5. How Blue Can you Get?
I leave the hotel at 9 AM, grab an egg sandwich and coffee from Dunkin Donuts, then spend twenty-five minutes scouring Chinatown for a banana (because lord knows the key to properly portraying a percussive mime is a healthy dose of potassium). Fully fed and caffeinated, I make my way to the Blue Man training loft, where I am the second auditioner to arrive. The first is a zealously friendly Los Angeles pretty-boy, who greets me with a firm handshake and shows no outward signs of the nervousness now laying a goose-egg in my throat and causing my heart to beat out many of the same rhythms I swear they had me play in the Chicago audition.
The training loft itself is a converted third-floor apartment off Canal and Broadway (what is it with Blue Man Group using former living-quarters as rehearsal spaces?) with electric red walls leading from a cubicled office section, past a bi-sofaed waiting room, and down a long hallway to a black-box rehearsal space. Along this corridor a number of classic Blue Man instrument inventions are on display, including a PVC-pipe marimba and an authentic “Drumbone.” The coffee table in the waiting room is buried under several issues of New York Magazine as well as a lone copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which seems strangely out of place next to cover-shots of Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. Overall the place gives off a distinctly casual vibe, making it seem more a hangout or clubhouse than a place where dreams are about to be made and/or broken.
As the other prospective Blue Men arrive, my handsome companion makes sure to greet each one successively by leaping to his feet and offering the same enthusiastic and genial handshake he gave me. The rest of us see fit to grunt introductions and wave from our seats, an increasingly complicated orchestration as more and more come through the door and fill the tiny space. The most common topic of conversation seems to be the city of each new entrant’s origin, and it is from this I learn that these auditions are not, in fact, limited to a Chicago-based pool (as I had previously believed). In fact, besides myself there are only two others hailing from the Windy City. The rest are mostly New York locals or Los Angeles transplants, although there are also young men from Orlando, Las Vegas, Nashville, and Memphis, all but the latter of whom came through their own regional audition process (the Memphis fellow actually flew out to New York on his own dime that very week to partake in his first round).
Of the assemblage, just about all are between the ages of 21 and 27, Caucasian, and male, but the physical similarities end there. Though no one here is exactly overweight, body types range from scrawny to chiseled to noticeably pudgy, hitting just about every note in between. Hair color, meanwhile, runs the gamut from Spencer Pratt-bleach-blonde to fiery ginger to the luscious brown of my own Jewy locks, although none of the group, I notice, is preexistingly bald nor has any overeager aspirant jumped the gun and shaved his head.
I am, however, dismayed to discover that I am the shortest in the room by at least an inch or two, especially having opted, that morning, to forgo my Bounty insoles in favor of greater mobility. Interestingly (and somewhat frustratingly), it appears that while casting offices made sure to enforce the 5’10” low-end cutoff of the BMG height code, they ignored the alleged 6’1” maximum cap entirely, as several of my fellows top out at well over 6’4”. Even more discouraging, perhaps, is the discovery that nearly all of my co-auditioners are professional actors by trade: practitioners for whom this experience is nothing more than another day at the office and hardly the destiny-altering-momentous-opportunity-of-staggering-potential that it feels like for me. But so what? It’s not like I’m about to vomit up my entire intestinal track from sheer anxiety or saturate my blue jeans with the remnants of my morning coffee. Oh wait…
By the time the whole group (thirteen in all) has arrived it is a little after ten o’clock, but due to an apparent miscommunication between the Blue Man casting directors, it is almost a quarter to eleven before anyone shows up to actually conduct the auditions. This “someone” turns out to be their lead casting director, who I’ll refer to here as Andy (mostly because I forget his actual name), a man of approximately five feet, eleven inches weighing maybe 165 pounds, with thick ear piercings, a tattoo down the length of one arm, and a graying crew-cut. He appears to be somewhere in his forties and speaks with the commanding enthusiasm of an acting teacher or Frisbee coach. Joe Pantaliano could play him in a movie.
He leads us into the rehearsal space, which I now see is furnished with a scaled-down replica of the actual BMG performance set. This consists of a raised platform upstage (or in this case, against the right wall) bearing three metal trashcan-drums and other strategically hung percussion, an assortment of colorful props (including rubber gloves, a funnel, a bright red target, and a welding mask) stored at either wing, and a pit-band setup in the back right (upstage-left) corner. In two adjoining rooms can be seen an additional assortment of PVC instruments and other technological gagetry that anyone who has seen the show would instantly recognize as the artillery behind one skit or another. The whole space possesses a palpable, electric air of “this is where the magic begins.”
Our little mob clustered around him, Andy kicks the day off with a slew of welcoming remarks: first congratulating us on our achievements thus far, then delving into details about the process ahead. One thing he immediately makes clear is that the company is not looking to fill a specific number of openings, but rather to add as many worthy Blue Men as they can find to their eventual performer pool. This, he emphasizes, means we should treat the process as a collaborative one – not a competitive one – since we are not fighting with our fellow hopefuls for a limited number of spots, but working together to showcase each and every one of us as potential cast members.
Despite such sentiments, however (and being the insecure and superficial prick that I am), I cannot help but scan through the various faces of my now-compatriots, looking for any excuse to write a fellow off as un-selectable. I find myself over-scrutinizing the slightest of physical defects, wondering if a smattering of blue paint can mask the stark conspicuousness of a set of squinty eyes or a twenty-five year old with Droopy-Dog jowls. Not that I am without my own physical peculiarities, of course (most notably an abundantly wooly brow and the capacious nasal volume typical of your standard Semitic tribesman), and to this end I begin to worry whether Blue Man Group, in their efforts to draft as neutral and identical a set of performers as possible, does not affix certain judgments to particularly striking facial features.
Such concerns, coupled with the previously-noted ethnic composition of my fellow call-backees and I, start me wondering whether a non-Caucasian could ever be cast as a Blue Man. Does an ethnic countenance automatically disqualify one from their ambiguous ranks on the basis of inherent dissimilarity, and if that’s the case would a black or Asian man stand a fighting chance in these auditions? I would imagine this not to be so, but then again I’ve never seen a black Blue Man (would they call him a bruise? Is that racist?).
As my mind winds its way through the various ethnosociological implications of a racially slanted Blue Man paradigm, I realize I have completely lost track of what Andy is saying and quickly snap myself out of my high-minded ruminations. Post-racial analysis of the company’s physical standards will have to be set aside for another day. Right now it’s time to listen in.
I return my full focus to Andy’s instruction in time to catch him finish his detailing of the day’s agenda: first, a morning of introductory exercises and games, then the learning of an actual Blue Man Group routine, a break for lunch, and finally an afternoon spent work-shopping said routine under the watch of himself and other casting directors. At the end of all of this, we’ll be ushered into brief meetings for a one-on-one critique and be informed as to whether or not we have made it on to the triumph and blue-makeup-ed excitement of day two (and my self-established goal).
Having dutifully expounded the business side of things, Andy concludes his speech with an offering of veteran advice: imparting that the key to success in this audition is to be ourselves, as openly and earnestly as we can, and to avoid at all costs the common trap of “playing a Blue Man” or at least whatever it is we imagine a Blue Man to be. Of course this completely deflates my pre-figured strategy of maintaining a day-long impression of Al Pacino doing an impression of a Blue Man, but in retrospect is probably all for the best.
With that, we delve right into action, as our jaunty director leads us in a variety of high-energy acting exercises that we might free ourselves from the shackles of inhibition and just generally “get the blood flowin’!” The first thing we play is a game called “Knights, Guards, and Foot Soldiers,” sort of a human-based musical chairs that involves “soft-focus” (peripheral perception) and also putting our feet on each others’ chests. Next we play a stimulating couple rounds of multi-player “Hunter-Hunted,” which amounts to a silent game of elimination tag with all participants blindfolded. Again the purpose of this seems to be perceptive enhancement but it also serves as old-school theatre class fun and a great way to start shrugging off one’s anxieties and grow comfortable within the audition space itself. It is also surprisingly side-splitting to watch normally coordinated twenty-somethings stumble and bumble their way through a sightless schoolyard game, and perhaps not-so-surprising that said-game leads to a satisfying abundance of inadvertent crotch-shots (thankfully I myself am spared).
The last “warm-up” game – and the one that likely requires the greatest abandon of self-consciousness – is called “Puppies,” and consists of everybody crawling around on all fours and pretending to be puppies for five minutes. I’m serious: that’s the game. Trust me, if you ever want to know how manipulatable actors are (and how easy it is to strip them of anything resembling dignity), call a few to an “audition” and simply ask them to get on the floor and act like puppies. I swear, if they had kept it going for a full hour, guys still would have been sniffing each others’ asses and fake-urinating on walls with more enthusiasm than an actual month-old golden retriever could ever muster. But I digress…
Following a successful warm-up (by now my nervousness, though still present, is significantly subsided), we are joined by Mike, another Blue Man director, who in many ways looks like the clean-cut version of Andy. Taking the reins as Andy leaves to grab a smoke, Mike proceeds to lead us in what is either a new-age exercise in psychological shell removal or yet another, more individualized introductory game (he never really describes its official purpose, but instead launches straight in). One at a time, we run across the stage, make ten knee-tuck jumps in place (apparently to exert ourselves physically), then turn to face the group and say our names in as open a manner as possible. As each of us go, Mike proceeds to critique our “unguardedness,” as he calls it, requesting most of us to jump a few more times and try the introduction again. I, for instance, am told that I possess a bit too much defiance on my first attempt and am asked to give it another go. My second pass proceeds much more smoothly, although now I am left wondering whether my height-related insecurities are seeping into my subconscious and triggering some sort of overcompensation mechanism ala a mild Napoleon complex, which in turn has seemingly permeated my vocal cadence. Or maybe I should have eaten another banana, damn it.
By now it’s almost noon, and we are joined by yet a third Blue Man director, Dan, who wears a fedora and his cargo pants tucked into black dress socks. His appearance is apparently the signal for the real thrust of the audition to commence, and so it is we take a moment’s pause from physical activity to learn about the world into which each of us hopes to soon break.
The Blue Man character, Mike explains, is not a character at all, but a reflection of the actor inside fitting himself into a variety of psychological identities. In this way, every Blue Man is unique (and in fact, every performance of every Blue Man is unique) as his interior monologue and outward persona are not the devised fictions of a theatrical creation but the real thoughts and actions of the performer, placed under the influence of a few preset conditions. In this sense, Blue Men are not meant to be aliens or robots or otherworldly figures, but simply a collection of individuals, trained in certain behaviors, who happen to find themselves deposited onstage in front of eager audiences six nights a week in cities all across the world.
Obviously there is more complexity to the picture than just that. The key to the Blue Man persona lies in those psychological identities/preset conditions, which form a framework for emotional discovery and focus the performer’s own personality down specific channels. In essence, though I am thinking and acting as myself, I am doing this within the guidelines of a predetermined mental and emotional agenda. I am Mike, but I am a Mike who is frightened by the watchful eyes of the audience or intrigued by a drumstick in my hand. The Blue Man “script,” then, is more a roadmap of these psychological discoveries that guide a performer through a unique personal journey as every show unfolds.
It is worth mentioning, however, that the specific directions for these emotional states do take on (at first glance, at least) the appearance of active characters. They even bear names like something out of commedia dell'arte or the vaudevillian tradition: “the Hero,” “the Scientist,” “the Innocent,” etc. Mike informs us that today we will be dealing primarily with the latter two of these, using them in conjunction and contrast to formulate our stage personas as we delve into our upcoming routines.
The Scientist, he explains, is a proactive and investigative self. Each new stimulus strikes him with an understanding that something needs to get done, and he is determined to find out what that might be. He is hurried in the manner that an infectious disease researcher (his metaphor) might hasten to achieve his results, but never careless or unfocused. The Scientist absorbs an endless quantity of information but never waivers from the task at hand. In a sense he is the performer in his most curious – yet driven – self. He is Sherlock Holmes as Blue Man incarnate.
The Innocent too bears a keen interest in the world around him, but for him this is borne out of a wide-eyed sense of childish wonder. He is the classic naif, even a clown in his stark ignorance – though more awestruck than idiotic. His vulnerability and marvel are what drive him, but he possesses a palpable uncertainty and even nervousness as he interacts with an unfamiliar world. Unlike the Scientist, the Innocent takes his time as he is inundated with new information at every turn and sees no need to hustle through his journey at all. In one sense, he is the ten-month-old who lives inside each of us, able to continually see the world through new and marvelous lenses. In another sense, our game of “Puppies” might have possessed some relevance after all.
I understand it may seem counterintuitive to emphasize the Blue Man as not a character at all and then expound the specific character-sounding identities that the performer is meant to embody. Mike, however, explains to us that concepts like the Scientist and Innocent are not beings to portray, but rather ways to tap into one’s own psychology and experience and draw out the emotional resonance they carry (and which make for a compelling Blue Man stage presence). Ideally, archetypes like the Scientist and Idiot exist within each of us to begin with and can be summoned without compromising the integrity of the performer. This is the challenge to Blue Man acting. Well, that and breathing through your nose for a ninety minute show.
Actually the physicality of Bluemanship is yet another piece to this complicated puzzle, and after explicating the overarching psychology of the performance, Mike guides us through the correlating (and fortunately much more graspable) corporal embodiment that shapes the behavior of the Blue Man persona. The Blue Man stance is a neutral one, with slight adjustments geared to create a more engaged and active appearance. The feet are shoulder-width apart and exactly parallel, with the weight rolled ever-so-slightly onto the balls of the feet. The arms are bent and tensed to maybe 10% more readiness than standard loose-limbed posturing, and this tension spreads all the way to the very tips of the fingers. Though the face is largely informed by the interior monologue, almost all expression centers on the eyes and brow, while the mouth remains closed and unsmiling. A Blue Man always breathes through his nose (and breathing plays a vital role as he ‘takes in’ the world around him). The Blue Man walk is very much the same as a normal walk, except that the arms do not swing but maintain their tensile preparedness. All in all the Blue Man posture is one of discovery, energy and engagement, driving the performer as he learns and experiences the world through new, Blue eyes.
With all this theory in our freshly implanted arsenal, we launch into a program of gradual Blue Man exploration, embodying the affectations of our adopted new mentalities and physicalities. We begin with our eyes, standing fixed in our Blue Man forms and observing the world around us through this newly-minted vision. Next we are instructed to move, interacting with our environment – first as Scientist then as Innocent – in our investigation of the surfaces and objects that exist about the room. Finally we are invited to acknowledge each other, communicating nonverbal thoughts and ideas as we continue to engage our many surroundings. While the exercise is both stimulating and informative, there is something deeply unsettling about a stage full of plain-clothed, amateur Blue Men making wide-eyes at each other then pairing off to examine a folding chair. A detached part of myself cannot help but think of us as some strange, humanoid zoo exhibit – a gaggle of like-mannered simpletons whose behaviors strike me as not far-off from those one might encounter in an exhibit of penguins or prairie dogs. At very least we’d make for a lively study in social anthropology.
If there is one thing particularly jarring about this whole “becoming” process it is how easily each element of the Blue Man persona informs and extracts the next. The physical posturing really does inspire a mentality of active investigation. It drives one across the floor toward an object and triggers literal thoughts of “what is this? I must find out!” The commitment to discovery in turn ignites an entire personality centered around feelings of curiosity and wonder, which evolves into an emotional resonance, until before I know it, I have (on the interior, at least) become a bona fide Blue Man. As I interact with the others in my group, I can see it has affected them much the same way (either that or they are doing dynamite impressions), and zoo-exhibit or not, it begins to feel only natural to behave in so bold and bizarre a fashion.
This, of course, is where things start to get weird. Director Dan, it seems, has recently watched a documentary about Mexican street gangs’ operation inside the prison yard. Inspired by this, he initiates a game in which we are divided into three-man posses and told to imagine ourselves as rival factions in a Tijuana jailhouse (still carrying ourselves as Blue Men, mind you). He then produces a bubble-pipe (did I say things got weird? I meant really weird) and declares it to be, in actuality, a shiv, which he will surreptitiously bestow upon a chosen member of our lot. From then on, we (again, still Blue Men – however now Mexican gangster Blue Men) are to engage each other under the given circumstances of the prison scenario, with the added objective of acquiring the bubble-shiv and stealthfully laying waste all those outside our respective “crews.” If we are stabbed, we die. If Dan (the warden) catches one of us with the pipe in our hand, we are forced into “lockup” and removed from the game.
Ostensibly designed to enhance the urgency of our awareness and communication (as well, I’m sure, to test our adeptness at remaining in character in light of new circumstance) the exercise turns into an exhilarating guessing game as each of us warily plods about the space, anxiously attempting to unearth the identity of the shiv holder. This is actually a great deal of fun until I become the first unlucky victim to fall prey to the vicious whims of El Bubblito. As I lie on the cold, black prison turf, bleeding out my imaginary life beneath the blazing Sonora sun, I cannot help but wonder whether I have damaged my casting chances by my inability to stave off this covert carving of my kidneys. These thoughts are swallowed up, however, as the world about me blurs and fades to blue. Adios Amigos.
Five minutes later (during which time I was forced to remain lying “dead” on the floor and only heard the excitement about me as others fell in like fashion), the exercise is ended and the field of slaughter cleared. After a brief water and bathroom break (even Mexican Blue Man prison gangsters get thirsty sometimes) we at long last move on to the day’s main event: the learning and rehearsing of an actual Blue Man skit.
Dan and Mike (Andy at this point has still not come back from his smoke break and no one is exactly sure where he is) sit us all down and enthusiastically inform us that we are going to be mastering a true BMG classic: The Captain Crunch Routine. With help from one of my better-versed compatriots (actually, I find out later that the California crew already learned this same routine as part of a second round of local auditions between their initial ones and the New York call-back), the two of them act out and explain in rather painstaking detail the ins and outs of the five-minute bit. It proceeds as follows:
Three Blue Men (dubbed “Left,” “Center,” and “Right,” based on their actors’-view positioning) enter the stage, across the front of which three boxes of Captain Crunch cereal have been set – spaced at roughly five-foot intervals. The stage-left box is twice the size of the other two boxes, but for the moment (for a while, actually), this goes unnoticed by the Blue Men. Instead, upon their entrance they find themselves drawn to the audience and explorative of the space of the stage in whole, cognizant that something needs to be done (i.e. they’re up there for a reason), but unsure of just what that ‘something’ is. Eventually the three spot the boxes and each makes his way towards the one at his respective position. Inspired by the notion that the ‘thing to be done’ might involve the cereal, the three simultaneously bend down, pick up the boxes, and display them at chest level. This all takes roughly thirty seconds.
Proceeding in accordance with the notion that the cereal boxes operate as some sort of vital instrument to the act, Center and Right (in like fashion) each reach inside their box, grab a handful of the cereal and present it to the audience in the hopes that this might fulfill their mysterious obligation (the audience, through the skit, becomes a guiding force of appraisal as their responses seem to indicate what level of success the Blue Men achieve with each successive action). Left, however, here breaks from his brothers, and rather than a handful, pinches out a single nugget of cereal between his thumb and forefinger, confidently showcasing this prize instead (and seemingly ignorant of the actions of the other two). With the audience focus drawn to Left’s dissimilarity, Right and Center, aware something is off, turn toward their companion to find that he has failed to follow in their mutual form. A brief Center-Left exchange (something in the nature of admonishment from the former – though without anger) persuades Left to follow in his brothers’ suit and he quickly drops his nugget and scoops and presents a full handful of Crunch himself. Somehow all of this is funny.
Their uniformity renewed, all three Blue Men proceed to shove their massive handfuls into their respective mouths. While Center and Right seem satisfied with the results, Left again breaks rank, regurgitating his unchewed mouthful back into its box. After another awkward reprimand from Center, he makes haste to correct his mistake, retrieving the regurgitated handful from his box and cramming it back inside his mouth. Again, this is very funny.
Here, however is where things begin to unwind. Disoriented by Left’s dissidence, Center and Right now attempt to follow his lead, each scooping out another handful of cereal themselves to add to their already full mouths. While Center is successful in his endeavor (despite having now doubly stuffed his maw with the sugary bits), Right, like Left before him, is suddenly struck by his own inspiration and chooses to plaster this second scoop all over his face (by nature of the blue paint, dozens of Captain Crunch nuggets wind up sticking to his cheeks, nose, forehead and chin). Center, finally pleased to have put the kibosh on Left’s rebellious antics, again beams to the audience, anticipating their approval, but once more finds his accomplishments undermined – this time by gasps and giggles directed toward the tomfoolery occurring on his other side. Following these attentions, he is aghast to discover his starboard companion proudly posing with a face full of Crunch. A suddenly self-aware Left likewise follows the crowd’s bemused glances over to his cereal-speckled sibling, who he regards with a blend of curiosity and discomfiture.
Right, now gathering from the audience that something is amiss (or simply aware of the four new eyes upon him), turns to meet the others’ anxious gazes and an expression of horror falls over him as he reads in their faces that he has done something dreadfully wrong. Terrified, he looks for help to Center, who surreptitiously raises a finger to his chin as if to say, “you’ve got a little something right here.” Right, of course, follows suit verbatim, raising his finger to the same single spot on his own chin and gingerly flicking a single Crunch off of his much-covered face. Again, he looks for reassurance to Center, who, realizing his message has not quite gotten across, repeats the gesture – this time with a spot on his opposite temple. Once again, Right mimics him exactly, knocking a single Crunch from the spot while the rest of his face remains plastered with them. Growing exasperated, Center one more time tries the drill, going this time to his cheek, but again meets with the same results, as Right’s ever-hesitant gesture sweeps only a third lone nugget to the floor while his wide-eyes stare back into Center’s, by now brimming with panicked desperation. Realizing the impossibility of the situation and not wanting to make a big deal of things (the surreptitiousness of the exchange is maintained in the first place so as not to embarrass/alarm his friend as well as to hide the interaction, as best as possible, from the audience), Center gives a reluctant “OK” with his fingers, and all three Blue Men turn back to face the audience. Yet again, pure hilarity.
Finally ready to proceed with the act, the three stand in like fashion – feet square, cereal box held in front by both hands outstretched, mouth full of unchewed Captain Crunch. Only now, however, do Center and Right (whose face is still covered in Crunch) sense that something is still out of whack and land their focus on Left’s comically oversized cereal box. As in the case of his two previous foibles, Left eventually meets their eyes, and after looking at their boxes and then his own, reaches inside his and pulls out… a normal-sized box of Captain Crunch (big laugh here). Casting the giant box to the floor, he returns to the presentational posturing along with the others, and full uniformity restored, they all three simultaneously chomp down and let out one loud “CRUNCH.” End scene.
(Note, in the actual Blue Man Group production, this final crunch actually leads directly into an extensive musical number in which the Blue Men use their different-timbered chewing sounds to create a complex, interwoven rhythmic arrangement. While I was disappointed to find that we would only be learning the non-musical first-half of the bit, the amount of time and specificity involved in getting just that under our belts leads me to realize that to learn the number in its entirety would have required at least a full additional day of call-backs and was probably not worth the extra night’s Holiday Inn stay for all of us on the BMG dime. I mean, just think of how many LED light suits and Drumbones one could buy for that sort of buck.)
Beyond the bare blocking itself, there are a couple nuances of the routine to which I cannot help but find myself particularly attuned as I absorb such in-depth instruction. For one thing, it seems to me that the whole scene practically screams vaudeville. From the oversized props, to the Moe-Larry-and-Curley-eqsue setup of ‘Character A wants to accomplish something, but Characters B and C keep screwing it up,’ to the blatant simplicity of the gags themselves: this is a bit that would not seem out of place in a 1920s stage review (excepting, of course, the use of Captain Crunch). Thus, much as in the case of traditional vaudeville (and perhaps as counterintuitively), it cannot be overstated how delicate a performance such an act truly demands. The timing, the expressions, the reactions to the audience: all of these must be attended to with surgical precision to generate even the slightest response of amusement from the audience. The fact that my own description of the bit (as presented here on the page) no doubt failed to elicit so much as a chuckle in even the mind of the most tickleable reader (despite my assurances of its hilarity) only further attests to the importance of these elements of stage-craft. Like most of the vaudevillian tradition (and like most of Blue Man Group, as I’ve stressed before), this routine relies on its performers to hit its rhythmic and emotional beats in flawless form to make it even the littlest bit entertaining. To that effect it is a perfect gauntlet through which to run all of us neophytic hopefuls.
One other chief element of consideration (one that comes straight from the mouth of Mike and Dan) is the way in which the character frameworks of Scientist and Innocent are interwoven into this routine. Though there is no exact prescriptive application of their elements (no script saying “Scientist here, Innocent there”), both make distinct appearances within the mindsets of all three performers throughout. Broadly speaking, the ‘something needs to be done, but we don’t know what it is’ mindset experienced when the Blue Men first take the stage is in line with the Scientist point of view, while the more aimless and exploratory actions (spitting back the cereal into the box, mashing it onto one’s face) fall within the Innocent’s camp. Still, solid arguments could be made to the opposites of these applied designations, and as Mike and Dan inform us, it is up to the performer himself to feel and be driven by whatever natural motivations arise in the moment. In other words, while there is a necessity to hit the particular beats, actions, and reactions of the scene, the emotion that guides us through them is supposed to resonate authentically in an organic (and self-determined) blend of the given Blue Man personae. In other other words, damn we’re in for a long day.
At this point we are redistributed into our Mexican prison posses (perhaps not coincidentally comprised of tres compañeros each) and assigned our respective roles for the routine. I am picked to portray Right, in all of his cereal-into-face-smushing glory, though I am again dismayed to discover that for purposes of the audition we will not be using real Captain Crunch, but rather miming its existence as we scoop and munch invisible handfuls from out empty boxes. The mention of food, however, does serve as a reminder to those in charge that lunchtime has long come and gone (it now being well past 1:30, though none of the auditioners seem to care). That being the case, Mike and Dan hustle each of the four casts through a largely un-coached dry run of the routine (for purposes of blocking-memorization only), before loosing us out into the world for gastronomic refueling.
The lunch hour merits little of mention excepting, perhaps, for two things. The first is that despite having managed their avoidance for the entire twelve months I actually lived in New York, the group-wide dining consensus forces me to, for the first time ever, obtain my lunch from one of those sketchy bodega-with-salad-bar establishments that bill themselves as “delis” and pepper the Manhattan landscape from 60th street down. Needless to say this may be the most tentatively eaten spinach salad with cherry tomatoes, broccoli and olives since the days of the ‘06 E coli outbreak. Even my Cherry Coke tastes as though it has been filtered through a cab-driver’s underpants. The Kettle Chips are fine.
Somewhat more significant is my discovery of just what lies ahead for those of us who manage to make it through the present two-day trial. Such information comes from out the mouth of the oldest auditioner – one of the California crew – who it turns out is here for the second time around, having previously made it all the way through final call-backs only to be cut later down the line. He explains to us that his case is not altogether unique: that those of us selected after the second day have only gained entry into the Blue Man training program, an eight week intensive in New York City (during which a small stipend salary is provided, plus housing in the “Blue Man Apartments”) from which participants can still be sent packing at any time (as was he).
Even after making it through training however, full-fledged Bluemanship is no sure thing. Following the completion of those eight weeks, a freshly-schooled Blue Man is granted only preliminary casting status. According to our elderly informant, this means up to eight more months performing only in New York, under the watch and direction of the company bigwigs – a time period during which one can still be booted at moment’s notice if performance is not up to snuff. Finally, after nearly a whole year with the company, one gains full cast-member status and salary along with some measure of job security. (None of us, however, are entirely sure of the details surrounding the latter two elements. Given that Blue Man Group is somewhat notorious for its union-busting practices, I would wager that neither is particularly lucrative.)
Of course, being a rookie cast member still entails a certain forfeiture of freedoms, informs our comrade: specifically when it comes to performance location. As a junior in the company, one is generally relegated to whichever city is most in need of additional manpower, with little-to-no stock placed in personal preference. While I imagine this not to be strictly the case in casting their international or cruise-ship shows (at least I hope an intrepid newcomer wouldn’t be shipped off to Vienna without a say in the matter), it is easy to envision, based on their twelve-month NYC relocation requirement, that BMG is far less concerned with the locational inclinations of their neophytes than with the functional organization of the overall company.
All of this, as can be imagined, hits me like a blindfolded twenty-something’s punch to the groin. Only three-months removed from moving away from New York, it seems unthinkable for me to return. Even less desirable is the notion of abandoning my newfound employment for a potential twelve months sans any sort of job security: i.e. plunging myself headlong into a situation that may well leave me hung out to dry in a matter of weeks. Though the eventual roulette wheel of relocation strikes me as no particular drag (I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in Vegas), its implication of long-term uncertainty still comes as no welcome surprise. While I’ve no presumptions, at this point, of even making it past the present stage of the process, it is at very least unnerving to speculate on what disarray awaits my existence should I prove successful in my endeavor.
Such apprehensions begin to press on me as I choke down the remaining forkfuls of soggy greens and traipse my way back up Broadway with the rest of my newly-nourished posse. (Oddly enough, about three quarters of the group light up cigarettes over the course of the three-block journey. I don’t know whether this is a Blue Man Group thing or a twenty-something actors thing, but given that I am friends with literally dozens of twenty-something actors – only a few of whom I’ve known to suck smoke on occasions of sobriety – the demographic shift amongst my fellow auditioners strikes me as somehow noteworthy. Perhaps it’s actually lack of oxygen that gives Blue Men their trademark coloration.)
Despite my anticipatory unease, however, as we make our way up the concrete staircase and return to the highlighter walls of the training loft, I resolve to push such matters to the farthest reaches of my mind and deal with long-term deliberations only if and when they should arise. For now, I’ve got invisible Captain Crunch to worry about plastering onto my forehead.
By the time all thirteen of us are present and accounted for, Andy has returned from the void (although we are never informed of his actual morning’s whereabouts), while Mike and Dan have split for the day, apparently neither being an official decision-maker but merely around that morning to aid in our instruction (though I have no doubt that each supplied Andy with some measure of his own evaluation). Our minds refreshed and stomachs full, we pick up right where we left off and begin running the Captain Crunch Routine group by group, only now with Andy stopping us periodically to make adjustments and critique.
His coaching also includes designing for each trio – after watching them run through the bit a couple times – an individualized tangential acting exercise as a way to emphasize and illustrate certain modifications to their performance. Oddly enough, most of these cast the three as toddlers in a nursery, engaging in some sort of mischief whilst the babysitter is out of the room – in one case, disarming a bomb. While I probably should regard such direction as a beneficial insight into the crossbred constructs of urgency and exploration present in the Blue Man persona (especially as it relates to this particular sketch), I’m too busy puzzling over what sort of professional theatre company employs casting directors whose go-tos for circumstantial scene-work setups are Mexican prison gangs and three-year-olds on bomb squads. (Let’s be honest: an awesome one.)
My group winds up being the third to go, affording me the opportunity to first sit through the workshops of two others and take heed of some of what works and what does not. One of Andy’s common complaints, for instance, is an insufficiency of inter-performer assessment. As most of those in the early runs are still devoting a large part of their focus to simply remembering the proper blocking, the general tendency becomes to “go through the motions,” as it were, without taking the necessary cues off other actors. This leads to a certain disconnect and flatness that is evident even to those of us who have not seen this routine performed hundreds of times before. As Andy reminds us, there is a large difference between Left grabbing a handful of Crunch because that is what’s called for in the blocking and Left grabbing a handful of Crunch because he sees, reads, and understands Center’s look of admonishment. Reaction is key in establishing both the scene’s authenticity and emotional relevance – without it, the Blue Men might as well be actual robots.
Another critique offered to both my cast’s predecessors concerns an emphasis on urgency. As noted in its original instructions, there is an ever-present need of accomplishment throughout the routine that has the dual effect of both heightening the action and driving it forwards. Without this over-arching pressure in place, the blocking again becomes hollow and formulaic, and the comedic juxtapositions between severity of intent and frivolity of action turn into lame, one-sided buffooneries. This is a large part of what inspires the “little kids defusing a bomb” motif of the tangential acting exercises, as Andy emphasizes our need to be propelled by external stakes even while taking the time to explore and learn and play.
It occurs to me, as someone who partook in three years of collegiate acting classes, that both the urgency and assessment critiques are far from unique to Blue Man Group, and in fact would be equally conceivable as scene-study notes to a selection out of Chekov or Sam Shepard. Both these elements, in fact, pose as chief concerns in just about every example of theatrical storytelling I’ve encountered, and I’m glad to know I have experience in the comprehension and practice of each under my belt. (What’s more, thinking back to the Western Saloon scene from my Chicago audition, it’s easy to discern both themes’ central relevance within that exercise as well, and I take assurances in remembering my success with that particular piece’s execution. Or maybe I just make a good cowboy. Maybe both.)
Aside from the general group notes, Andy is quick to offer up personalized pointers to individuals as warranted. Several of these deal with Blue Man physicality, and I am intrigued to find that the squinty-eyed chap who caught my notice at the beginning of the day is specifically called out for appearing “sleepy” onstage. Andy acknowledges that one’s appearance “is what it is” and insists that irregular visage will not play a limiting factor in the selection process (my previous question about race answered?), but maintains that our ocularly-narrow companion will be forced to apply a little extra effort so as not to appear a Blue Man on the perpetual thrusts of a nap. The demand seems rather painstaking, but I am surprised to see the fellow in question readjust on his subsequent go-around with an eye-bulge that strikes me as downright Blueman-ian.
One other individual note that catches everyone’s attentions occurs when one of the Lefts, in a moment of misguided inspiration, ad-libs his own comedic beat into the routine – or, put simply, “tries to be funny.” His gag – picking up the lone Crunch nugget from the floor in a moment of abject defiance towards his brethren (I know: how dare he?) – strikes everyone as uncomfortable and falls unquestionably flat. As Andy explains in his critique, this is because the moment is entirely unearned and all but severs the connectivity between the three characters. Part of what makes the routine so funny in the first place is that the deviance of Left and Right evolve naturally – in effect, sneaking up on both the audience and the Blue Men – and never seem a conscious, intentional effort to break rank. Perhaps this is why, even as we watch the same routine performed over and over, certain elements continue to draw peals of laughter if undertaken with the proper fluidity and authenticity. It’s also why any attempts to be funny will come off as contrived or out of place: the routine requires its actors to be unaware of their hilarity, and any endeavor toward the opposite will undermine this basic conceit and suck the life out of the room. All of us are quick to heed this note, especially the offender in question, who for the rest of the day wears an expression of gloomy defeat.
After gleaning as much as I can from the offerings of my predecessors, it is finally my trio’s turn to take the stage. Owing to the odd-numbered quantity of the group at large, my posse is graced with a second, alternate Left, meaning I (and my Center) have the distinct advantage of getting to run through the routine an extra couple times. Nevertheless, it is my unspoken goal to nail it on the first go-around with a performance so powerful they have no choice but to hire me on the spot (just kidding – I’m not that presumptuous). Readying myself “backstage” (one of the adjoining storage rooms), I am primarily concerned with my ability to maintain a straight face should one of my cast-mates or I land a beat with particular hilarity (something I’ve long struggled with in comedic performance). Nevertheless, as Andy gives us the thumbs-up to begin, I bite down hard on the inside of my lower lip, will myself to solemnity and follow my companions onstage.
All in all, the first run-through goes well. I don’t break face, although we do manage to elicit significant laughter from our observing fellow auditioners – especially so our Center, who I immediately realize is a godsend of a scene-partner. The exchange between him and I involving the Crunch on my face is a particular high-point, owing largely to the fact that his eyes are so darn expressive I cannot help but be authentically affected by them. Though Left seems to forget his blocking for a moment, leaving Center and I in an awkward freeze as we wait for him to spit his cereal back into the box, all the other beats seem to be hit at the right time, and all with proper assessment and urgency. Andy, in fact, hardly says anything at all and instead instructs us simply to run it again.
The second time through feels as good as the first (though with no forgotten blocking), but this time Andy has a lot to say. Mostly he comments that the second time through felt exactly like the first: our actions, our beats, our emotions were all the same even though the circumstances quite literally were not. He points out that one of our spectators had returned from the bathroom during the run; that another had sneezed; that the audience reactions at large had changed and that we the actors were even different people – seven minutes older, hungrier and sleepier – than we had been the first time around. Given all this differentiation, he points to the identical nature of our two runs as evidence of insufficient awareness and a lack of organically motivated development within the scene. Even as we look to and react to each other, he says, we need to broaden the scope of our assessment: to take in every part of the world around us and let it inform the routine and guide it in new ways every time it is performed.
This is when he points right to me. “Mike,” he says, “you need to engage with your audience more. React to them. Check in with them. What are they thinking? How does that affect you?” He tells me I hardly once glanced at my seated co-auditioners (through either run), and that while my focus on Center and Left was earnest enough, I need to tear down the proverbial “fourth-wall” of traditional theatre and lend my attentions to those present beyond the scope of the stage as well.
While I am disheartened to hear such a stone-faced critique of what I thought to be a smashing enactment, I cannot help but admit he is right. Thinking back, I realize I scarcely connected with my audience at all, alternating my attention between my co-performers and the cereal-box, but never the living, breathing beings seated five feet away. Still, I take a certain (though largely unwarranted) pride in such a note’s being somewhat more geared to the specificity of the Blue Man Group ethos than a more generalizable acting critique. At the very least, I succeeded in passing my urgency and cast-mate-assessment exams, and in that sense did my collegiate acting teacher proud (you’re welcome, Professor Cantor). Perhaps more importantly I rationalize that I will be extended certain latitude when it comes to an unfamiliarity with the specified form as opposed to a shortcoming in my basic acting chops. At least this is what I hope.
His criticisms fully conferred, Andy instructs us to improvise a brief scene in which we play four-year-old boys sneaking into our older brother’s room to find and play with “the coolest thing in the world” (by now I’m fairly certain that Andy has multiple sons between the ages of two and eight, one of whom may be on a bomb squad). Our challenge (as the boys) lies in the fact that we know neither what this object is nor how it works: only that it is somewhere in the room and that our sibling might at any point burst in to catch us snooping around his stuff. Andy stresses the need to assess and explore the environment in whole, both to discern what this fantastic item might be and to keep an ear/eye out for “big bro.”
It is during this exercise, of course, that I do finally break, letting out a throaty snort/chuckle as we discover the “coolest thing” to be an empty paper towel roll, and I and our Center each simultaneously put an eye to one of its ends. Other than this, the drill moves smoothly, and I really do begin to feel more sensitive to the space around me, even as I consciously interact with my fellow four-year-olds.
Andy too, seems to like what he sees, though as we sub in our replacement Left and prepare to take the Crunch scene again from the top, he pauses us to offer me additional instruction: telling me to this time perform the routine while imagining that someone in the audience is hiding the “coolest thing in the world” on their person, and that it is my job (within the context of the scene) to figure out who that might be. Channeling this note proves an immense help to my internal motivations, as I find myself now with a clear-cut incentive to invest my attentions beyond the stage and onto those seated before me. As we again make our way through the blocking, I find myself passionately scouring their faces and reacting to the littlest change in demeanor, though through it all (and much to my performative detriment) a piece of my psyche remains unattached to the cause, too busy hoping to God that I’ve made the adjustment right.
Whether or not I have, however, is not to be deduced at this time, for upon the run’s conclusion, Andy yet again gives no discernable reaction, save a meager nod and a half-mumbled “okay,” and “good job.” In a more startling gesture, he then bids me to retake my seat in the audience and invites my group’s original Left to take over my role as Right for its fourth and final showing: a decision spawned seemingly out of nowhere that invites in me a new wave of nausea and insecurity. Why would he sit me? Has he deemed me a hopeless cause or am I so much a shoe-in that he’d rather dedicate evaluative space to more borderline candidates? Maybe it’s all just a case of him wishing to not grant me any advantages over my fellows offered by extra repetitions. But if that’s the case, why did Center stay in? Needless to say I’m unsettled and sick, and as I sit and watch my group’s final showing and those of the last trio to go, I cannot help but feel that a decision on me has been made and that there’s nothing I can still do to sway it.
Really there isn’t much that any of us can do at this point, as it’s almost five o’clock by now, and as the final cohort winds down its workshop Andy announces we’ll only have time for one more exploratory exercise before calling it a day. He opts on a broadened extension of the “coolest thing in the world” vignette, keeping us in our Crunch Routine groups (or rather our Mexican prison posses), and having each team enter the stage as Blue Men, interact with three objects of our choosing, and then leave. By now there’s a palpable sense of intensity as the hour of evaluation nears, plus a general case of the sillies brought on by the afternoon’s wane, and it’s safe to say this combination of factors leads to some of the day’s most genuine hilarity. Each group’s object-choice and methods of interaction serve to one-up their predecessor’s in absurdity until Blue Men are literally standing on their heads and spanking each other with paintbrushes. If there is anything at all to be gained from this final drill, it is that when random and ridiculous actions evolve naturally from a place of authenticity within the Blue Man character, they can seem both natural and intrinsically funny. From a performer’s eye view, I suppose this is really the central tenet of the show, the company and the phenomenon of Blue Man Group as a whole.
At last the day is done, and we gather back in the waiting room while Andy heads into a front office and begins calling out names. Conversation is surprisingly lighthearted, though there is a logical sense of tension lingering beneath it all. As guys gab about what Broadway shows to take in or where the best local bars are to be found, no one can escape the realization that for some of the group (perhaps most), this will be the last we see of each other. One by one, the first few head in and out of Andy’s office, but say nothing as they gather their belongings and shuffle towards the street. The rest of us are too polite to ask; instead we let the silence do the talking. The guy who tried to be funny during his workshop can’t even make eye contact when he emerges, and barely mumbles out a half-hearted “see ya, guys,” as he bolts for the door. Slowly but surely, the room takes on a certain death-row air, while hearing Andy call one’s name feels akin to walking the Green Mile (only with no lovable black giants involved).
I’m either the fifth or sixth called, and try and play it off casually as I hop up from the couch and make my way across the room. Still, I cannot help but notice how shallow my breaths have become in my chest as I sidle inside Andy’s office. It is tiny and cramped, and not an office at all but a supply closet with two chairs. He’s in one with a notebook on his lap, and I close the door behind me and move to sit in the other. My cheeks have hardly hit the cushion before he starts talking. “Mike,” he says, “you did a great job today, but you’re not quite what we’re looking for, and we’re not gonna have you come back tomorrow.” I nod, and in a most cliché ‘rejected-actor’ fashion, struggle to keep the disappointment from showing on my face. Boy was he quick to the point.
Andy pauses and looks at me. “Do you want to know why?” There’s something about the businesslike bluntness with which he poses this that strikes me as downright disrespectful, but my curiosity trumps any offense and I nod. He sighs and begins scouring his notepad, seeming almost irritated that I would dare to ask for an explanation behind my dismissal. It is at that point I realize what he did not ask was, “do you want to know what you need to improve upon for next time?”
After another moment’s pause he looks up nodding. “Yeah, what I said before about needing to engage with your audience. That was really the big thing.” He stops, and I realize that’s all I’m going to get out of him: today or ever. After all these years, after all my excitement, after all my hopes and worries, a lone casting director telling me I do not sufficiently connect with my spectators is why I’m not to become a Blue Man. Plus I bet he thinks I’m too short.
I thank him for his time anyways and he hands me a Blue Man Group comp card for a ride service back to the airport. The card is pink, and I cannot help but think of it as my literal pink-slip. I make my way back to the waiting room, throw my tote-bag over my shoulder and make my way down the concrete stairs without saying anything to anybody.
Outside, the guy who tried to be funny and the California pretty-boy are smoking cigarettes. Our expressions say enough as it is, but we nevertheless ask one another if we made it and then all shake our heads. I point out that at least we got a free trip to New York City out of the deal. Tried-to-be-funny guy looks at me. “I’m from here,” he says between drags of his cigarette.
A moment later, a fourth auditioner comes out. We ask him if he made it onto day two and he says yes. I offer him my congratulations, then turn and head back to the hotel. Though I had no real hopes going into the ordeal, somehow this all feels like a letdown. I feel crushed inside: like I’ve been cheated out of something that should have been mine. Even if I’d no intention to spend a year in New York or be shanghaied to Tokyo, I wanted that all to be my decision to make. Moreover, I had failed in my objective to make it to that gloried second day: to have that chance to put on the costume and makeup – to be a real Blue Man just that once. All I wanted was a photograph, I tell myself: a photograph of myself as a bona fide Blue Man, and even in that I had fallen short.
Back at the hotel I call my parents, who tell me they’re proud of me all the same. They remind me how low were my expectations going in; how I probably wouldn’t have wanted the gig anyways; and how the mere fact that I showed enough potential to merit a theatre company flying me halfway across the country says remarkable things about my talents and achievement. Thinking over all of that, I start to feel better.
Later that evening I get dinner in Chinatown with a local-dwelling friend, and when I, for the first time, spill to her the real impetus behind my trip, her jaw drops and she tells me how “insanely super friggin’ cool” it is that I made it as far as I did. Even as I begin to explain, in forlorn fashion, my feelings of disappointment and failure, she insists that the experience is a hell of a lot more exciting and exemplary than anything else I would have been doing that week in its place. Thinking over all of this, I start to feel even better.
In the coming days, I see dozens of old friends and colleagues, sharing my story again and again, and finding each one more impressed and excited than the last. No one judges me for my failure, but rather I am heralded for my nearness to blue-faced glory. I’m the guy who almost became a Blue Man. I’m Almost-Blue Man Mike! Piece by piece the disappointment fades and I return to realizing what an “insanely super friggin’ cool” thing this really was: moreover how honored I should feel to have been granted such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. By the time I’m kicking back in the twelfth row window seat of a Delta Shuttle, recounting the tale for an awe-struck fashion model (not making this up – and she was fucking gorgeous), I’m downright chipper about the ordeal. Yeah, I might never make it as a real Blue Man, but I came pretty goddamn close to achieving a lifelong dream, and I sure as hell can’t complain about that. At very least I can always dunk my noggin in Sherwin Williams and tell a buddy to start tossing up the marshmallows.
6. Blue Skies
So where does this all leave me? What lessons are there to be learned from such an experience? That it’s never a bad thing to pursue one’s secret passions? That sometimes the journey is as important as the destination? That when you flick a piece of non-existent Captain Crunch off your temple, you must be as attuned to your audience as you are to the bug-eyed mime beside you giving you the stink-eye?
I guess what I can offer up is this: life is filled with opportunities of all sorts – adventures, long-term projects, livelihoods, one-offs, lingering passions – and some of them are bound to pan out while others, not so much. Still, there is nothing wrong (and many things right) with following down those twisted pathways, hoping they’ll lead somewhere or even knowing that they won’t. There’s sometimes as much to be gained by a three-day vain pursuit of some long-lapsed obsession as there is in twenty years of doing anything else. The key is in one’s willingness to try new things, to commit oneself to them both physically and emotionally, and to never forget to be authentic, perceptive and playful over the course of one’s discoveries. Be a scientist. Be a clown. Above all, march to the beat of your own drum – even if that drum is splattered with paint and being thrashed upon by a bald guy in blue face paint who isn’t opening his mouth.