Friday, June 10, 2011

Kind of Blue (Part 2)

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.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kind of Blue (Part 1)

Dear Dale,

Sorry about the long delay between posts.  You don't deserve to be treated like this, and I of all people should know better.  Still, I'm hoping you might find it worth it when you see what I have in store for you today.

You see, Dale, some time ago I attended an open audition for the Blue Man Group.  Shortly thereafter, I was flown out to New York City by the world-renowned company itself to partake in final callbacks.  While I did not end up getting cast (disappointing, I know), the whole adventure did make for one hell of a story, and it is to that end that I present to you the following: part one of a sizable two-part travelogue reccounting my exciting voyage up to the very cusp of blue-faced fame.

I'm not sure when part two will be written (hopefully soon), but at least this will give you something to chew on for a while.  In any case, I know you were looking foward to a drastically overwritten focus-piece chock full of puns and wordy asides, so on that I am proud to deliver.  So without further ado, I present...

Kind of Blue

By Mike Salomon

I do not sufficiently engage with my audience when mashing imaginary Captain Crunch on my face.  No, I’m not just making this up, nor am I broadcasting it out of any self-deprecating stab at humility.  It is a true and proven critique, as evidenced by its pronouncement by a tattooed 40-year-old of average height and build, who makes his living painting himself into an indigo automaton and rhythmically walloping a trash can.  This simple fact is also an explanation as to why I am not now, nor may ever be a member of the Blue Man Group.  While certainly a shame, this is by no means the worst rejection I have ever suffered (a title currently shared by Brown University, the 1999 Fenn School Junior Varsity Baseball Team, and the casting agency behind M Night Shymalan’s The Sixth Sense).  Perhaps more importantly, the wild journey that brought me to the recognition of this particular personal inadequacy is by all means worth a good recounting.  So go ahead and get all the Tobias Funke references out of your system, pop in an Eifel 65 CD, and prepare yourself for the tale of one man’s quest to join a ranks whose flesh-tones reside within a greater-wavelengthed segment of the visual light spectrum.  Also, if you’re sitting in the front two rows, make sure you have a poncho.

1.       Dream (When You’re Feeling Blue)

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  My dream is pretty much the exact opposite of this.  I want to be judged by the color of my skin – specifically, the color blue.  I want to festoon my flesh in latex enamel, don myself a bald cap, and traipse around a stage, tattooing paint-splattered rudiments on a garbage bin or ingesting Twinkies to comedic effect. 
Ever since I first heard tell of the family-friendly theatrical extravaganza, I have harbored a deep desire to join the rhythmic ranks of the Blue Men.  In part, this is due to my overlapping passions for (and training in) percussion and theatre.  Other than BMG and STOMP, few opportunities exist for a dancing drummer with acting experience to engage all three avenues in performative fashion (at least until Broadway picks up my one man show, Mike Salomon Presents: Shuffle and Roll).
Another component of my Blue Man affinity derives from my adoration of its random comedy and tongue and cheek absurdism – and I don’t just mean the bits within the show: more-so the entire company’s existence in and of itself.  I mean, how crazy is it that three dudes shellacking themselves into cerulean Moby-clones and tossing marshmallows into one another’s mouths became a legitimate cultural phenomenon.  For two decades and counting.  That’s longer than jean-shorts made it!  In a way, Blue Man Group speaks to every sensibility I embrace as an artist: silly but smart, abstract yet accessible, so ludicrous in its conception it isn’t hard to wonder why it exists in the first place – yet so deliberate in its execution that anyone who’s seen it instantly comes to terms with its overachievement.  It is performance art, pop art, satire and postmodernism all rolled into one.  As someone who drafts Shakespearean sagas about Lebron James and choreographs tap-dance routines to a cappella renditions of the Rocky III theme, is it any wonder that I should view the Blue Man Group as my destined higher-calling?  In art, as in life, sometimes the craziest choices just make the most sense.
My last and shallowest reason for my true blue aspirations is the opportunity to become what amounts to a living, breathing conversation piece.  Let’s be honest, how great would it be just to tell people that I was a Blue Man?  Between bragging rights for my Jewish mother (“Oh?  Your son’s an oncologist?  Mine’s a Blue Man!”), an awesome tidbit to bring to high-school reunions (“Remember when you turned me down for a date in tenth grade?  I guess you really blue it!”), and an endless supply of stand-out pickup lines (“Once you go blue, that’s all that you’ll do!”), the notion of simply holding the active title of “Blue Man” is enough to leave me drooling.
This obsessive mindset is no recent acquisition either.  Thanks to the widespread cultural pervasion of the company (according to Wikipedia, some of Blue Man Group’s more notable credits include guest spots on Guiding Light, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Dr. Phil, and Scrubs; performances with the Boston Pops and Ricky Martin; a Pentium advertising campaign; and of course, their stellar Arrested Development turn), I had grounds to amass my enthusiasm long before I had even managed to catch a performance in person.  When I finally did make my way to Boston’s Charles Playhouse to take in a showing of their 15+ year run of “Tubes/Rewired,” it only served to bolster my already-fanatic zest.  By then I was halfway through college, well on my way to a degree in theatre and with two years’ experience crafting dramatic, rhythm-based performance-art for a campus tap-dance troop.  Though the rational part of me still knew my vision of bluemanship to be nothing more than a pipe dream, it became an ardent and committed pipe dream: a secret passion and lingering hope.
Seeing the show in person also served to affirm my assumed possession of the basic skill-set necessary for becoming a Blue Man in the first place.  Be aware that I do not mean to sound presumptuous about my talents, nor do I imply that the role of Blue Man is an easy one to undertake (as I recently learned, this is not only far from the case, but I, in particular, am under-equipped for so lofty an accomplishment).  Nevertheless, on a fundamental level, the core BMG aptitudes seem far more within the layman’s reach than those of say, Cirque du Soleil or Riverdance (requiring an absurd level of acrobatic prowess for one, the ability to look like an asshole – and also probably to step-dance – for the other).  My viewing experience only solidified the notion that the key prerequisites of the Blue Man trade were little more than an inherent sense of rhythm, a capable stage presence (basically the ability not to break a smile), and an artillery of assumable human tricks (i.e. catching two-dozen Stay-Puffs in one’s mouth).  Believing myself to have the first two bases pretty well-covered and the third within easy reach brought a dash of realism to the fantasy that over time kept it smoldering beneath the surface even as I leant my focus to alternative pursuits.
So it is, in the years since that dash was added, its flavor has only sizzled and spread, cleaving “pipe” from afore “dream” and imbuing my ambitions with a newfound air of possibility.  Nowadays the notion of achieving such an outcome seems less a sentiment of frivolous whimsy (like my hope to one day quarterback the New England Patriots) and much more a legitimate and attainable objective (like my hope to one day quarterback the Chicago Bears).  So does the blue blood jettison its way through all my veins, commanding my passionate heart, as all the while a disembodied voice whispers “why the hell not?” into my ear.  And indeed, rhetorically passive-aggressive voice: why the hell not?

2.       Blue Monday

Whether it was her knowledge of those very aspirations or her own assessment of my career potential that inspired her actions, I do not know, but in November of 2010, I received an email from my excited mother alerting me to an upcoming Chicago-based Blue Man open call.  It was as though a pair of latexed blue hands had pattered out a drum-roll on the PVC piping of my heart.  A deluge of rekindled passions came flooding into the forefront of my mind.  A dream that had once seemed a lifetime away was now hovering at arm’s reach.  Why the hell not?
At the time I was three months into a painstaking (and largely futile) job-search, having jumped ship from Manhattan to the Windy City a season prior in order to focus on writing in a calmer (and less expensive) area code.  Despite my best efforts and intentions, I was going broke, my roommate was booking it for California, and I was in danger of losing my apartment in his absence.  I was single, depressed and a self-imposed recluse.  In other words, this was the perfect occasion lifetime-wise to thrust myself headlong into a fantastical pursuit of some unrealized ambition.  True, my acting career had long been abandoned (my last legitimate audition had been three years prior, during my junior year of college – and the one before that, during my junior year of high school), and I had not touched a pair of drum sticks in six months, but here was an opportunity practically hurling itself at me like a drunken prom date: “come on, take advantage of me.  Do it!  You know you want to.”
Untethered by any practical constraints, I acquiesced to my urges, slapped together a (largely hyperbolic) performance resume, PhotoShopped a picture my father had taken into something vaguely headshot-esque, and submitted my materials to the Blue Man casting office.   I was rewarded several days later with an email announcing my 4 PM Monday audition slot at a Blue Man rehearsal space just down the road from their Chicago company’s Briar Street home.  The whole ordeal would take no more than twenty minutes, the email said, and would involve some basic drumming and acting drills.  I did not need to bring anything and could wear whatever comfortable clothing I so desired (no need to blue myself prematurely either).  This was it.  In a matter of days, my once-shuttered ambitions would be setting out from the station.  Everything, it seemed, was falling into perfect place.
Everything, that is, except for one small detail: my height. 
In the annals Blue Man showmanship, there is but one particular conceit whose adherence seems an inarguable requisite: all the Blue Men must look pretty much alike.  Obviously short of solely casting sets of monozygotic triplets, this is impossible, but decorating the performers in bald-caps, blue shells, and bulky, paint-spewing sweat-shirts seems to iron out most of their distinctive wrinkles (literally and figuratively).  The head-to-heel length of a Blue Man, however, is not so easily masked and thus becomes an integral element in the hiring process (or so I would imagine).  More specifically, the Blue Man Group casting website lists the minimum height requirement for a prospective auditioner as 5’10”.  I am 5’9”.
At its surface, this did not seem like such a big deal.  If Mugsy Bogues could face off against Michael Jordan and Tom Cruise could boast an acting career that didn’t consist of playing hobbits and Napoleon Bonapartes, what difference could one measly inch possibly make in the grand scheme of a musical stage show?  (Though try asking that of any 5’5” aspiring Rockette and watch the heartbreak well up in her wee little eyes.)  The problem for me was that I did not know if my height would prove a detrimental factor, and were I to ask, supposing that it was an issue, I would have given myself away as an undersized applicant.  On account of all this, I had lied on my performance resume, stretching myself to their 70 inch mark and listing my weight as a decidedly average (but rather inflated) 165 pounds.
Such a ploy, however, was a poorly devised one.  Now I would be forced to present myself in person, and were I made to line up beside other (and more vertically merited) potential Blue Men or even sized against the active cast members who I presumed would be leading the auditions, the gig would be up.  I was forced to seize upon the only logical option: wearing my most thickly-soled hiking boots and stuffing the heels with paper towels.   The result was both uncomfortable and unwieldy, but granted me my requisite inch and then some.  At very least, I reckoned this would nudge me toward the brighter side of any decision-making bubbles.  Also I got to feel tall for a day – a win/win if I’d ever heard one.
So it was, my boots bursting with two-ply, that I made my way to the 3100 block of Halstead Street that I might meet my first challenge on the road to Blue-dition.  Though I’d spent the week preparing myself by Youtubing clips of Blue Man routines and mimicking their drum-work, my heart was still pounding in my throat as I stepped into the neighborhood falafel shack and took a seat at the nearest booth.  (It’s probably worth my mention that the Blue Man Group rehearsal space happened to be an apartment upstairs of a Middle-Eastern takeout joint called Eat-a-Pita.  The email had instructed that the restaurant was to be used as a waiting room.  I’ll note that there’s nothing quite like the wafting aromas of chick-peas and schwarma to compliment the sphincter-cinching nervousness of a pre-audition wait.)
Shrugging off my sudden craving for humus, I looked about, spotted a pair of similarly sized young gents sitting anxiously at foodless tables and reckoned myself in the proper location. Sure enough, within minutes, a representative descended from a stairwell, handed me an audition sheet and summoned one of my fellows. Twenty minutes later he was swapped out for his companion, and fifteen after this, I heard my own name called.  With a deep breath, I gathered my belongings and climbed the stairs behind my petite brunette Charon.
Rather than the open studio space I expected, I found myself entering the living-room of a poorly furnished two-bedroom apartment.  To the right, a kitchenette was tucked behind a long, wooden dining-room table; to the left, a lone sofa had been shoved against the wall, where sat a pair of un-costumed Blue Men (or so I presumed) who welcomed me as my hostess plopped herself down beside them. So unassuming, the entire setup was, that for a moment I found myself caught completely off-guard.  From the undecorated living space in which I stood, to the nonchalant appearance of the plain-clothed Blue Men themselves (who I’ll note were not bug-eyed and bald-headed androidians, but rather as average looking as they come) this seemed in no way a stronghold of a multi-million-dollar, international theatrical juggernaut.  Nevertheless I doffed my satchel and braced myself for their gauntlet as, introductions made, we launched immediately into the meat of the main event.
First came drumming.  Following a brief Q-and-A regarding my percussive experience (nearly a decade of set, mallet, and hand – boy did I look good on paper), I was led across the room to a free-standing, plastic practice-pad, by which one of the Blue Men shoved a pair of sticks into my hand and proceeded to lead me through a series of rudimentary exercises.  Though I worried whether the nervous tension now permeating my every muscle fiber would serve to shatter all semblance of rhythmic integrity, I swallowed hard and hunkered down as he would first play a pattern himself, then bid me join in, and then drop out: leaving the beat and tempo solely in my hands.   In theory this could have proven a challenge, yet despite my initial unease the drill fast became a veritable walk in the park, as his patterns limited themselves to mere single strokes, double strokes, and a pair of accent combinations pulled straight from my preemptive Youtube studies. Needless to say, my anxieties quickly diminished as I found myself near-acing my percussive appraisal.  In fact, excepting a request that I employ a more taiko-styled approach to my play (basically just grander arm movements for each drum stroke – a stylistic, rather than technical note), I garnered naught but praise and affirmation for my rhythmic prowess.
A proven success in my stick-work, I returned to the foot of the couch, where Blue Man #2 rose to lead me through a pair of brief and bizarre acting drills.  The first had me entering the room as an Old Western gunslinger sidling into a saloon.  Once “onstage” I was to (without speaking) recognize the posse who had done in my brother (the two Blue Men and their assistant), ready myself to settle the score, come to the sudden realization I had forgotten my gun, and make my fast escape.  Suffice to say there’s little worth imparting in regards to my execution of so straightforward a premise (besides which, I can think of few things more tedious than a step-by-step, first-person account of an acting exercise – cough cough Constanstin Stanislavski cough cough).  I will, however, note that the still-lingering aftershock of my pre-percussive nervousness leant what felt like a splendid authenticity to my character’s assessment of his endangerment, and my natural physicality generated a pseudo-rigid stillness that met with further commendation from the corner of the room.
The final exercise was even simpler than its predecessor: a game of Meisnerian influence in which my instructor and I stood three feet apart, repeating the word, “yes,” back and forth, while taking our dramatic cues off one another’s particular intonations and expressions.  This was then redone, minus the verbiage, engaging us in a silent conversation reminiscent of the very first day of pretty much every acting class ever.  Despite the amateurish nature of the endeavor, however, such basic offerings were stamped sufficient for my evaluators’ purposes, as my final silent “yes?” to his “yes!” saw me thanked, congratulated, and ushered out the door (all before I could so much as wonder how a two-minute montage of flashed facial expression was to serve as an apt assessment of my relevant talents).  The next thing I knew, I was standing back outside in the sunny chill of a December afternoon, watching rapid clouds of my adrenaline-fueled breath dissipate into the Chicago winter.
The ordeal had taken little more than a quarter of an hour and left me dazed, befuddled, and altogether uncertain as to the status of my chances.  True, I had appeared to have pounded through my percussive portion with flying colors, but it seemed to me that anyone with a couple years of drum lessons and no preexisting rhythmic impairments could have pulled it together to do likewise.  The acting segment, meanwhile, had been a total blur: a ten-minute maelstrom of nervous intensity and dramatic calisthenics during which I couldn’t so much as catch my breath – let alone pause to assess (read: second guess) my own aptitudes as I displayed them.  It was like stepping out of an exam for which one had not had time to check over one’s answers – or even see if he’d shaded the right lettered bubbles: I had no idea whether I’d managed an A or an F.
If only to add to this uncertainty, my auditioners’ final counsel, practically shouted to me as I was whisked back to the world from whence I had come, was to stave off dismay should I fail to hear from anyone that week, month, or even year about my fairings.  Whatever decisions the three of them reached, they explained, would be transmitted back to Blue Man Group Casting headquarters, where even successful resumes would remain filed away until fresh blue meat was needed.  Then and only then would chosen hopefuls be informed of their advancement into further rounds of the process: a mysterious upper echelon of auditionary appraisal about whose entailments I dared not ask (lest I be accused of hubris).  What all this meant was not only was I without the foggiest notion as to my standing in the eyes of my assessors, but conceivably a full twelve months could elapse before such knowledge would be reached.  For all I knew, I’d never know just how well (or poorly) I had done.
 This, of course, made it all the more startling when, two days later, I received a phone call inviting me to be flown out to New York City for final Blue Man Group callbacks.

3.       Blue in Green

I suppose it is only sensible at this point for me to take a step back on behalf of those unfamiliar with The Blue Man Group (or rather those who have not seen the show, as I find it hard to believe that any true American between the ages of six and sixty could be ignorant of the company’s existence entirely) and offer up a brief synopsis of just what the production entails. As most of the show’s comedic elements seem predicated on surprise and/or misdirection, I’ll do my darndest to steer clear of any spoilers and instead try to capture, in general terms, the odds and ends of the BMG viewing experience.  However, having previously attempted to recreate the splendor of the event for the edification of a Blue Man virgin (by which I mean a virgin to the show – not a Blue Man who has never had sex nor someone who has never had sex with a Blue Man), allow me to extend the caveat that such a performance is nearly impossible to do justice via written or verbal depiction.  This, in many ways, speaks to the genius of the show itself, as it manages to make electrifying entertainment out of actions and events that at face-value seem childish, nonsensical, benign or, in some cases, all three.  Its greatest merit is truly to be found in its execution, and because of this I urge any Blue Man greenhorns to eschew the following paragraphs and go score yourselves a couple orchestra seats for the next matinee (unless, of course, you happen to be an epileptic, as the show does make use of strobe light effects, whereas at least for the time being, my blog does not).
The Blue Man Group “experience,” so to speak, really begins upon entering the theatre, as at least each of their permanent company houses (I cannot speak for their touring or Norwegian Cruise shows) features a specific and standardized lobby decor consisting of an overhead entanglement of black and neon plastic tubing and an assortment of plasma balls and other colorful, electricity-spewing gadgetry scattered about the perimeter.  While no doubt the space-age mechanical jungle setup was at one time conceived as a futuristic and high-excitement gateway to the show inside, the ambiguous industrial ornamentation now just feels like it was taken straight off the set of Battlefield Earth.  (For what it’s worth, this is far from the only facet of Blue Man Group that badly dates it as a relic of the 1990s.  Something about the confluence of low-tech special effects and what I would refer to as a “campy sci-fi vibe” give the whole affair an overarching ambience reminiscent of Babylon 5 or TNG, only if Moby did their soundtracks.)
Upon entry into the house itself, one finds oneself bombarded with the charged and looping synth tones of nervous-energied preshow music and greeted by the show’s first characters: a pair of LED billboards.  These intersperse important preshow messages (“no flash photography,” “no intermission,” etc.) with snippets of wry, interactive humor that very much foreshadow the vibe of the entire experience to come.  The billboards also serve to introduce a cosmetic theme that will be retained throughout the performance: namely, the usage of projected text and voiceover to introduce – and in some cases augment – many of the various musical numbers and comedic routines.  Obviously this stands in stark contrast to the distinctive muteness of the title characters, and as such, creates an avenue through which the show explores concepts and nuances of communication as it relates to performance, technology, and society at large.  In one bit, for instance, the three Blue Men simply stand side-by-side, each flipping through a stack of wordy poster board signs, forcing the audience to literally read the show in what could be viewed as (among other things) a deeply ironic take on the theatrical monologue.
But here I’m getting ahead of myself, for when the house-lights go down and the Blue Men first take the stage, they do so with no exposition but with perhaps their most infamous shtick to date: paint drumming.  While there are a number of routines one might dub as entries in the “classic” Blue Man cannon, this one speaks to most every element that sets this show apart (you know, from all those other shows where guys paint themselves blue and do stuff onstage).  Though nothing about the bit is particularly complex (the drumming, while certainly speedy, isn’t exactly Neal Peart, or even Bucket Boys-level in its technicality), it is its well-conceived and well-acted execution that transforms it into electrifying entertainment.  Indeed, this is the act that bookends the show (at least in its current incarnation), and seems to generate the greatest rise from its audiences. 
As the three Blue Men (always three to a performance) pound away at the paint-filled concavities on the undersides of three overturned trashcans (technically it’s only the grand finale in which all three performers drum – in the opening iteration one drums while the other two pour the paint), the high-arcing splatter of the neon liquid creates a majestic visual in the low-angled stage lights as it contrasts against the drummers’ electric blue faces and neck-down black garb.  This, coupled with the actions of the performers themselves – their responses to the eruptions and each other as well as their toying with audience expectations via the quantities of fluid they decant before setting their sticks to the puddles – turn a simplistic exercise into an encapsulating, hilarious, and stunning display.  If there were but one word to describe the routine, it would have to be “mesmerizing,” an assessment that can pretty much be applied to anything the Blue Man Group puts onstage.  Indeed, the ninety minute performance is so glutted with bright neon visuals, high-intensity sound bites, flashing lights, and 180-degree focus-shifts, it is difficult for one’s attention to ebb for even an instant.  Is there a certain cheapness to the way in which sensory overstimulation can at times overcompensate for a lack of meaningful content?  Sure, but Blue Man Group makes no assertions to its being a show of subtlety – rather it seems to take pride in how many different ways it can arouse and involve its audience throughout the experience.
Beyond its basic sensationalism, the paint drumming sets up yet another ongoing theme of the show: messes.  If it wasn’t obvious by the actors being coated up in colored varnish to begin with, this is a performance that loves to get its hands dirty (ironically the Blue Men actually wear blue latex gloves, so they do not, in fact, get their hands dirty).  Without delving into the psychology behind the enjoyable spectatorship of intentional untidiness (who doesn’t get a kick out of watching things shattered and splattered and put into all-around disarray?), I’ll say that the Blue Man Group gets more than a few audience gasps and giggles simply by letting fly with food, garbage, paint – whatever it takes to make the stage into a sloppy disaster by show’s end.  Indeed the true grand finale (remembered well by those who have experienced it) latches onto this idea in the extreme, creating a mess the likes of which have not otherwise been encountered in an active theatrical space (to the best of my knowledge, that is). Though not as antagonistically sloppy as, say, GWAR, Blue Man Group thrives on untidiness, using it as another way to prey on audience expectations and pleasures while heightening its own exhibition of unrestricted fun.
Oh right, had I mentioned fun yet?  Because that may, in fact, be the most crucial element in play throughout the aforementioned proceedings, and perhaps the most significant ingredient to the production at large.  In fact, it probably ought to have been included as a forth (and overarching) explanation behind my own Blue Man ambitions as I can imagine few performative vehicles as downright enjoyable to all involved.  Blue Man Group is fun – if you didn’t already know.  It’s an hour-and-a-half extravaganza of quirkiness, jokiness, music and mayhem intended to amuse, enthuse, and viscerally titillate every five-through-ninety-year-old who comes in through their door on a given night (or matinee).  Though artistry, intellectualism and even (gasp) social message make various, unsubtle cameos throughout, it is an ardent atmosphere of fun that permeates every fiber of every act and keeps audiences coming back year after year.  From the palpable pleasure of the players themselves to the previously-described endless spectacle to the oddball-yet-endearing sense of humor, watching Blue Man Group is a guaranteed pathway to at least some level of emotional enjoyment.  If I ever find myself suicidally depressed and with seventy dollars to spare, I’m heading for the nearest BMG theatre and plopping myself down in the splash zone (…or going to a therapist – you know what?  We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it).
But I digress, because it’s not just its opulence of raw merriment that raises Blue Man Group from the masses of stage-set jollification, but the particular channels through which it transmits its whimsy – and yet another of these makes its grand debut via the opening act: live music.  Indeed, one could contend that at its core, the Blue Man Group is nothing more than an eccentric rock band (they’d be wrong, but still…).  To those unfamiliar with the production in whole, this is likely its facet with which they find themselves best acquainted.  After all, the Blue Men have cut three albums, they’ve toured with Busta Rhymes, Moby and David Bowie (the Area2 tour, which I am embarrassed to say I passed up because thirteen-year-old me didn’t take to Ziggy Stardust – sigh…), and just about all of their featured gigs on late-night TV or award shows have consisted of brief, musical-number-only sets.  While I would hope that my depiction here calls attention to the broad range of performative media employed by the company, it’s safe to say that music predominates far more than any one other.
If paint drumming is any indication, however, when Blue Man Group does music, they do it with their own unique panache.  To begin with, they construct the majority of their instruments themselves.  Some of the more notable examples of this include the PVC pipes (a marimba-like setup of intertwined cylinders, played by striking the open ends with paddles), the Drumbone (three thick sections of inter-fitting, white plastic tubing struck by wooden sticks as they are slid apart and back together so as to generate distinct intonations), and of course, a motley assortment of disposal-bin-based tom-tommery.  Percussion is their strong-suit, but this is augmented by a (typically) three-piece onstage backup band that adds an Electric Zither, Chapman Stick, and drum set to the mix.  Over the course of a standard show, each Blue Man instrumental invention gets at least one featured exhibition, leading to half a dozen (give-or-take) “musical numbers” in which the onstage actors actually perform the primary playing themselves.  The rest of the time, the backup band provides an ongoing soundtrack as the Blue Men engage in their more comedic and theatrical-based routines.
The overall sound of the Blue Man Group could best be described (in my limited musical vocabulary, at least) as intensified “Techno-Pop-Rock.”  Part synth-scape part dance-jam and built upon a framework of clean and consonant chordal cadences, it’s the sort of easily-approachable space-mix that proves catchy in the moment, yet forgettable the instant the show ends.  Sonically speaking, it’s closest cousins are perhaps Enya, Delirium, a Three of a Perfect Pair-era King Crimson, and of course, everyone’s favorite Melvillian techno-legend.  Nevertheless its soundtrack sensibilities combined with an absence of vocals and integration of high-fi and low-fi instrumentation lend the Blue Man Group an aural ambience all its own.  In this sense it serves as a perfect complement to the abstract acts and electrifying spectacles it scores, equaling everything from their dizzying intensity to their pop-culture referentiation (via quirky covers) – even their “this was totally seen as hip and cutting-edge in 1995” vibe (seriously, who plays Chapman Stick anymore?).  Though hard to label a show-stealer in and of itself, the music of Blue Man Group plays a vital role within the production, enhancing the action and at times taking center-stage as an exhilarating and original aspect of the BMG experience.
I realize by now I’ve dispensed with a rather heavy-handed heaping of extrapolation despite only actively describing a five minute spell of dudes cutting drum riffs on puddles of Benjamin Moore, but in many ways I feel this splatter-paints a far more informative portrait of the show as a whole.  Much like a graphic account of the experience of attending a baseball game would focus less on the intricacies of pitch-counts and put-outs and more on the overall atmosphere of the event, Blue Man Group is very much about the big picture: its effective interweaving of all the aforementioned elements (and some I will get to in a moment) for the extraction of maximum entertainment value.  I do not mean to imply that its theatre or comedy is broad in and of itself, but rather that its most attractive aspects are to be found imbedded in its overarching vision, and that, for better or for worse, its actual acts are far more interchangeable and even replaceable within that vision’s context.  In other words, it matters less just what the Blue Men are doing onstage than how they are doing it.  While the show’s creators were certainly conscious of its themes when plotting out its ordered course of shticks, vignettes and musical interludes (and crafted them so as to maximize their utility as vehicles for the show’s content), I would argue that three Blue Men could do just about anything onstage – as long as they were doing it in Blue Man style and with the appropriate accompanying lights and sound – and it would still be a pleasurable spectacle to behold.  Then again, maybe that’s just me.
With regards to some of what the Blue Men actually do do onstage (aside from music), there’s really quite a lot (and again, I’ll steer clear of significant spoilers, so feel free to read on be you neophyte or not).  From a voiceover-aided segment detailing the proper makings (and dance-moves) of pop-stardom, to a skit spent slinging snacks across the stage and into each others’ open mouths, to a mischievously-mannered invasion of the audience featuring a miniaturized handy-cam, the Blue Men engage in an eccentric agenda of random tasks whose seamless interweaving seems more a function of their frenetic pace and grand ambience than any correlation within their content. Still, somehow this is a show that can feature its actors bouncing around in LED light suits one minute and yanking back an oversized slingshot the next with even the most intellectual of audience members saying “hell yeah!” and not “what the hell?”
As I keep saying, though, it is their style that binds the elements of the show together and transmits what amounts to an overall vision.  In addition to their particular usage of music, messes, text, fun, and overstimulation, there are a couple other cornerstones to the Blue Man Group MO, discernable in one form or another across a broad range of bits.  One of these is audience involvement.  Whether dragging red-faced patrons onstage to partake in their games first-hand or venturing out into the depths of the house themselves, the Blue Men love turning the tables on their spectators.  To them, the stage is a plane to be broken – if not always physically, at least through the actors’ ongoing awareness of the audience around them.  Even in the most “performance-y” parts of the performance – for instance, the musical numbers – the Blue Men are constantly and discernibly reacting to their crowd, turning every last chuckle and cheer into an organic ingredient of the production itself.  Other acts, however, push this concept even further as the performers aggressively intrude upon their audience: invading their space, touching them, feeding them, and projecting film of them onstage.  Finally, two lucky patrons per show are actually plucked from their seats and cast as active participants in skits: one as an unwitting comedic foil in what may be the show’s funniest sketch, the other as a human piece of arts equipment (take that as you will).
What all of this audience interplay accomplishes is threefold.  To begin with, it truly turns the show from a “performance” into an “experience.”  Attending Blue Man Group is agreeing to be part of the action in whatever way the event so dictates.  This fits hand-in-hand with its style of incessant stimulation: removing the possibility of passive viewership and keeping the audience on-edge at all times.  Secondly, it plays into the theme of artistic critique.  Much like projecting text examines the way art is communicated, by blurring the line between performer and spectator Blue Man Group seems to examine the very notion of performance itself.  By demanding their crowd play part of the production, they blatantly challenge the elements of voyeurism, agency and control inherent in traditional performance (a topic about which probably 100,000 thesis papers have been written – but how many referencing the Blue Man Group?  Ok, maybe 8,000, but still…).
Lastly, by integrating the audience experience directly into the show, the Blue Men ensure an element of unpredictability even beyond that which live theatre always brings.  Without delving too deeply into theatrical theory, it is worth noting that part of what separates theatre from film (and a number of other media) is that the audience – its reactions, applause and general energy – affects the actions onstage, giving each performance its own uniqueness built upon irreplicable circumstances.  When Blue Man Group intensifies this actor-spectator exchange, they bring even more organic volatility to the show, ensuring that each performance is literally guided by the crowd that comes to see it.  Because of this, no two of its shows will ever be the same, and indeed the production draws almost as much from the nuances of human unpredictability as it does from any pre-scripted design. While certainly not the first performative spectacle to make use of audience participation, the variable nature of the show adds an underlying edge to the proceedings and may well be in part why repeat viewing is not out of the norm for its fans.
The last piece to the Blue Man Group equation that I feel compelled to discuss (in my now crumbling endeavor to dutifully recapitulate its viewership experience) is the group’s trademark brand of humor.  As mentioned previously, the show draws from a mélange of absurdism, mess-based slapstick, peppered-in textual wit, and intrusive (often uncomfortable) interaction to generate its laughs.  In plainest terms, the comedy seems to embody a modernistic vaudeville, setting its three technology-aided clowns through a chuckleable gauntlet of clumsy discovery while the audience gasps and giggles at alternating offerings of impressiveness and infantile naiveté.  Again however, it is not necessarily the gags themselves that invoke the heartiest helpings of amusement, but their enactment.
Blue Man humor, despite many of its juvenile embodiments, is relentlessly dry in nature.  It is a comedy of contrast, wherein the most broadly ridiculous of acts (a grown man overfilling his mouth with cereal and spitting it back into a box, for instance) are undertaken with the most deadpan of countenances and most precise of timings. Unlike its close cousins of classically-conceived clown and mime, in which (again, going off of limited expertise here) the protagonists themselves are silly creatures by design, what is funny about the Blue Man Group is that the Blue Men are not funny.  Are they odd?  Absolutely.  Do they partake in a bizarre and/or goofy assemblage of actions?  Indubitably.  But taken at face-value, there is nothing inherently amusing about the character.  The Blue Men are the straightest of straight men: stone-faced and stoic, they seem more confounded by the audience’s perceptions of hilarity than actively instigative of them.  Even their playfulness seems more incidental than choreographed, and in this way their humor comes off as all the more unplanned and all the more fun.
To put this within the context of the show, consider some of the acts I have previously described.  Throwing marshmallows into each others’ mouths, prodding a camera into random audience members’ faces, even drumming and splattering paint about the stage: all these actions are performed not with showy oafishness, but with an anxious severity that turns each twist into a legitimate laughable surprise and serves to somehow make the bizarrities seem all the more absurd.  Blue Man Group humor, which resonates throughout every segment of the show, is a humor of diverted expectations, down to the very nature of the players themselves.  Call it straight-faced mime or “techno-shtick” or whatever the heck you want, but there is no denying the constant peals of laughter that sound from the house show after show and night after night.
All of this then – the use of text, music, fun, spectacle, messes, audience involvement, and deadpan wit – unite to give the Blue Man Group its trademark look and feel.  From the opening, paint-spraying drum riffs to the strobe-lit chaos of the grand finale, this is a show that takes an intricate potpourri of performance, cultural exploration, and artistic vision and hurls it at its audience in the form of an hour and a half of frenetic, approachable and involving entertainment.  Is it flawless in its design?  Of course not (again, a relic of the 1990s, people – not even Morgan Freeman made it out of that decade unblemished), but its undeniable originality combined with its astonishing staying power just goes to show that somehow this peculiar cabaret with its azure-slathered showmen managed somehow to fine-tune its mix into something for all to enjoy.
So there you have it.  Somewhere within my overt Blue Man Kool Aide-drinking (really chugging) and over-written, unfocused garble of prose I hope to have conveyed at least an abstract representation of what the Blue Man Group experience entails.  Perhaps more useful, given the context of this writing, is to read the above as my own subjective take on the show. All told, I’m sure it reveals far more about the author’s personal opinions than it does about the production and franchise itself. But in a way, that’s what’s important here.  As I said in the opening paragraphs, this is a story about one man’s journey of self-discovery, and being as that man is me, perhaps it is less important to present what Blue Man Group actually is than how it appears through my aspiring eyes.  Whatever is to be made of my description, it is that very picture I’ve presented that plucks the Electric Zither strings of my heart and some time ago drove me into this brave blue world.

4.     Big Blue Note

                The intervening week and a half between my Chicago audition and the day I was to be jet-setted out to The City that Never Sleeps was, in a word, “eventful.”  First there was the phone call to my parents – an hour’s worth of giddy disbelief and repeated utterances of “you’re kidding,” “really?” and “you can’t be serious,” that served to impress upon me just how remarkable an opportunity I had been granted. Though none of us were all too convinced of my possessing a legitimate shot at selection (well, maybe my mother was a bit more optimistic than the rest of us – but isn’t that what moms are for?), we all agreed that the ordeal would certainly prove a unique and memorable experience, and heck, I was getting a free trip to New York out of it.  So that was pretty swell.
What was not swell was the inopportune timing of my having started a brand new job that very week.  Few conversations, I would imagine, are more uncomfortable during one’s third day of hire than having to explain to one’s boss that one will be needing half a week’s time-off in order to pursue a long-held ambition of taking the stage as a blue-hewed professional drummer boy. Even dicier was the admission that were I to somehow land this gig, I would immediately be resigning my post so as to dedicate myself to Blue Man duties (blueties?) full-time.  Somehow despite these sensitive divulgences, my boss was fully understanding of the situation (possibly because she too possessed a profound appreciation of the majesty that is Blue Man Group), and acquiesced to my request, wishing me the best in my audition and assuring me that my job would still be around should I return unsuccessful in my endeavors. Aren’t bosses wonderful?
My employment situation settled, it was time to square away the nitty-gritty and prepare myself for the adventure ahead. My parents were kind enough to provide me with a ticket to see Blue Man Group: Chicago, that I might cram in some last-minute reconnaissance in aid of my quest. Incidentally, it made for a stellar viewing experience even the second time around, despite the performers missing an unseemly high number of mouth-catches during the marshmallow tossing bit (maybe I didn’t have to be too good at random tricks after all).  I was also contacted directly by a kindly BMG representative named Tascha (pronounced toss-ka) who, in addition to handling my travel arrangements, provided me with a general briefing on the upcoming proceedings. The full call-back, she explained, would be a two-day affair, with cuts to be made at the completion of the first, and the second’s work to be done in full Blue Man regalia – bald-cap and blue makeup included! Silently I vowed to purchase a disposable camera and do anything I could to make it to the second day.
The last excitement to be had as I waited impatiently for my day of departure to dawn was the (admittedly self-centered) thrill of sharing my news with the world.  In truth, most of my actual friends were kept in the dark as to the true purposes of my voyage (and indeed some may be learning about it for the first time via this writing) as I still had no high hopes of success and balked at the thought of having to admit later failure to those confidants whose awareness I dared raise.  Instead what proved most fun (and true to motive number three for my Blue Man ambitions) was imparting word of my impending opportunity onto strangers.  Most notably, the news of my audition proved an uncanny icebreaker when meeting new coworkers, turned me into a minor celebrity for the gaggle of drunken dentists I befriended at my BMG research-viewing (a DDS office-party out of rural Illinois who were celebrating the holiday season by slipping into the big city, liquoring themselves silly, and scoring themselves two rows of center-orch seats – oh, dentists…), and perhaps most impressively, managed to work wonders with the ladies (true story – I wound up going on a couple dates with a girl I met at a party this way and who had me listed in her phone simply as “Blue Man”). Not that I was broadcasting my fortunes from the rooftops, but as someone who had had very little to boast about for quite some time, it felt good to see the looks of bemused marvel on the faces of new acquaintances as I (or my adept wingman, Ben) divulged just how close I was to reaching Bluetopia.
                Despite all my fun, the week somehow managed to fly by, and in no time at all, it seemed, I was cabbing it from my office to O’Hare Airport, having my gonads gently patted by a TSA agent, and sidling into my aisle seat on Delta Shuttle #5945 into JFK. Touching down in New York around 9 PM, I couldn’t help but feel panged by a touch of nostalgia for the epic skyline and frenzied light-spectacle of downtown Manhattan.  Thus it was a mix of trepidation, exhilaration, and odd hominess I found myself feeling as I gazed out from the back of a yellow cab on route to the Holiday Inn Soho, where a good night’s sleep and the start to the following day’s festivities awaited me.

(To be continued...)