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Boffo Buskers Pull Big Bucks

You saw them on “The Kennedy Center Honors,” unlikely guests at an all-American event, this troupe of buskers from Brighton, England, prodding the swells in the audience to clap-clap in echoed response to their rhythms. You’ve seen them slather suds on a filthy school bus, brooms aswirl, on TV spots for Target Stores, or bang trash cans for Heineken beer and flick their Bics on Letterman and Leno, not to mention stages large and small around the world.

They’re “Stomp,” and they’re big: An international sensation who never utter a word in performance, aren’t connected with a mega-producer and who nevertheless have turned the syncopated abuse of found objects into a phenomenally popular and lucrative enterprise. They’re so in demand that recent invitations to perform at half-time of the NBA All-Star Game and MTV’s musicvideo awards were politely turned down for lack of time. They did, however, make time to create a number for United Artists’ futuristic March release “Tank Girl,” a song choreographed for creatures that are half-man, half-kangaroo.

Indeed, that split personality – performance that somehow strikes a primal chord, put to work selling beer, Coke, telephone services and school supplies, among other things – makes “Stomp” a perfect cultural enterprise for the era of Newt. Don’t expect any of their shows to be underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We used the commercial world to finance our bizarre fringe obsessions,” said co-founder Steve McNicholas, tracked down in Sydney, Australia, where he and partner Luke Cresswell are presenting the original “Stomp” ensemble in a festival. The U.S. company is preparing to celebrate the show’s first anniversary at the Orpheum Theater Off Broadway, having long ago returned its $400,000 capitalization to investors. It’s perfect alchemy, spinning gold from garbage cans.

“The ad agencies love what we do,” said McNicholas, who shares creative and directing credit for “Stomp” with Cresswell. “Luke and I had been doing a lot of jingles for TV in the U.K. and U.S.A. – Hershey’s chocolate, AT&T – involving the use of found objects. We’ve always wanted total independence, and thought it would be best if we could finance ourselves.” Referring to England’s version of the NEA, he added, “We’ve never applied for an Arts Council grant.

“Now we’re directing commercials, as well. Our next objective is a feature film,” McNicholas said. In 1981 Cresswell was a teen drummer in a Brighton street band, McNicholas an emigre from Yorkshire knocking about the U.K. with a street theater outfit. The groups joined up for their first Edinburgh gig with a show called “Rockabilly Voodoo.” Soon after, they created a performance troupe too cutely called Pookiesnackenburger, and that’s when things really took off. Playing any venue they could find – while making a series for Channel 4 and cutting a couple of albums – Pookie ended each gig with a choreographed routine that had the ensemble banging on garbage cans. The noisy bit was just 90 seconds long, but it became hugely popular and attracted the attention of Heineken beer, which featured the banging in a popular TV commercial.

At early performances, people would bring objects for use in the show.

“We’d use anything you could find in the audience,” McNicholas recalled. “A bicycle, a policeman’s helmet – Luke would play anything, basically.”

What eventually developed from those early appearances was a high-torque 90-minute show in which an eight-member ensemble drew sounds from garbage cans, Zippo lighters, matchboxes, rubber hoses, wooden poles, paper cups, oil drums (as the world’s biggest, loudest disco shoes), newspapers, pens and, mostly, themselves, with a little help from the audience.

They cite as percussive inspirations everything from Japanese Kodo to African Burundi.

Yes/No People

“We’d always talked about doing a full-length show that was all percussion,” McNicholas said. “We knew we could put a show together, but weren’t sure if people would like it. ‘Stomp’ was the first show I elected not to be in, but to be an outside eye. We wanted it to be a piece of theater, not a cabaret show.”

With the company now called the Yes/No People, “Stomp” made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer of 1991,10 years after its creators first met. The response was instant acclaim that led immediately to an Australian tour. It was quickly followed by gigs in Hong Kong, Ireland, Denmark, France, Spain, Canada, Italy and, finally, London, where “Stomp” ran for three weeks last year at Sadler’s Wells and nailed an Olivier Award for choreography.

By that time, they’d already been checked out by Columbia Artists Management Inc. impresario John Luckacovic, who’d first seen them on tape in 1992 and, later that year, at a Montreal comedy festival. Luckacovic contacted the group’s London agent and also did something unusual for CAMI, which manages and promotes music and dance internationally, by linking up with Off Broadway producer Richard Frankel. The team began booking a U.S. tour.

“My feeling was that if we bombed in New York, that would kill it for the road,” Luckacovic said, “but if we bombed on the road, there would still be New York.” “Stomp” played venues ranging from under 1,000 seats to well over 2,000, but it wasn’t an easy sell.

Odd sell

“People didn’t know what it was,” Luckacovic said, and venue operators were nervous about booking more than a single performance. “The presenters wanted to know how to sell it. We said, ‘Don’t try, it’ll sell itself.’ They believed in our belief.”

Luckacovic and CAMI were so certain of the show’s appeal that they struck a rare bargain with the presenters: Pay the guarantee for the first performance, and CAMI would split the fee on the next. The entire 36-week tour went clean.

To Frankel, who’d first been turned on to “Stomp” by partner Marc Routh, the appeal was obvious: “They saw the world and expressed their feelings about it in a very fresh manner. They’re always a half-step ahead of the audience.” It’s an attitude, he said, that combines “warmth with style.”

Finally, it was time for New York. Frankel booked the Orpheum Theater, the 350-seat East Village house that had recently hosted the long and profitable run of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” Luckacovic and Frankel brought in several other investors, including the theater’s managers, Mitchell Maxwell and Alan Schuster, to raise the $400,000 capitalization. With a gross potential of about $100,000 per week and running costs about half that, the show quickly recouped and has been in profit for months, with no end in sight, though the producers have had to rebuild the battered stage twice.

“We get people in suits, East Village kids, children,” said Frankel. “Our core audience is young, and best of all, it is not dependent on the New York Times. I’ve never had a show spend so little on advertising. It’s liberating.”

The most complicated aspect of the New York stand was planning the conversion to a U.S. company to free McNicholas and Cresswell for touring and their other projects. What Frankel and Luckacovic weren’t prepared for was how many recent drama school graduates with great circus and dance skills there were waiting tables in the East Village. Hundreds auditioned for Vince Liebhart, a casting director who knows the downtown scene. A new company was gradually cast and integrated last June.

Though they are esthetic opposites, “Stomp” bears comparison with Blue Man Group’s “Tubes,” in its fourth year at another East Village theater, the Astor Place. While “Tubes” is heavy on technology and “Stomp” is practically anti-technology, both shows tap into something almost instinctual in an audience that cuts across boundaries of age, sex and race.

Sticking to their creative guns, or broomsticks, the Yes/No People have struck gold. Luckacovic offers a pretty good explanation of why:

“What does ‘Stomp’ do? It’s your mother yelling at you,” he said, “to stop banging on the pots and pans.”

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