Behind The Scenes With Stomp

Love isn’t the only universal language anymore.

The long-running success of Stomp, the production now running strong through its seventh year in the international metropolis of New York City, proves that drumming is the other global communicator. By putting rhythm in the starring role, the show’s creators latched onto a way to appeal to crowds from every corner of the globe, and keep them coming back.

No matter how tightly Stomp’s performers have the show nailed down, however, giving a show that started seven years ago the energy of a newborn calls for expertise behind the scenes as well. Even though this is a production that makes simplicity its calling card – the “percussion” instruments involved range from wooden poles to garbage cans and Zippo lighters – it takes a complex combination of processes and philosophies to make it go right, night after night...

“When you get a production that’s this long running, the big challenge is to keep it fresh,” notes Stomp Production Manager Paul Botchis. “Keeping it looking and sounding good involves not letting the production elements like lights and sound get out of shape, and making sure the props aren’t banged up and tired. The walls of this stage get hit constantly, and we don’t want people coming and saying, ’This set looks like it’s been beat up.’ We can’t have it look like it’s about to fall down!”

For anyone who’s been to Stomp at its NYC home (the show also regularly plays in San Francisco, Austin, Texas and Warsaw, Poland) in the East Village’s Orpheum Theatre, the set looks suspiciously like the mutant offspring of a towering stage and an abandoned junkyard. Industrial rejects like old shocks, struts, barrels, and hubcaps litter the walls, almost any of it fair game for a good smashing by the good people of Stomp. But keeping all that metal garbage shiny and safe is almost a full-time job in itself, since this set probably takes more of a pounding in a week than the stage for Hello Dolly gets in a decade.

Somewhere between drummers and hard-charging ballet dancers, the eight performers who make up a Stomp show spend their time in the spotlight making purely percussive music with implements as everyday as brooms, sinks, and newspapers. As conceived by the show’s English creators, Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell, Stomp has succeeded by giving audiences a nonstop sequence of innovative numbers that requires a cast with a sense of rhythm, dance, and teamwork. An equally well-synchronized crew supports them from a shockingly tight space behind the scenes.

The people who audition into the Stomp lineup usually start either from a drumming or dance background, before finding that their physically demanding gig calls for a new self-definition. “I think after doing it for a while, you don’t identify yourself as a drummer or a dancer, but a ’Stomper,’” notes Stephanie Marshall, who’s been with the NYC cast since 1994. “It requires many different aspects that could be related to acting, you have different movements that could be the dancer aspect, and we all have to drum. It’s created this hybrid that’s all it’s own. I wouldn’t say that I’m a drummer, but I do know that I drum much more easily than I would have five years ago.”

“It’s so split that it’s not even funny,” Botchis adds. “The cast has drummers, dancers, actors and there’s some people that just saw the show, auditioned because they thought it was cool, and weren’t from any of those worlds. For replacements to take six to eight weeks of rehearsals, like ours do, is unheard of because in other shows it’s two weeks and you’re on. But here, you’re dealing with a show where if you do screw up, you could hurt somebody – or yourself.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”