Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas have run a multicontinent theater empire, directed a number at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics and swum with great white sharks off the coast of Southern California and Guadalupe Island.
But the hardware store was thwarting them.
"We wanted a new bit for the show and couldn't find anything at the store. Every object we seemed to have used before," McNicholas said.
They eventually settled on plumbing connectors used primarily to repair broken toilets. "If you open these connectors they make a great sound, almost like a frog,” McNicholas said. "It's quite beautiful."
Cresswell and McNicholas form the most unlikely of entertainment impresarios. Erstwhile southern England street performers who find everyday objects far more interesting than a traditional West End prop closet, the pair for the past two decades have created, shaped, directed and run "Stomp."
Now, as they oversee their first "Stomp" show in Los Angeles in three years, Cresswell and McNicholas also hope to fulfill a long-realized ambition--a "Stomp" movie. Though the 3-D film will contain much of the noise of the stage shows, its shape and character will be far more cinematic.
"We think we can tell a full story just by using set pieces and instruments," Cresswell said. "And we can offer commentary we don't necessarily do in our show."
Beginning as a small troupe with the simple goal of creating symphonic noise, "Stomp" has grown into a sprawling empire. About 400 people comprise three touring companies hopping between countries in North and South America, Asia, Europe and Australia at any given moment, as the pair keep them whirring and whishing like one of their famous stage acts.
This in addition to their side gig--filming IMAX nature documentaries that have them taking dips with none-too-approachable water predators. On a visit to The Times in which he lugged a big camera, McNicholas shrugged and said "Juvenile sharks," as though everyone would know what the statement meant (and was willing to subject themselves to its consequences). You can forgive yourself for encountering Cresswell and McNicholas and thinking you might have seen them in a Dos Equis commercial.
The men met in the early 1980s, playing in a street band called Pookiesnackenburger (what else?).
After working in alternative theater for the better part of a decade, they took their offbeat musical stylings to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the early 1990s as “Stomp,” a rollicking noise-fest that extracted music from household items. They would go on to win a number of prizes and hit the road in places as far flung as Barcelona and Sydney. Their first U.S. show came in New York in 1994; in February it will mark its 20th anniversary.
In spreading the gospel of the broom-bang, Cresswell, 50, and McNicholas, 58, have created a highly popular, occasionally chided cultural staple. They have also been behind a crossover phenomenon, a stage production that, like “Cirque du Soleil” or the work of the Blue Man Group, has managed to become a mainstream moneymaker while still incorporating the ethos of street performance and experimental theater. Stomp may be the thing you take your out-of-town uncle to but, at bottom, it’s a stage show with a lot of choreography and no words.
The pair is often creating and tweaking on the road, globe-trotting from their office in Brighton, U.K. Last week McNicholas had just arrived in Los Angeles to make sure all went smoothly with the local production, even as he simultaneously kept an eye on a shipment of “Stomp”-y items to a Reykjavik show, imperiled by a brewing North Atlantic storm. "So they didn't make it, or they're thinking they won't make it?" he mused to himself.
Cresswell, meanwhile, was in Brazil working out a spin-off show there. The two have a trip to the Kremlin planned next year for a performance by a "Stomp" orchestra, another offshoot of the "Stomp" franchise.
In between all this they have managed to shoot several Imax docs, including 2008’s “Wild Ocean,” about the migration of billions of sardines up the coast of South Africa, and this summer’s “Great White Shark,” which got up close — like, really close — to one of nature’s most fearsome and, they say, misunderstood creatures. (The docs have been shown in the likes of aquariums and museums.) They also directed a "Stomp" number in 2012's ballyhooed closing ceremonies at the London Olympics.
As for “Stomp,” after two decades McNicholas and Cresswell — the latter is the louder, bolder one, while the former is the quieter and more deliberate — want to keep things fresh, and there are only so many brooms, shovels and garbage-can tops one can bang around. So they find themselves wandering into hardware stores and other places most music types would tread for plumbing purposes only. McNicholas estimates he’s been to nearly every major hardware store around the world, and some big-box retailers to boot. If you come across someone making weird noises in Target over the next week, don’t call security just yet; it might just be the "Stomp” boys honing their act.
For those checking out the Los Angeles show, a 12-day engagement that plays at the Saban Theatre through Sunday, they can expect some new pieces, including a complex one involving shopping carts.
The movie will branch out even further in a new direction. It will contain more story than their show typically does. Though their stage pieces are largely politics-free affairs, the goal with the film, the pair said, was a socioeconomic commentary, the beautiful noise set against a barren landscape conveying, without dialogue, the hardships of modern life, “Modern Times”-style. (They are shooting, perhaps not surprisingly, in Manchester.)
The men have turned down studio offers, they said, to remain independent. About 70% of the financing has been raised, and the hope to begin shooting in the spring. The whole film is being storyboarded, because they want the arc of a traditional film (a conventional script isn’t feasible).
"It's like making an animated movie, where every panel is worked out in advance” Cresswell said. “Which can drive you a little crazy. But it’s the only way to do it.”
While skeptics may ask if screen images can fully capture the energy of a live “Stomp” performance, the pair say the 3-D technology and surround-sound will offer an immersive experience. They also say they do not want to replicate their stage show (there was a filmed Imax version of a live production about 11 years ago) and instead want to create big, screen-worthy numbers, such as a window washing set piece they could never mount on a stage.
“There’s no point in doing a movie of something you can see on stage,” McNicholas said. (The wordless movie has become something of a filmmaking mini-trend lately, with J.C Chandor’s “All Is Lost” and 2011 Best Picture Oscar winner “The Artist” offering their spins on the format.)
Distribution for the “Stomp” film will begin in Europe, and the pair will eventually seek a partner in the U.S. Casting for the film will be drawn largely from people who star in their touring productions.
It is not easy, it should be said, to find performers for those shows. "Stomp" requires a unique mix of traits, including stage presence, an innate sense of rhythm and movement and an ability to convey character without speaking. They are skills that do not necessarily translate to other disciplines. “There are people who would not be employable if not for our show,” McNicholas laughed.
In one casting session several years ago, the pair turned down the young TV actress who had come to audition. But they noticed that her boyfriend, a hospital orderly who had brought her to the audition, was jamming in rhythm from the back of the theater. They had him get on stage and eventually cast him with one of their companies.
"I think,” Cresswell said, "that they broke up after that.”