Read on for an interview with STOMP co-creator Steve McNicolas ahead of their upcoming shows at The Old Market.

Interview by Giulia Di Bella

What are your individual creative and artistic backgrounds? 
I’m from Yorkshire originally, and after leaving school I didn’t go to University straight away. I took some time off and got my first proper job as a musician with The Bradford Theatre group. I was self taught (violin, guitar and keys), and was always into drama at school… so much so that I did eventually end up at Goldsmiths College in London studying drama, but I left because I was already working full time with Brighton based comedy theatre group Cliff Hanger. So almost all of my background was in actual performance, also with Covent Garden Community Theatre, 7:84, a vocal group called the Flying Pickets and a busking band called Pookiesnackenburger, which is where I first started working with Luke in the early Eighties.

What inspired you to begin devising STOMP?  Is there a socio-political motif that played an influential part in the development of this work originally? 
Not a conscious one! It very much grew out out of the work we did as street performers. Our band at the time was really driven by a sense of enjoyment in what we were doing, but a real need to have a weekly cashflow! It was the Thatcher years and we were definitely aligned with the left, anti-government, pro-worker movement of the time: we were involved in lots of benefit gigs that also involved many of the new wave of comedians in the eighties. STOMP grew out of some of the pieces Luke created for shows that were supporting the miners strikes for example. When we have been asked whether we were making a political statement in making a show using recycled objects, we’ve generally said no, but really the very act of making music from found objects is in itself an act of defiance in the face of of materialism. If we can make music with anything, so can everyone else… I would hope that rather than making a political statement, it’s somehow inspires others to look at the world in a different way, look at the world with creative eyes.

Was the devising process collaborative between you two only, or were other members of the original cast involved? 
We’d both had a lot of experience in groups that were totally democratic. Some experiences were positive, but sometimes, in a small group, things would go in a direction that one of us didn’t think was right. It’s difficult in a group of 6 to 8 people if you’re not all on the same wavelength. We both felt that way, and knew that with STOMP, the buck had to stop somewhere: it had to stop with the two of us, otherwise it would run the risk of being formless. Luke and I were totally on the same wavelength, and yet we had different things to contribute: we both knew the direction the show had to go in, and trusted each others take on specific aspects of the show. That said, the show has always created a space for individual performers to stamp their own identities, creating their own solo moments, for example, so any show you might have seen over the last 30 years has been influenced very much by the people within it.

When discussing STOMP, you speak a lot about ‘visual rhythm’ and the way you intended to create a piece of theatre with rhythmic layers. To us, it sounds like this intention is at the very heart of what STOMP is. So, curiously, what does the term ‘visual rhythm’ mean to you? 
In STOMP, the sound and the movement is always intertwined. It’s not strictly a dance piece, even though the performers move in rhythm, and it’s not strictly a music piece even though the performers make the music… but the fact that the performers make the music they move to, at the same time, makes the two things absolutely be locked together. We don’t intend there to be any sound in the show that you don’t see being created by some kind of motion. You should be able to see the rhythm as much as hear it. 

You also speak a lot to the physical comedy throughout the performance, how do you think that comes across best to an audience (i.e. where does the comedy lie)?
When we first worked together on the Edinburgh Fringe, we befriended a few physical comedians, in particular a group called Moving Picture Mime, who created amazing wordless shows that were incredibly funny, and moving. A lot of our inspiration also came from silent movies, and hollywood musicals, where dance and physical comedy would often go hand in hand. We saw STOMP as an eccentric work, harking back to that era in a way, and since our background had been very much involved with comedy, it felt like the right direction to go in. We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously: it would be easy for the things we do to be considered avant garde, if we’d approached it seriously. But we felt we had more in common with knockabout comedians from those old movies, so wanted to inject that into the show.

The main source is the wordless clash of characters, using body language to express the one upmanship and rivalry between them. It’s the kind of comic interplay you might get between a group of people on a factory floor, who know each others foibles and have faux rivalry partly as a means to work against the tedium of repetive jobs. We feel that’s a very British thing… elsewhere it might give rise to work songs, for example, but in our world, it’s a jokey competitiveness that underlines everything the performers do.

How different was the original choreography and soundscape compared to now? Would you say it changes during every performance? How much of it (if any) is improvised on the night? 
I would say that it has grown more complex over the years, and the show almost doubled in length within the first three years. Now we remove routines and replace them with new ones every few years, to maintain the current length. It’s changed a lot, but the spirit has remained the same, I think! The routines are very strictly choreographed/composed, it could be dangerous if they weren’t. But there’s always room for improvisation in solos and in the comic aspects of the show. These can be wildly different night to night, depending on who is in the show. Often performers have multiple takes on certain pieces so they can play it differently night to night.

Would you say that the genre of rhythmic sounds (or more simply music) that is performed by STOMP has changed over the years to fit the changes in social music trends? 
Not really, no. We always tried to make it genre agnostic right from the start. By stripping away melody, we stripped away the chance to really define each routine by genre. Which isn’t to say the music has stayed the same, or has been played the same way… everyone designs their own costume, so the look of the show is constantly changing. It’s not stuck in the year of its inception costume wise, and I like to think that the way the music is played, the way everyone devises their solo moments, or the comic moments, evolves over time in the same way. 

How has the audience’s response to STOMP been over the years? Has it changed? If so, how?
If we play a new city, a new country, the reaction is very similar to playing somewhere for the first time 30 years ago. It’s the same with travelling the world… audiences everywhere by and large respond to the same things. It changes by degree: one audience thrives on the comedy, another on the beats, but by the end of the show, everyone arrives at the same participatory destination. So the past is more like a different country in that respect.

What is the rough age demographic of your audience? Do you think there’s a performative reason behind that? (For example, immersive performances are acoustically intense, so they cater more to a younger age demographic.) 
That’s a difficult question to answer… over the years we seem to have appealed to a really broad range of ages. It’s not a kids show, but lots of kids love it. It’s not created as a family show, but lots of families come to see it. It’s always been difficult to define a particular group it appeals to. I think sometimes marketing has not quite understood the broad range it can work with: it’s unusual in that it can work with both a family crowd and a younger audience, used to acoustic intensity!

How did the 2020 COVID Pandemic affect the performance globally? I am aware that you started the #STOMPAtHome campaign, what was the audience interaction with this project? Is it still going on even though restrictions are no longer implemented? 
The show closed down globally in March 2020. World touring was suspended for 2 years. The #STOMPathome campaign was really most useful for our network of performers around the world. It gave everyone a reason to get involved, connect with each other… that was the best thing about it. Once we started touring again there was no need for it, but creatively it opened doors for us. Restrictions aren’t implemented in the UK, but there are still some around the world we have to deal with: bottom line is you can’t beat live performance with a live audience!

STOMP opens at The Old Market on Wednesday 19 July and runs until Sunday 27 August




Nobody has commented on this post yet, why not send us your thoughts and be the first?

Leave a Reply