You’ll never hear traffic noises or see plastic bags in quite the same way after STOMP, says drummer-actor John Sawicki. Since 1997 the native New Yorker has performed in the percussion stage show, which wraps up its stop in Phoenix at the Orpheum Theatre tonight. Nominated for Emmy and Academy awards, STOMP is also familiar from television, and winner of an Olivier Award for Best Choreography as well as a Drama Desk Award.
The cast members engage in a non-stop flow of sound, motion, and comedy using common household and industrial objects as well as their own bodies as instruments. Brooms, trash cans, lighters, poles, and hubcaps fill a two-story set that requires two semi trucks for the tour.
“We have a carpenter and a props guy and drivers,” says Sawicki, “and let’s not forget about the lighting and the sound…our crew is amazing. They do such a great job – all that behind-the-scenes stuff that people don’t realize is so important.”
The various sounds generated by the cast are strictly live, following STOMP’s origins as a UK street performance. “There’s no backing track,” Sawicki declares. “The sounds that you’re hearing are the actual items that we’re using – they’re just amplified a bit for the houses that we play.”
STOMP’s various vignettes frequently change. “We have new numbers that come into the show, and that keeps it fresh,” says Sawicki. “The things that we do now [include] shopping carts, and we have a number with inner tubes…another one with paint cans…. So if people saw the show last year, they’ll definitely see newer stuff.”
“The number that we do called ‘Matches,’ we play these matchboxes,” Sawicki describes. “And people might react toward what I do [in] a certain way, which will cause that piece to have a different journey for that evening. It could be something as basic as a smile or not smiling, and that changes the tone.”
“New performers add a freshness,” he continues. “Their personalities and the way they play…change the whole vibe and energy. The placement of the beat can be different. When you’re dealing with rhythms and drumming, playing is their emotion, so it changes every night.”
Each performer plays a role – Sawicki is “Sarge.” “I’m in charge of the audience and the group onstage,” the actor explains. “Then there’s another guy we call ‘Potatohead’ who’s kind of in charge of making sure the music’s going right.”
Another character is ‘Mozzie,’ Sawicki continues. “He’s like my annoying little brother – he’s just like a tag-along guy, so there’s that comedy element. The whole show is based around drummers, dancers, and actors, and if one of us isn’t a dancer or a drummer, we help each other learn how to do that.”
STOMP requires constant practice, he says. “We rehearse every single day, and block out a four- to five-hour rehearsal every week. You have to be extremely focused and you have to be on point.”
The physically taxing routine takes its toll on the cast. “I can equate it to being a professional athlete,” Sawicki elaborates. “There’s definitely wear and tear…people have knee injuries, hip injuries…it’s so hard-core and so punk-rock that there are going to be injuries – that just comes along with the territory. The longer you do it, the more your body shows it.”
“There’s so much that goes on within the performance,” he says, “people sometimes think there’s more than eight of us onstage.” Sawicki chuckles. “They think, ‘Oh, I thought there were 10 or 12 or 16 people.’”
The audience returns to see the show again and again, he continues, “because there’s so much going on that they want to catch all of it. And the whole show is based upon action and reaction.”
STOMP also seems to inspire audiences. “Everything we use onstage is [what] people use in their everyday lives,” says Sawicki, “and they don’t realize that it’s possible to make all this rhythmic beauty. So after they see the show,” he continues, “they’ll hear a car horn honk or their windshield wipers and their turn signal, and all of a sudden that becomes a song.”
“It’s a contagious show because of that,” he concludes. “We take the chaotic rhythms of the world and we organize it into a show.”
All images courtesy of STOMP.
If you go:
- Thu., January 31 at 7:30PM
- Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St.
- Tickets available at the Phoenix Convention Center box office, theaterleague.com, Ticketmaster, or 800-745-3000.
Her neighborhood: North Central
How often do you bike? Mostly just short distances when the weather is nice. We brought my bike down here in my friend’s truck.
Biking attire: I like shoes without laces. I always seem to have trouble with laces.
• Electra Townie
• Bell from Slippery Pig
What she’s wearing:
• Aldo shoes
• Bracelet and earrings from Frances
• The rest is Target
Occupation: 4th grade teacher
Her Neighborhood: Historic Roosevelt
How often do you bike? I work early so I usually drive but when the weather is nice I like getting out on my bike.
What is your typical biking ensemble? I don’t really change the way I dress to bike. I might switch my shoes to flats but I’ll wear a dress.
What she’s wearing:
• Shoes and dress from Urban Outfitters
• Necklace was a gift purchased at Frances
• Ring purchased from vendor set up at a table at Lost Leaf who made it custom on the spot
Her biking essentials:
• Bike by Six Three Zero
This weekend Phoenix Theatre offers its final performances of the all-Gershwin musical ‘S Wonderful, directed by Associate Artistic Director Robert Kolby Harper. “This kind of show is really hard,” he says, “not just for the director-choreographer but for the actors because they’ll change clothes 50,000 times, and they’ll sing 40 songs by the end of the night.”
Perhaps the number of wardrobe changes is slightly exaggerated, but ‘S Wonderful does cover more than 42 Gershwin tunes in its whirlwind tour of five time periods and locations. Mini-musicals take audiences to a 1939 Parisian café, a 1948 Hollywood movie studio, and New Orleans in 1957 – there’s a total of five vignettes of 15-20 minutes each, all sharing the same sleek but effective Art Deco-inspired set pieces.
If you’re searching for a deep, complex plot, don’t bother – the simple, timeless themes of yearning, attraction, romance, and love are carried on the thinnest of storylines. It’s all a vehicle for the rich music of the Gershwin brothers. And “if you’re looking for linear,” says Harper with a chuckle, “you’re screwed, because it’s not gonna happen.” He shakes his head and continues, “But that’s not how memories are; memories are collages, feelings…sometimes just snapshots.”
A tight, talented onstage three-piece combo of piano, bass, and drums plays nearly non-stop, providing not only accompaniment but also interludes between the mini-musicals and seamless segues between styles.
So many songs in such a relatively short show might create a dizzying, abbreviated effect, but Harper says that while “there are moments where it’s more snippety, there’s a big group of songs where you get a nice chunk.” A few of the numbers receiving more extended play include “Nice Work If You Can Get It” as well as selections from the Gershwins’ beloved folk opera.
“[The songs] that I’m most excited about are from Porgy and Bess, because I get to sing a little bit on ‘There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,’” says actor Toby Yatso. “I’ll probably never be in a production of Porgy and Bess for racial reasons,” he continues, “so I think it’s fun to be able to experience those songs, that music, that score, even if it’s just a little taste…it’s a unique opportunity.”
Yatso is an Associate Artist at Phoenix Theatre, and serves on the faculty for Arizona State University’s Lyric Opera Theatre program (as does Harper). He’s won numerous ariZoni and Encore Society awards for his work onstage and as a director, teacher, and choreographer in shows like The Producers, Avenue Q, and Glorious.
“What I like about Toby is that he’s never satisfied with just bringing the same-old same-old,” explains Harper. “And he’s just awesome to work with – I laugh hysterically.” He smiles. “That’s one of my big things in rehearsal: if we’re not laughing, we’re going home, ‘cause life’s too short. We’re not curing cancer here, people – we’re doing a musical revue.”
“At the end of the day, if you’re in a revue, yeah – sing pretty, but you’ve got to be funny. It can’t all be about the voice, because I can get a CD and sit at home in my PJs and have a cocktail,” Harper continues. “So I want people who can be interesting to watch, and move you to feel something…lift the music off the page.”
The cast also includes Kaitlynn Kleinman Bluth, Jenny Hintze, Kyle Erickson Hewitt, and Jenn Taber, who stars in ‘S Wonderful’s mini-musical “Of Thee I Sing,” embracing the role of an abandoned chanteuse. “Jenn’s one of the funniest women I’ve ever met,” says Yatso. “She can sing anything and is just so committed to everything she does…and it’s fun to work with her because we’re such different-sized people. And I love that – I just love the contrast of us.”
The 6-foot-5-inch-plus Yatso continues, “I think I’m known because of my height, and as a unique physical presence.” His character in the first vignette is a newsroom worker, a sort of silent movie standard with choreography making the most of Yatso’s build. “This is so much about the physical storytelling — I get to heighten all my physical attributes…and I have a lot!” he laughs wryly.
He’s delighted with all three of his female co-stars. “Jenny and I have danced together a lot – I always feel like she makes me look like a better dancer than I probably would be by myself,” Yatso chuckles. “And Kaitlynn…we always felt we were so connected onstage.” He smiles again, and exclaims, “When I heard it was those three women, I thought, ‘I am a lucky, lucky man!’”
‘S Wonderful includes plenty of dancing along with songs ranging from the less familiar (“My Cousin in Milwaukee”) to beloved favorites. “Of course you can’t have Gershwin without ‘Someone To Watch Over Me,’” says Yatso. Harper agrees; “I don’t know who can hear that song and not have a real visceral reaction to those lyrics.” He continues, “I think even now…even teenagers can listen to that and go, ‘Wow – yes, I feel that. That’d be awesome – I’d love to have someone watch over me like that.”
“And that’s the whole point,” Harper says. “That’s what music does, especially the Gershwins’ music – it connects people in ways that are meaningful, that are deeper than just dancing in the club. It boils down to love.”
Even as ‘S Wonderful leaves the stage, Phoenix Theatre prepares for the world premiere of another production: Love Makes the World Go ‘Round, based on the music of Bob Merrill, who wrote hits like “Mambo Italiano,” “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” and “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” as well as works for theatre and film like Funny Girl and Carnival. Merrill, who reportedly composed on toy xylophones, took his life in 1998 at the age of 74.
“Love Makes the World Go ‘Round is set in a New York piano bar, where these three women have sort of wandered in,” explains Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard. “They’re each in a different stage in their lives and their marriages – or ‘not-marriages’ – so they get into conversations with the help of the piano player…it’s a very funny piece.”
The tiny cast includes Jeannie Shubitz, Allison Houston, and Patti Davis, while the pianist is Brad Ellis, an arranger and accompanist for television’s “Glee,” who also worked with writer Duane Poole on the show’s arrangements.
In several past articles I have discussed the potential of Phoenix’s art community, growing, adapting, taking risks, trying something weird and questioning the content of their work. Upon review, they seem to have laid the foundation for some so-called New Year’s Resolutions.
There is something about New Year’s Resolutions that doesn’t sit well with me. However, I get that it helps to have a single day in the year to pinpoint a moment of change and renewal. And for the arts community, it’s a time when we can collectively support each other in the concept of trying something new.
One thing that can tend to often linger in an artist’s mind is “What is next?” What’s the next project? What’s the next idea? Where is the next source of inspiration? (What is the next paid job?) Sometimes, we can find ourselves at a standstill and will lean back on familiar territory that has given reliable results but may, in the long run, not be entirely satisfying.
Instead of relying on these usual tactics, we can find artists from around the world creating incredible works that we never knew existed. A random internet search for something like “installation artist plants electronics” can locate a project on a plant city or real-time 3-D plant sculptures. When in a rut, finding works like these could inspire a new direction or, in the very least, open up our eyes to a vast world of creative people with complex ideas that are being put into action. I personally like to find new resources like Empty Kingdom, Hyperallergic or even something like Phoenix New Times’ (Claire Lawton’s) 100 Creatives to do some of the legwork for me and package it all in a nice, clean format.
Although a lot of people resolve to learn something new (a new language, how to fix their car, how to fingerprint someone) maybe, for the artist, the idea is to resolve to do something new.
Instead of just painting or photographing a different subject, the artist might resolve to create work using different materials and applying completely different rules. Or, completely break any rules about what is being created (this is our art and we can do whatever we want, right?) and don’t be concerned about whether or not it gains approval.
One resolution I’d like to see take place in the art community (and, well, anywhere) is to stop being concerned about whether what we’re doing fits in anywhere or makes sense to anyone. Even if a major component of creating artwork is communication, a person can’t communicate properly if she is always trying to figure out what the other person wants her to say.
This is the time and 2013 is the year – and all we have is now. There’s no better time than the new year to be clearer about what you’re doing and begin confusing the hell out of everyone else.