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ShowTickets Q&A: Steve McNicholas, Co-Creator of 'STOMP'

Category General

|by Jeryl Brunner |

“It will make you listen to the world in a completely different way.”

Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas began their careers as street performers in the United Kingdon, busking for spare change. These visionaries took their talent and skills and co-created STOMP. Using garbage cans, brooms, Zippo lighters and to help create energizing sounds, the show incorporates music, dance and theatrical performance. As STOMP celebrates its 25th year, the show continues to be a worldwide sensation. Cresswell and McNicholas have collaborated with countless artists, including Quincy Jones, Alessia Cara, Paul Simon, Kathy Najimy, Bill Irwin, Savion Glover, Javier Bardem, The Harlem Globetrotters and Mister Rogers. They created a show-stopping Academy Awards performance, and participated in the London Olympics Closing Ceremony. STOMP has been parodied on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. Their short film, Brooms, earned them an Academy Award nomination. Their HBO special, Stomp Out Loud, won an Emmy. A fixture at the Orpheum Theatre in New York, STOMP continues to tour the United States, and can be seen around the world. 

Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell at the 25th anniversary celebration of ‘STOMP’ (Photo: Romina Hendlin)

Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell at the 25th anniversary celebration of ‘STOMP’ (Photo: Romina Hendlin)

Can you talk about how you and  Luke started out as street performers?
Steve McNicholas
: I was working with a theater group called Cliff Hanger, and Luke was in a street band called Pookiesnackenburger. Our groups joined forces to create a series of street shows we performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We performed in an old abandoned playground right in the center of town. Since I wrote most of the songs in the street show, and they were becoming part of Pookiesnackenburger, I became a full time member of both groups. I played guitar, fiddle and mandolin while Luke played percussion. We started to inject more theatricality and audience participation into the set. And Luke was a natural at this. He was 17 and I was 25 when we first played together.

Did that help you develop STOMP?
SM: I think our years of performing on the streets in Edinburgh, London, Brighton and across Europe prepared us for STOMP. Our street work was always very physical and fast moving. So Luke, as a drummer, had to adapt, and make his percussion mobile too. That led to a lot of improvisation and also led to playing trashcans. And eventually we were all playing trashcans. It became the finale of our street set, and the finale of our indoor shows once we crossed into the alternative cabaret world. Every once in a while, we would do special events in support of the miners strikes in the UK, and for one of them, he came up with a broom routine. A few years later, after our music career was stalling, we thought of taking something back to the Edinburgh Fringe.  

Luke had always wanted to have a show called STOMP, and after seeing a Japanese KODO drum performance in London, we talked about starting with brooms and building to bins, creating a show that was solely percussion-based. We figured it would have very limited appeal. So we decided to just make a show that we wanted to see ourselves. We opened to terrible sales at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991. But a couple of Festival promoters saw us and liked us, like the Adelaide Fringe and Montreal Just for Laughs. And that set the ball rolling.

How would you describe STOMP?
For years, our stock answer has always been “It’s a piece of theater created by musicians.” Later, I would say, “It’s a journey to a place where rhythm is the only language.” But I’ve always added, whatever you think it might be from whatever images or clips you might have seen, that’s not it. You have to see it for yourself. I’ve heard many, many people say to their friends “I can’t really describe it, you just have to go see it.” Certainly when we first started, no one knew how to categorize it. Newspapers would send drama, music, dance or comedy critics, and we would get bookings at theater, music, dance and comedy festivals.

What do you look for in your cast, and what skills do they need? 
SM: We ask for people with a sense of rhythm, a sense of humor and a good pair of boots. Of course, people may THINK they have all three, but may only have the boots. We get dancers, drummers, percussionists, musical theater performers, and actors, and our casts are usually made up of a mix of all of these. But what we are really looking for is people who have rhythm potential, teamwork potential and that indefinable something that would make them potentially a great street performer. I emphasize the word “potential” because we don’t expect that to be all there from the get-go. We are very patient when it comes to performers who have that potential buried away inside them, but we are sure it’s there.

You have collaborated with so many artists and have had so many extraordinary experiences. Is there a moment that really stands out? 
SM: All the collaborative appearances have been high points, really – it’s hard to single one out. But in 1999, Luke and I had booked a vacation with our families on the island of Yap in the South Pacific. We wanted to celebrate the new millennium, get some sunshine, go scuba diving and let the rest of the world have their parties. But we got a call from Hillary Clinton’s office asking if we’d partake in America’s Millennium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Well, we knew we had to cancel our vacation, head to Washington and share those steps with some amazing people. That was really hard to beat.
If someone were to ask, why should I see STOMP, what would you say? 
SM: It will make you listen to the world in a completely different way.

For more of the best of New York this season, check out our list of the Top Shows in October 2019.

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