Tangled up in Blue
How three men and one color continue to dominate the stage
By David Cotner 11/23/2011
Since 1987, the avant performance spectacle known as The Blue Man Group has carved out a singular niche in the performing arts that remains unparalleled in its radiant arch-strangeness. It’s been performing its “Tubes / Rewired / NowMoreWow” show in New York City at the Astor Place Theatre for the past 20 years — but you may first have seen it in the long-running TV ads for Intel’s Pentium chip: technologically perplexed and faces painted bright blue with their PVC drums played as an ironic counterpoint to the sophistication of the computer world. Founded by visual/performance artists Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton, the Group — consisting of three outwardly identical men in dark clothing, their faces painted their trademarked “Blue Man” hue – the Blue Man Group is what can be loosely called a “show.” It offers everything onstage from improvised percussion to rave music to wild splashes of paint jetting out of the drums when hit. And yet for all its dramatic weirdness, Blue Man Group has reached an unheard-of number of people with meditations on technology, primitivism and new ideas on creativity. It currently boasts 365-day-a-year Blue Man Group cells permanently performing in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Berlin, Orlando and Tokyo (“the major tourist markets in America,” Group member Kirk Massey says) and, likely as you read this, on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship traveling throughout Europe and the Caribbean. Performers in The Blue Man Group are nothing if not completely aware of the potential of what they do. Massey, a member of the group since 2005, and who will also accompany it on the local dates of its 37-date national “How to Be a MegaStar” tour, spoke recently about the Group.
When asked if it was difficult for the Group to go from what began as New York City street art to such a singular force in the performing arts today, he reflected, “The original three were living in New York City and got kind of tired of the traditional theater scene and the art scene and things that were happening around New York.” And was it luck or something more substantial that contributed to the proto-viral success of Blue Man Group? “I think a lot of it was right place/right time in what people were looking for. The show went up in New York, and they did well for a few years. The show kept getting bigger, and they took it to Boston and that went well, then Chicago and then Vegas, and the rest is sort of history. It just kept growing.”
So was there a reason in the beginning for there being just three men? Three is the least number of people with which you can have a core group and an outsider — it’s not for nothing that a group of three people raises suspicion, either creative or political, in the eyes of some governments. Massey explains, “Originally, they had no other choice. But there are so many things – just rules of comedy – that lend themselves to a number of three as the Group. Things are funny in threes. It’s just the ideal number for the show. You can do the same joke – but the third time is when it’s really funny.”
Most people think audience interaction in multimedia concerts involves something like getting sprayed with watermelon by Gallagher. How far does Blue Man Group take its interactions with its audience members? Massey reveals that “Blue Man has a very unique way of signing autographs: if you came up with a Playbill or the program notes, we would take the paint from our heads and either put a handprint or transfer the blue paint onto whatever you’re giving us to sign. It’s a way to have a real, intimate, face-to-face interaction after we’ve just had an hour and 40 minutes of action onstage.” And because of that pleasantly iconic blue hue, it’s fascinating that the communication offered through Blue Man Group ultimately isn’t through words or gestures, it’s through color. “Blue Man never talks, so the real form of communication is through his eyes, the way the paint looks on the face. The only really distinct, visible feature of Blue Man is his eyes; basically, it’s where he’s storytelling from. But to bang on a drum is one of the most primal, basic forms of communication: you bang on something to put sound out there, and see what comes back.”
The Blue Man Group performs at the Fred Kavli Theatre at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza from Tuesday, Nov. 29, through Sunday, Dec. 4. Tickets are $54 to $69 and are available at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza box office, through Ticketmaster or online at www.toaks.org