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Stomp - Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas interview

Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STOMP celebrated its 20th anniversary on Monday, November 14, 2011, with a series of special events. IndieLondon spoke exclusively to co-creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas about some of their experiences over the years and how the show continues to evolve and strike a chord with audiences around the globe.

Steve also provided us with an insight into the partnership’s new theatre project in Brighton, where they are seeking to nurture and encourage new talent in these difficult economic times, while Luke discussed some of their film work with the natural world, including a new project involving great white sharks.

Q. Congratulations on being able to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Stomp. Does it seem real? I mean, did you ever think you’d made it this far?
Steve McNicholas: Thank you… It is a bit like that, in that you wonder where 20 years went. In some ways it doesn’t feel like 20 years at all and in other ways it does because our bones are creaking a bit now. So, it’s odd [laughs]. I was talking to someone the other night… we had a party the other night and had lots of people we invited from our former lives working in the alternative cabaret scene in the ‘80s and they were saying they couldn’t believe it’s been 20 years because they still think of Stomp as ‘that new thing you did’.

Q. And Luke, how does it feel for you?
Luke Cresswell: There is an element of weirdness. But it does and it doesn’t feel like 20 years. As a drummer and performer it feels great to still be going strong and that’s really what you aim for, but it also feels very odd that Stomp, in particular, has been going this long. But I think it’s testament to a lot of the performers we’ve had over the years.

Q. How were the anniversary celebrations on Monday [November 14, 2011]?
Steve McNicholas: Monday was great. At lunchtime, we took the West End cast over to Covent Garden and did a 20-minute busk like the old days, when we first started out, and it was good because none of them had ever performed on the street before. But then we’ve always said that we put everything we learned from the street into the show. And on Monday, the cast performed like seasoned street performers, which was great, and we got a great crowd. We then had a special show that evening… or rather we enhanced the evening performance with some special touches such as Luke Cresswell making a couple of cameo appearances. We also added people to a couple of the gentler pieces, which was nice because it made the audience go ‘aahh’ rather than the ‘hooray’ that usually accompanies Stomp. There was a party afterwards, too, which was great. Stephen Fry and Robert Lewellyn joined us and both did nice Tweets to mark the occasion.

Stomp, 20th anniversary. Photo by Craig Sugden

Q. And how was taking to the stage for you, Luke?
Luke Cresswell: Well, I only took to the stage very, very briefly… it was more of a cameo role. But it was a good show, a great audience and it was nice to muck around with some fellow Stompers!

Q. So, talk a little about the origins of Stomp… where did it originate?
Luke Cresswell: It sort of came from myself being a street performer and a drummer in a band and working in Covent Garden and around Europe. It was during that time that I met Steve, who was a guitarist and violinist, and both of us having this shared feeling of connecting with an audience. As a drummer I also did odd little stunts, such as hanging off a building or a boat… different kinds of performance-based drumming ideas. So, it was then about looking back at some of those and thinking of doing a rhythm based show around that idea. We then did that for the first time in Edinburgh in ’91.

Q. How did it do?
Luke Cresswell: It didn’t do great in Edinburgh actually! It was put on at midnight, so it actually became a hit with the other performers and critics and not so much with the audience. But from that, we got very lucky and were able to go to Australia and did shows at festivals in Sidney, Melbourne and Adelaide. It was really during that time that we then turned it from an idea into a show and it got stronger and stronger…

Q. And then brought it to the West End?
Luke Cresswell: No, we came back and carried on touring… we did Sadler’s Wells, which was a big run, then the Southbank. If anything, we avoided the West End. We then did New York. So, we opened in New York in 1994. It didn’t really hit the West End until 2001. So, we’ve been in London for 10 years and we’ve been in New York for 17 and that was a base for a while. We were never in a mad rush to do the West End, maybe because it was our home. We did Paris for three years and some other cities we were more keen on doing and then finally we brought it to the West End.

Q. What is the enduring appeal of Stomp?
Steve McNicholas: Well, the stock answer is two-fold. Firstly, rhythm is universal and can appeal to anyone and everyone. Everyone has a sense of rhythm, even it’s buried deep down inside of them… but then everyone has a heartbeat. So, it has a commonality to it that can reach anyone, no matter how old or young. The other thing is the humour in the show. It’s broad, physical humour but that can really work anywhere in the world and work for anybody… it’s more like a silent comedy or a silent film. With certain characters in the show, we always ask the performers playing them to watch Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin films… You’d be amazed by how many people come along in their early 20s who have never heard of Keaton or Chaplin. So, we always ask them to watch how someone can make you laugh without words. Ultimately, Stomp’s success comes down to our performers having a rapport and dialogue with the audience and keeping it fresh.

Q. How do you keep it fresh for 20 years?
Steve McNicholas: It’s not easy to keep it fresh because you have to tend to it all the time and work with the performers constantly. We get people in the show who might be drummers who’ve never stood up on stage in their lives before, or dancers who have never had to use their hands, or they might come from a more performance acting background, but none have worked with an audience in the way we work with them. When they come out on stage, we encourage them to make the music themselves at the same time as having a rapport and dialogue with the audience. So, we nurture all of the performances through that process and we’ve been constantly hands-on with the show for 20 years. We still hand-pick everyone, whether it’s in New York or Moscow or Kuala Lumpur, and we go and check all of the shows. We’re flying out to America later this week to see the New York cast before they go out on tour. It’s like tending a garden, you have to constantly keep an eye on it.

Q. So, what have been some of the highlights for you over the years? I imagine the Oscars is an obvious one?
Steve McNicholas: The Oscars was definitely a highlight, purely because it’s the Oscars and we were nominated and performed at the ceremony. Quincy Jones took us under his wing a little bit and became a great friend… he’s a great fan of what we do. But another highlight was when we did the Emmys… one of our heroes, and someone who inspired us, is Spike Jones, who had a band called Spike Jones and the City Slickers. He still gets played on TV shows and stuff now. But they used to take classical or popular music standards and make them… they were like a band full of Marx Brothers. Their performances were complete mayhem… they used car horns and all sorts of things… pistols, to punctuate the music. They weren’t doing anything particularly Stomp per se but their spirit was an inspiration for us.

So, when we got asked to do a tribute to the golden days of variety for the Emmys, we honed in on Spike Jones. It also turned out that his son, Spike Jones Jr, was working on that TV show, so Spike Jones’ wife came to see it and loved it. We had Spike Jones and the City Slickers on the screen behind us and synchronised what they were doing with Stomp. His wife then told us that if Spike Jones was around today he’d want to be in Stomp. So, it’s when you connect with your heroes. I also remember that the Nicholas brothers [Fayard and Harold], two of the greatest tap dancers who ever lived, came to see our show – one in Paris and the other in New York.

Stomp. Photo by Craig Sugden

Q. And for you Luke?
Luke Cresswell: The Oscars was great because we could write something and we worked with Quincy Jones but I think everywhere we’ve been has provided some form of highlight along the way. The first time we performed in Mexico City, for instance, and in Tokyo were both fantastic. Just the fact you can take this show to any country… I mean we played Palestine! We managed to do a gig in Israel and persuaded them to pay for us to play in Palestine, so that felt like a political coup. We can cross barriers and cultural divides. The power of rhythm and humour is universal… there are no hidden words to it, so whether we’re playing in South Africa or Sidney, rhythm is universal/

Q. And it must also be a thrill to see how regular audiences respond to it as well? I mean, is it now something like 15 million people have seen it world-wide?
Steve McNicholas: [Laughs] They make these calculations, so probably! For me, one of the greatest moments in terms of the audience and the show just working right was in Sadler’s Wells in January ’94. We were there for three weeks and for me that’s when the show had really found its real strength. To have come from the street and be at Sadler’s Wells, with the place packed out… the original cast were at their peak and that was a great moment. It was a peak moment in the Stomp story.

Q. So, what does the future hold for Stomp?
Steve McNicholas: It keeps going… as long as people are enjoying it and as long as we enjoy doing it, we will keep on going. We look to refresh it every two to three years and introduce new pieces. In doing so, it keeps it fresh for us and for the performers. Just this year, for instance, we had 700 people audition in London and 800 in New York, so we’ve got a whole bunch of new people in both the English and American casts and every time that helps to re-invent the shows again – all of the new performers bring something new because we really nurture people to be themselves on stage and find their own characters. So, as long as we have bums on seats we’ll keep going.

Q. How hard is that in the West End now given the economic climate and the vulnerability of so many new shows?
Steve McNicholas: It is very difficult now but I think we’re lucky in that people who come to London, people who visit London, may have heard of us, so in that sense we have an advantage, and probably an unfair advantage, in that we are well known internationally… in some ways, more so internationally than we are here. We’re very popular in places like Germany, France and Japan. In fact, we’re probably much more of a household name there than we are in this country. So, tourists who come to London see Stomp and know us already and it gives us that unfair advantage because we have something to help us.

But it is particularly hard at the moment… we’ve been working on something new with the Lost and Found Orchestra and have discovered that something new is really hard to get off the ground at the moment because people are nervous about spending their money on something they’re unsure about. So, inevitably, they choose something they know, such as Stomp. Touch wood, I hope we’ll pull through this recession. I mean, we have another new venture in Brighton, where we took over a theatre, the Old Market, because we always wanted to have a home.

So, our offices are there, we can rehearse there, when we train up new people for Stomp this summer we can all train there. We can also record there, so when we’re doing the soundtracks for our films we can put an orchestra in there. But most importantly, we can also put on new work there. Tonight, for instance, we have the first night of a play called 10 Men, a one-man play, which tells the real life story of an actor called John Bindon. It’s a new work written by someone from Brighton, starring a Brighton actor and it’s really powerful stuff. We’ve got another one next week, After Party, which is also by a Brighton company. We want to encourage local writers and performers and get new things off the ground where possible but we’re well aware that it’s not the best time for doing it. But we still want to nurture and build that talent if we can.

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Q. To encourage other performers to persevere with their talents with that little bit of encouragement that is so hard to find at the moment?
Steve McNicholas: Exactly… I’ve always said about Stomp that if people come and see the show and just one person walks out and is inspired to make music or a new piece of theatre or something creative, then that’s the real achievement… to inspire people. So, hopefully we’re inspiring people to come and make new work here in Brighton and Stomp will continue to inspire people throughout the world to follow their dreams and realise their talents.


Q. What else have you learned about yourselves during the 20 years that Stomp has been able to evolve?
Luke Cresswell: We’ve learned that the world is much smaller than we thought. We now have friends all around the world. The Stomp cast was originally eight British people but now it’s been mixed with Brazilian, French, Swiss, American performers… people of every nationality. It feels like a world show and we have friends all over the place, which is a really nice feeling to have.

Q. Away from Stomp, you’re also working on your natural world films?
Luke Cresswell: That’s right, we’ve been busy working in 3D and we’ve somehow swerved into this strange natural history 3D filmmaking. We’re working on another film right now. The Last Reef, the second of our trilogy of films, is done and we’ve been working with great white sharks for the past two years. It’s been a fantastic journey that has taken us to South Africa, Mexico, New Zealand seeing sharks up close and personal.

Q. Is that occasionally terrifying?
Luke Cresswell: At times… well, not really. It’s more beautiful and serene – powerful more than terrifying is how I’d describe it. These are beautiful creatures that need to be protected. From the film Jaws to now they’ve been seen as the devil but they are, in fact, one of the most important creatures in the food chain and if we’re not careful they’ll be gone in a few years.

Q. Did you get in the water with them?
Luke Cresswell: We’ve been in cages, outside cages… We’ve shot lots of stuff and we’re lucky because when you’re doing it in IMAX, you get a much better film spec kit. So, we’ve been shooting with the Phantom 65 using super slow motion and it looks fantastic… we’ve got super slow-mo shots of them breaching the water at dawn. I’m editing that at the moment.

Q. Has the success of Stomp helped you pursue that area of your work?
Luke Cresswell: I suppose it has because like any business it gives us the profile that we need to get things done. When you direct any film it’s very much about the trust of a project, especially as the finances get higher. So, we financers need to know we can deliver and Stomp gives us that trust. So, in that sense for for sure. It’s also allowed us to help finance certain things. If people have been reluctant to come in and support us at an early stage of development, we can get things off the ground and seek funding support at later stages, so it’s definitely been a part of that ladder.

Q. Given the number of commitments you both have, how do split time between projects or find any free time?
Luke Cresswell: Well, making a shark film is sort of the best free time you can have! It’s a bit hard to come home and say ‘I need a holiday’ when I’ve just been in the Bahamas with dolphins. So, it’s all a bit like a busman’s holiday for us. We work hard but it’s not really like work. When people retire, they retire from a job they hate. But we love what we do. And artistically, it’s brilliant finding that balance… just as the theatre work gets too ‘lovey’ or celebrity-driven or whatever, it’s fantastic to then be able to go off and be in a cage with two other people and a great white shark, none of whom care who you are. It provides a real sense of gravity. And then after a while, when we’ve spent too long on a cold island in New Zealand somewhere it’s really lovely to be able to come back and work in a theatre in the warm, or go and get a cappuccino in Brighton or London or hail a cab in New York. It’s the best of both worlds really.

Stomp is currently performing at the Ambassadors Theatre on West Street, WC2, and is booking until December 15, 2012.

Related: Read our review of Stomp in Vaudeville Theatre form