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on Mon, 19 Dec 2016
Heather Kincaid speaks to STOMP co-creator Luke Cresswell about the worldwide phenomenon visiting Warwick Arts Centre this month.
It was in 1991 that STOMP first burst into London's Bloomsbury Theatre, going on to take not only the capital but soon the whole country by storm. Twenty-six years and more than 20,000 performances in 53 different countries later, as many as five official companies are still stomping their feet, banging bins and discovering rhythm in the unlikeliest of places in front of audiences all around the world.
Co-creator and director Luke Cresswell no longer performs in the show, but remains very much a part of the creative process as it develops and changes over time. We spoke to him to find out more about the STOMP story as it prepares to march into Warwick Arts Centre this month.
“The basic concept of using rhythm as a language and using found objects always stays the same,” Luke explains, “which is why we've never seen any reason to make STOMP 2 or STOMP 3. But the routines have hugely changed since we started out. I'd say it's at least two thirds different material, and even the original stuff has been totally reworked.”
This year's outing in Coventry forms part of a mini tour for the European company, with just a handful of stops around the UK sandwiched between shows across the continent. And even since the show's last UK tour in 2014, says Cresswell, there have been a few changes, notably to the Trolleys and Frogs routines. Sometimes changes are made on a purely practical basis, with certain elements, however well received, proving too high-maintenance for lengthy runs.
“There was a routine which I really liked involving metal fold-up chairs that was really hard on the hands and knees as well as on the chairs themselves, so eventually we decided it was better to replace it. There was also one at the big show in Vegas where we had these huge cardboard boxes and it looked fantastic, but of course the boxes would break and you'd have to repair them. That's fine for a one-off show or a TV special, but when you're doing eight shows a week it's hard work!”
But as much as any planned or directed reinvention, it's the continual changes to the cast that ensure the show always feels fresh.
“I think the reason STOMP's been going for so long is because there's a lot of room within the show for the different individuals to bring their own characters and their own tastes and emphasis to it, so it's always a very different show depending on who's in the cast.”
It's partly thanks to this that Cresswell doesn't miss being out on stage himself. Although he's stayed hands-on as far as possible, in many respects, through the contributions of various cast members over the years, the show has begun to take on a life of its own.
“I think the main reason the show now is so different from what we started with is that the performers are better than me! Even though it's my show and I love it, it was never designed to be performed by 50-year-olds - my bones hurt too much!”
Rather unusually for such a high-profile show, STOMP is still cast through open auditions - literally anyone can show up on the day and give it a go.
“STOMP was always a show made by musicians, so we were never really part of the West End culture. In the first place, it was just eight people doing something we enjoyed, and it never occurred to us that we'd have to hold auditions - we just assumed the show would die when we got bored with it. When we first did auditions in New York, it was completely new to us - none of us had ever been to an audition, so we just did what we thought we ought to do and had an open call.”
And while it might have come from a position of not knowing much about the ‘done thing’, the practice has stuck, and it's this, thinks Cresswell, that helps to make the show unique.
“It's great, because all sorts of people turn up. We get a lot of people from theatre and dance, and we get a lot of musicians, but we also get people who have never been on stage before, who have just been inspired by the show or who wanted a change of direction in life. What I love about it is that it gives you the chance to find that gem who comes in looking at theatre from a slightly different angle that hasn't been taught by someone else. I think having really diverse and interesting people is what's kept the show so strong.”
Auditions are held roughly every two years, but not everyone who gets accepted goes straight into the show. There's so much interest that there's a pool of people waiting for their chance to STOMP, which sometimes can take quite a while.
“We had around 800 people show up for the audition we did in spring this year, and out of those we chose twelve. Most of them are now in the show, but it'll more than likely take us a couple of years to get through all of them, because people tend to stay for quite a long time.”
This is true regardless of people's backgrounds, or how easy it might be for them to procure other performance work. Some even return after a time away - once a part of the STOMP family, always a part of the STOMP family.
“It's funny, you get someone who's never been on stage before and they might stay with STOMP for 20 years, or they might stay for five years and go on to do other great things. But equally you'll have someone from the theatre world who stays for just as long because they love the freedom - I think you're unlikely to get the same level of freedom as a performer in other shows. It's definitely a group of misfits, and if you fit the mould for it, it becomes comfortable very quickly.”
Globally, STOMP has got through around 50,000 boxes of matches, 30,000 brooms, 20,000 bins, 10,000 drumsticks and 25,000 litres of black paint - not to mention countless other props. Even once they're too worn out to use, many old props remain part of the show, joining the piles of stuff that form its junkyard set. Yet while some things change, others stay the same. The world might look quite different now to when STOMP started, but some props are simply too iconic to replace.
“I think the biggest reflection of the changes over the last few years is the Dustbins routine. When I was growing up, people used to empty household rubbish into metal dustbins - that's what the lorries collected it from. But that's all gone now. In fact, I think we're one of the biggest customers for the manufacturer that we buy them from!”
Like the other found objects in the show, the dustbins speak to the directors' background in street performance, where they learned how to fully engage an audience and encourage people to participate without pushing them into doing anything they didn't want to - a difficult skill to master without that training. Since then, STOMP has appeared in some of the biggest theatres internationally, not to mention on film, and in large part, its huge global success can be attributed to the fact that it is dialogue-free, allowing everyone, everywhere to enjoy the same experience.
Outside STOMP, Cresswell also works with the Lost And Found Orchestra (a music project based on a similar premise of making sound from found objects), as well as working as a musician in more conventional settings where he can. But with multiple STOMP companies and film projects to manage, it can be hard to find the time.
“It's one of those classic catch-22s where the success of STOMP allows you the freedom to do other work, but maintaining that success prevents you from doing other work. There are various other projects I'm looking at this year and next year, but STOMP is fairly all-consuming. Still, as long as I have a passion for it and the show is still good and growing, then it's rewarding work, and it never feels like a sacrifice.”
STOMP shows at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, from Tuesday 31 January to Saturday 4 February.