In the orgy of light and colour of New York City’s Broadway theater district, you can gaze at big names in much-hyped shows in large and lavish theaters.
Or, in a smallish venue diagonally downtown, you can watch three bald men in face paint hit things for upwards of 80 minutes.
I caught the Blue Man Group in New York in a theater packed with giggly French high schoolers, the first few rows of whom had ominously been supplied with plastic ponchos. The production itself is plotless and family-friendly entertainment, sort of a neo-vaudeville variety show. There are lots of physical tricks, sight gags, insistent percussion numbers and multimedia sequences that were probably devised around the time when PowerPoint was a novelty. Coloured paint is splashed, marshmallows are caught in mouths. Gumballs and meaningful glances are shot at the crowd and the squirmy threat of audience participation lingers throughout.
And the performers are a group of blue men in case you missed that: a trio of wide-eyed, chrome domed extraterrestrials gleaming with gooey blueberry maquillage. Unsmiling, mute and wide-eyed, they look alien but behave more like playful children. They’re blue but, as the Arrested Development line goes, only in colour.
The slickness of the production gives no clue of the grungy, streetside performance art beginnings of the act. Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton put their respective acting careers aside in the 80s to, as Stanton puts it, “experiment”. “We didn’t have a formal show to begin with,” he says. “We began getting bald and blue on the streets of NYC. We were amazed at the reactions to the character. Everyone reacted differently. Some were enthralled, some angered, some ignored us completely as if seeing a bald and blue man on the street was an everyday occurrence. But we began to feel like we had something special here.”
Indeed, by 1991, the group of blue men had become special enough to warrant a proper noun and set up shop in Astor Place Theater in NoHo. They’ve become a phenomenon since then, boasting international tours on top of residencies in Vegas (arguably its spiritual home), Boston, Chicago and Orlando. In New York, a rotating roster of Blue Men do 14 shows, predominantly for tourists, every week. The brand owns the theatre now, which these days is kitted out with blue lights.
Stanton now serves as creative director, overseeing and maintaining the Blueness of a small army of Blue Men.
“Most of the Blue Men have formal acting training, and possibly percussion or drumming training, although we can teach the right candidates to drum,” he says.
“But more than their formal training, we are looking for performers who have a certain combination of confidence and vulnerability, playfulness and reverence. The Blue Man character experiences a range of emotions throughout the show, even though he doesn’t use words to express them. We are looking for performers who can convey these emotions and also lead the audience on a rollercoaster of emotion as well. It often takes two or more years for performers to really find the Blue Man within themselves.”
With encouragement, Stanton philosophises on “getting to know the Blue Man” and the essential Blueness within. He draws connections between the show and the traditions of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, even Jackson Pollack, whose exuberant paints partly inspired the show’s kinetic opening number. He teases out the connotations of the colour blue itself (originally just an intuitive decision): blue as a traditional tribal colour, blue as a neutral colour of the sky and water.
But despite the crania-emphasising baldcaps the performers wear, the Blue Man Group show is as uncerebral as they come. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a shiny thing. The audience I’m in grinningly and absolutely goes with it.
“It takes a great deal of energy,” says Stanton, “but the payoff is such an incredible connection with the audience. It truly is thrilling to feel an entire group of people come together in celebration at the culmination of the show.”
What he doesn’t mention is that the culmination of the show involves spraying the audience with endless reams of toilet paper. What, you were expecting Tristan und Isolde?
An edited version of this interview appeared in Time Out Sydney in August 2013.