A DECADE AGO, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, a little show called Stomp made its world premiere. On stage, seven men and women banged trash-can lids, flipped Zippo lighters, rattled newspapers, and stomped their way to the Daily Expressís "Best of the Fringe" award.
Ten years later, the companyís still at it. Stomp ó the creation of a pair of Brits, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas ó now boasts five international touring companies, an Olivier Award (Londonís version of the Tonys), Obie and Drama Desk awards, and an eight-years-and-counting run on Broadway.
From his home base in Brighton, UK, Cresswell talks about the expectations he originally had ó or didnít have ó for the show. Meanwhile, from a hotel room in Ontario, cast member and Cambridge native Tomas Fujiwara muses on life as a Stomper.
Q: Did you ever expect, a decade ago, that Stomp would become the international phenomenon it has?
A: No, not at all. I think we thought it would be a three-month run, or something like that. Most of the projects weíd done, you know, you aim for a project to get the idea across, and its lifespan usually runs out quite quickly and you head on to the next idea. So this is a big surprise.
Q: How quickly did you realize that it wasnít going to be what you thought?
A: I think weíre still surprised, weíre still finding out. I mean, we did the Edinburgh Festival, which was a critical success, but the people coming to see it were all the other performers; the public didnít really turn up. It wasnít a financial success. So at that point, we just thought it was a good show that was maybe not the right timing for the moment. But we then took it to Australia, where it went crazy at the Adelaide Festival. And then we thought we could definitely try and get to New York with it, or try and get to Japan with it, and that would be its lifespan. And we did that, and then it seemed to stay there, and then weíd get somewhere else and it would stay there, and now itís surviving even more. It wonít die. Itís fantastic, on one side; itís draining on the other. Itís a consuming beast. It eats performers and it eats material. But itís great.
Q: Is anything about your life the same as it was before Stomp began?
A: Yeah ó everything, really. I have the best of both worlds. I still go to the local pub. Me and Steve both still live in Brighton, we have the company in Brighton, and weíre still doing our business in Brighton, but at the same time we get to mix with interesting people and do interesting projects. So weíre lucky in that sense, I think.
Q: Do you ever perform anymore?
A: I got dragged into Paris to do a show about two weeks ago. It nearly killed me; I needed oxygen. Iíd love to do a bit more, but Iím so busy with other stuff now that itís hard to let everything else drop.
Q: Do you miss performing every night?
A: I do. I miss the simplicity of it. I miss the idea that you spend the whole day eating when you feel hungry to get energy, and conserving your energy and not doing anything so that you can go mad for two hours and kill yourself. And then going to have a drink and socialize and party, and then starting the whole process again. Itís a great way to live.
Q: Did you feel burned out?
A: At times, after the first big tour we did, because we were still traveling with just the eight people, so it was a lot harder, doing eight shows a week. But itís not mentally burnt, itís the body, physically: you start to get bruises and knocks. Itís a bit like a sport, in a way.
Q: When youíre auditioning potential Stompers, what are the things you look for?
A: We usually look for some sense of a character, originality. You know, if they have a rhythmic flair to them, then we can teach them most of Stomp; what we canít teach them is to bring their flair or style to it. I think whatís partly made the show live so long is that different people perform it in different ways, which makes the show change all the time. So itís really looking for people who arenít going to come in and just copy whatís been done before, but add their style to it, which changes the show and gives it a different flavor. I think performers quite enjoy it because itís a show that you can come in and put some of you into.
Q: Talk to me about all these Stomp knockoff shows. Are you flattered by the phenomenon?
A: Um, I suppose so. To be perfectly honest with you, I donít give it much thought. Maybe the producers do. Maybe they get nervous. I think at the end of the day, if you do something that is popular, like Stomp has become, then other people are either going to do something because they want to make money, or theyíre going to do it because theyíre genuinely inspired by it. Iíd like to think that people are inspired by it, and thatís why theyíre doing it.
Q: Do you have a favorite prop?
A: I think the human body is the best thing. Itís an underrated instrument, the human body, the human rhythm machine. Itís something youíve always got with you, and itís free. And everyoneís got one.
Q: What was the Stomp audition process like?
A: They brought in people ó about 30 or 40 at a time ó up on stage, and they taught us a very small part of the show. They taught us the basic groove, so they had us do that, and then each traded solos, so they really got a chance to see peopleís skills and personalities. And then after that, in the final round, then they started giving us different props and having us play different things.
Q: Were you surprised to make it?
A: Yeah, I would think anyone would be. Since itís an open audition, itís usually a few thousand people for a couple spots.
Q: Is the performance harder or easier than it looks?
A: I donít really remember what it looks like anymore.
Q: It looks hard.
A: It is. It definitely takes its toll on your body; youíre always sore and achy, and a lot of people get various injuries.
Q: What kinds of injuries are you most prone to get?
A: Usually people have various back injuries or knee injuries. In my first few months in the show, I ruptured a disk in my back. Youíre usually pretty sore and it takes a lot out of you. But itís a lot of fun, itís a great show. Itís kind of like playing a sport, you know: you love to do it, so you keep on doing it, even though youíve got your aches and pains and stuff.
Q: How do you keep your energy up every night?
A: Different people have different ways of doing it. Right now the energy boost of choice on tour is Skittles. For a while it was Red Bull. Different people do it different ways. I have a pretty fast metabolism, so I try to eat a bunch of carbs right before the show, and drink a lot of water. Youíre not on for the entire show, so there are numbers that youíre not a part of, so when Iím not in a particular number and I have a couple minutes off, I just try to stay warm and maybe stretch some, have some water.
Q: Is the burnout rate high with this show?
A: Actually, itís not very high at all. People usually stay for a really long time, because they love the show so much, because the performers and the crew and everyone involved with the show ó it becomes kind of like a big family.
Q: Is there any improvisation, or is it all pretty well choreographed?
A: It is pretty well choreographed, but there is a lot of room for improvisation. Everyone in the show, at least once somewhere during the show, has a solo that you can create entirely on your own. Some people improvise every night, other people have a set one that they do for a while, then change it. I try to do a combination of both; parts of the show where the props might be a little less familiar, a little harder to manipulate, then I try to have a couple things I know I can do so I donít have a big brain fart on stage, but some of the other parts of the show, especially where we actually have drum sticks, where I feel more comfortable, then I usually mix it up every night and see how I feel.
Q: Do you have a least favorite part of the show?
A: You know, thereís no number in the show that I think is bad or donít enjoy; if thereís a least favorite, it just would be because itís the hardest to do on your body. Thereís one number that can almost come across as a throwaway ó itís like a minute long, and we come running out playing a dustpan and a brush. Usually the tempo is really fast and we have to be scampering all around the stage, playing while we move, and really low to the ground. And you probably couldnít tell from watching it, but itís a really challenging number to do, to keep on moving and playing and running around. And itís kind of a thankless number, because itís in between two bigger moments. But I mean, at the same time, I still enjoy playing it. But Iím pretty dead for a few minutes after that.
Q: You grew up in Cambridge. Did you have local mentors?
A: Yeah. I started playing drums when I was about seven, and there were a few teachers in the public school system that were really encouraging of me. And I studied privately with the late Alan Dawson basically from the age of nine until I left after high school. So he was my main teacher and main mentor. And definitely also Bob Ponte, who is a music teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. He basically, on his own time, created the high-school jazz ensemble, and we would rehearse at night; it wasnít even part of the school day. Weíd get together one night a week and rehearse and have theory classes and jazz-history classes. And he ran all of that. And that was basically the first band that I was a part of, long-term. And he would get us gigs and drive us around to gigs on the weekend, and make tapes for us of music.
Q: Is this the first time youíre doing the show in Boston?
A: Yeah. Iím very excited. Itís definitely one of your dreams that you have when youíre a kid ó to come back to your hometown and show people what youíve been up to.
Stomp is at the Wilbur Theatre, in Boston, November 13 through December 16. Call (617) 931-2787. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com