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The Big Interview: Blue Man Group

Published 17 April 2008

You’ve seen the posters on the tube and maybe heard a thing or two about mess, waterproof ponchos and (horrors!) audience participation. But the quirky New York import Blue Man Group is much more than this, and the show will be hoping to prove its worth as the hottest ticket in town at this Sunday’s Laurence Olivier Awards, where it has been nominated in the Best Entertainment category. Caroline Bishop ventured to the New London theatre to find out exactly what makes a blue man blue.

“Tribal, playful, outrageous, intelligent, stupid… and something else, something visual,” Chris Wink pauses, unable to quite put his finger on that missing adjective to complete his summation of the Blue Man Group. If the creator of the show has trouble describing it then there’s no hope for me. But here goes: the show is a collection of comedy sketches, drumming, painting and other bizarre antics performed without words by three men with blue faces, accompanied by a live band who sit suspended in two hanging boxes either side of the stage. Created and performed by Wink and two friends, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton, in New York in 1991, Blue Man Group has since spiralled into an international mega-show. There are over 60 Blue Men worldwide, each of whom goes through an eight-week training process before donning the blue paint, plus countless musicians. The show is quirky, funny and very messy, but it is also, according to Wink, pretty profound. Blue Man Group is not just a performance, it’s a whole philosophy. I had a chat with Blue Man Kalen Allmandinger, band musicians Josh Matthews and Oliver Hofer and creator Chris Wink, who told me all about the brains behind the blue…

On how it started…

Chris, Phil and Matt performed eight shows a week for three years from 1991

CHRIS: “It was a solution to a personal crisis. I shared with my partners a feeling of ‘what am I going to do?’ given the array of interests that I have that don’t go together. I was interested in comedy, acting, art history and I also had an interest in pop culture – the crazy world we keep creating for ourselves. I was also a drummer. The truth is there wasn’t a real grand plan. I just decided to create a multimedia performance where I can combine everything I like. Matt [Goldman] and I were school mates. We met Phil [Stanton] when we were waiters together. He was a disillusioned actor and a builder. Matt had been working in technology-related fields. So Phil would be building a drum, Matt would be playing with an electronic sign and I would be bringing in a bunch of paint and my art history background. Then we’d all say lets do something silly like Monty Python, because we all share a strong love of comedy.

“Besides being a hotch-potch of interests of ours, we were all fans of Dada. Dada sprung out of a sense that the world had become absurd and that we needed to express some of its craziness. Do we reject it and run away screaming? Or do we turn it into something fun and weirdly logical? There are these big crazy waves that are splashing onto us – waves of progress, of marketing, of consumerism, of information – and the Blue Man approach is to innocently pull up a surf board and ride it in a fun way.

On the character…

Blue Man Group paint drummingKALEN: The whole idea behind the character and the reason that they tried to get people physically as similar as possible is so that it is a blank canvas, three of the same-looking beings doing things in a non-human way. Obviously we are humans, but we are an egoless character, not reacting in an ordinary humanoid way – that’s how we play it.

CHRIS: The Blue Man is a generic outsider, a fish out of water, a punk rock anti-clown. There’s a heroic strength when he plays the drums – I studied African drumming and Japanese drumming, so these full body forms of ritualistic drumming had an influence on the character. But the flip side is this Forrest Gump-style innocence. There’s a humanity to the character, he’s a good soul. We try to make the character different by removing the ego, strip it away to an innocence and a tribal strength put together.

To become blue, a Blue Man wears a bald cap and smothers his head in blue theatrical greasepaint

JOSH: It takes a really long time for some people to understand the characters, but with some it’s just natural. It’s a very interesting thing. You could be a trained actor and never get it. It’s a total innate, primal, natural thing.

CHRIS: At first blush his appearance makes him not look human and by the time you’re through with the show you see all this humanity. We play the character very human just in a diminished way. There’s a subtlety to the Blue Man that we are asking the audience to look for.

On becoming a Blue Man…

Auditions are held in New York at a studio on the Lower East Side

OLIVER: I got a call on a Friday asking if I could be in Berlin next Thursday. So I had to pack up my life in four days and my training was in Berlin for four months, and then I came over here [to London] – and loved it ever since!

KALEN: The two main things that a blue man has to be able to do is act or emote somehow and play the drums. So the first part of the audition is a musicality test, you play some pretty simple things but it’s to feel the groove and show it’s not the first time you’ve held a pair of sticks.

There are six Blue Men in London including one French and one Polish

JOSH: Some people don’t know that they are a drummer yet. That’s one of the greatest things about the job for us is that we get to take on people who think they’re only this talented and you come to realise that they’re much more.

On the tricks…

Around 10 gallons of paint is splashed about during Blue Man antics in a single week

KALEN: When you are hired for the show it’s a part of every day that there’s at least half an hour of just throwing and catching. We use tiny little bits of water balloons and just throw them back and forth for hours and hours.

JOSH: When they started they used to do all sorts of crazy stuff using weird substances which you eat. It was always about paint and mess and creating a piece of art with the whole space – part of that was making a mess. That’s why we hand out ponchos before every show.

KALEN: We use condoms full of paint. It looks like a little gum ball – you catch it, bite it and then make a painting out of it. Then the other one is cream cheese.

During one week of shows the Blue Men consume between 640 and 1,000 marshmallows

JOSH: So many of the jokes that were created in New York were taken for granted here, we assumed that people were going to get it. There are some cultural head-bashes at first but Blue Man always has a way of making it to the other side where people do end up understanding it.

On the music…

Blue Man Group has produced two albums – Gavin Rossdale from Bush features on one

OLIVER: It’s amazing how you listen to a song and you just know it’s Blue Man music. There’s one element that just makes it… I can’t explain it.

CHRIS: There’s an edginess to it that alludes to the energy of new wave, indie rock. But there is also a little bit of ambient or world music, something very moody and meditative. And then there’s that tribal, rhythmic group drumming. Somehow it all comes together in a way that is familiar and new in its combination of elements.

JOSH: We use some pretty unorthodox instruments. We do use drums, guitar and bass, those are the primary, but we use an electric zither, which was built by one of the members of the company – that’s another interesting aspect. Every instrument that they make comes from their surroundings – like how can we make the untraditional sound like something interesting.

The Blue Man Group’s tubular instruments use around 600 feet of PVC tubing

Blue Man paintingCHRIS: We developed a real interest in tube playing and we would build those instruments. It’s that feeling of taking industrial plumbing, something we don’t care about, and Blue Man manages to twist it into something that creates beauty.

JOSH: You never really know what’s going to happen in the show. You have a basic plan, a template to go by, but the most important thing as musicians is that you stay with the guys. We kind of know what they’re going to do but it depends on the audience. We as musicians have to be ready to help support whatever motion or moment they are trying to make. I would view it as a soundtrack we are playing to, but the difference is that we are also in it, we are seen.

Blue Man Group created the soundtrack to the film Robots

On being blue…

JOSH: Why not? If it was Yellow Man Group it would still work.

Three Blue Men plaster themselves with 100-140 cakes of blue make-up in one week

CHRIS: It was a character that just showed up in our minds. Blue is universal, the colour of the planet from space, the colour of the sky, it has an everyman vibe. It’s alien-like, but it is also humanity. Then there’s the resonance with Yves Klein who was really an amazing artist in France. He had an obsession with Cobalt blue and how it was a glimpse into the void, a magic colour that reverberated. We’ve noticed on stage that when we use really deep blue lighting your eyes have a difficulty focusing on it. Also, there’s the monochrome-ness of it, it’s a little scary at first and then when you get used to it, it’s pretty. That’s what we want our show experience to be like – we want people to be a little bit scared of the show, to have heard that it’s crazy or messy and be a little uncomfortable.

Up to 185 miles of paper is spewed over the audience during one week of shows (then it goes in the recycling bin)

JOSH: A lot of people think we [the musicians] are animated. It’s just a one-piece cotton costume with this sort of day-glow cut out of a stick figure. We use tribal indigenous influences to choose how we want to paint our faces. It’s definitely one of my favourite parts of the experience. When you’re old like me and you’ve done the show many times, you come up with a basic paint job every time.

On what comes next…

Blue Man Group has grown from the Astor Place Theatre in New York (299 seats) to The Venetian in Las Vegas (1729 seats)

JOSH: One of the coolest things about the company is the way Chris works. He’ll come up to me and say ‘what do you think should happen’ and it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s a group, a collective.

OLIVER: It’s amazing how these three guys have taken their baby and put their trust in all these people.

Chris, Matt and Phil are involved in putting together every new show that opens

JOSH: That’s what makes it so cool and so real and so easy for us to work for them because I think they are just in awe of this whole thing just as much as anyone else.

CHRIS: We liked developing and playing the character very much, but our love from the beginning was in creating the work. At certain points we felt imprisoned by being on stage every night because we couldn’t create the material. [Now] I get up in the morning and write new material to make the show fresh. Every time the show opens in a different place it has been a little different. We became interested in how to create not just a good show but a good company, and how to have a culture that was exciting to be in. There are places that people work that they’re really excited to work in, and we want to be one of those places.

Blue Man Group is currently booking until 3 September at the New London theatre.

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