. “I don’t care who you are, you can be five, you can be 80: You can’t help but get energized.”

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