By Zach Schepis
They crash, they bang, they rumble, and shake. Insert whatever colorful verb you’d like, just remember that the performers of STOMP are all about constant motion. Created in the UK in 1991, STOMP has become an international tour de force. Audiences have fallen in love with the constantly changing experience, which features a cast of talented actors and musicians who create intricate percussive performances out of everyday objects.
Jason Mills has been performing onstage with the production for close to 20 years. Both an accomplished dancer and musician (he’s a drummer and bassist for the soul band Beetroot), Mills brings passion to every performance. He even met his wife, Fiona Wilkes, on set.
Mills takes some time to share these experiences with BTR while waiting to pick up his child from tap-dancing lessons (following in the musical footsteps of the family, no pun intended!).
BTR: When did you first start getting involved with music?
Jason Mills: I grew up around it. My dad was a drummer and he was always playing in bands, so when I was a kid, music was just part of the fabric of my life. Before the fifth grade I’d already sat behind a drum kit plenty of times.
BTR: Given your role in STOMP, I kind of had you figured for a pots-and-pans guy.
JM: Well, you’re actually right (laughs). I grew up around adults that were constantly making music. It was the ‘70s, and they would have these jam sessions in our kitchen. They would start with some acoustic instruments, and then before long people would begin grabbing pots and pans or start singing. People would be playing percussion on whatever was lying around.
I think part of the appeal about STOMP is that many of us have experienced these unhinged rhythmic moments, just not to the full extreme that we take it to onstage.
BTR: When did you first hear about STOMP, and what was the audition process like?
JM: I had just moved to NYC about 20 years ago, and was freelancing as a graphic designer–which meant that I was mostly chasing calls trying to get paid. So I waited tables around St. Mark’s Place to have some money to stretch. The show opened up around the corner on 2nd Avenue at the Orpheum Theatre, and I started to see these playbills surface everywhere.
At the time I was dating a tap dancer, and she couldn’t stop talking about it. “Dancers with rhythm and drummers that move well,” she told me was what they were looking for. I had done a lot of theater back in school, but that was a while ago. She convinced me to go audition, and the whole way there I kept thinking to myself, “great, here somebody has gone and ruined a perfectly good idea.”
BTR: Little did you know…
JM: Exactly. As soon as I got there and they started teaching us the stuff, I realized that I had the completely wrong idea. After I saw the talent there, I knew I wanted the audition. After trying out I walked over to the box office and bought a ticket to actually see them do the real deal. Needless to say I was completely blown away. I’m happy I didn’t see them before the first audition, because I would have been all nerves (laughs).
BTR: What are some of the most bizarre and interesting instruments you’ve played with STOMP?
JM: Oh man, you name it: brooms, trashcans, matches, dishwashers, zippo lighters… we recently acquired some shopping trolleys.
JM: It’s British, so technically it’s not a shopping “cart,” but for all intents and purposes that’s what it is. We’ve also used “frogs”–which are expandable drainage plumbing pipes. They make a ribbit! sound if you move them both ways, changing the different diameters and lengths.
BTR: Are most of the performers you work with drummers and musicians, like yourself?
JM: Believe it or not, but most of these people just have a theatre background. What they all share, however, is a real natural propensity toward being able to perform these feats. Even if you are classically trained, you’re going to have to dirty it. Let’s face it; you just can’t do classical pirouettes with trashcans on your hands.
STOMP swallows all of these constraints on form and spits them back out in its own image. You just have to shed it. We don’t move like trained dancers. It might take some people a while to assimilate, but most of the cast just come in and make it with a good sense of rhythm and some charisma.
BTR: I imagine these kinds of performances can become pretty taxing on the body.
JM: Physically it becomes very demanding. It’s like being a professional athlete, or like a stunt drummer. It’s easy to hit some repetitive movement issues; we wear oil drums strapped to our feet (called walkers) that can destroy your back in one forced move. Repetition is the hardest, and after a while you might begin to ask why a certain part of your body hurts. So I’ll do my own greatest-hits medley of physical therapy and yoga to keep limber.
BTR: I read that you actually met your wife, Fiona, on set.
JM: We weren’t working too closely together for the first couple of years. Our paths would cross on the road, but it wasn’t until she got placed in the New York cast that we finally started spending time around one another. She was my boss then, and helped train me. I thought she was incredibly cool, and she had an amazing stage presence. It didn’t take long for us to hit it off.
BTR: Does the marriage ever get in the way of performing, or enhance it?
JM: It can always be easy for people in these kinds of positions not to get along. It could have wound up being some Fleetwood Mac scenario but thankfully it didn’t. We’ve been together for 17 years now, but we stopped performing together years ago. If we still did, who knows, maybe it would be different. She’s still my boss, she’s still the rehearsal director and calls the shots, but I don’t find that hard at all. We fell in love because of the respect we had for one another.
BTR: What do you cherish most about performing with STOMP?
JM: I’ve been in it for a long time, so it evolves. But as someone who’s been performing on tour for nearly two decades, what I’m really invested in now is successful communication with the audience. We evolved out of street performance, so there is no fourth wall. My character facilitates a lot of that interaction.
Every crowd and night is different. I’m beginning to relish those differences more and more, the nuances and challenge it brings is not just a stock routine. You can sell that as honest, but it’s better to be in the moment and bring something particular to that night, to those people.
All photos courtesy of STOMP’s official Facebook page.