Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Seeing Blue at the Fox Cities P.A.C.

No one knows how to make a more inspired mess than Blue Man Group. Whether they’re beating on drums and generating a kaleidoscopic spray of airborne paint, or catching flying gumballs with their mouths and spewing the paint onto canvases, or feasting on Twinkies, or chomping out a Cap’n Crunch symphony, the bald-and-blue characters approach each messy, noisy enterprise with the expertise and determination of children. And the audience responds with unadulterated, uncomplicated, grin-inducing joy; with howls of laughter and childlike wonder and delight. You might say that Blue Man Group is child’s play for adults.

At first glance, the stage may look like a mess. But looking closer, it’s far from one. Don’t confuse child’s play with childishness.

“We have things that we think about, and they express themselves in these weird ways,” says Phil Stanton, co-founder of Blue Man Group with Matt Goldman and Chris Wink. “A lot of what we do is colorful, and kids enjoy it, and adults are entertained by it, whether they get the idea behind it or not. We’re usually looking at things from the point of community or relationships. We’re trying to say something about the power of a group. That’s why there are three Blue Men; three is the smallest number that makes up a group.”

Goldman adds, “Preserving a childlike wonder is definitely one of the things behind what we do. We believe that we’re all creative beings, and creativity can look a lot of different ways. We’re trying to get to an ecstatic, euphoric, emotional place. We surf many different interests – science and art and music and spectacle and reading and math and technology. Why can’t people be fascinated and entertained by all of these things?”

At a Blue Man Group theatrical show there is, indeed, something on the bill to fascinate and entertain everyone. It’s vaudeville for the twenty-first century: instead of an array of comedians and singers and monologists and dog acts and jugglers sharing a bill, the Blue Men – abetted by a few musicians – offer an array of wildly imaginative flights of fancy, ranging from primitive to sophisticated, in a variety show quite unlike any other.

“We have so many different influences,” says Stanton. “Vaudeville, of course. The Marx Brothers. Buster Keaton. Punk rock. Kodo drummers. Butoh dance. Ultraman, who was a Japanese super hero. It’s all somewhere deep in our DNA.”

Says Goldman, “I don’t like to name influences because the list is too vast. Our influences are almost everything we’ve ever been exposed to. Bugs Bunny is just as big an influence on me as the Marx Brothers.”
The Blue Man is a combination of hero and trickster, clown and scientist, innocent and super hero. When speaking about their creation, Goldman and Stanton sometimes refer to him as a singular being, and sometimes refer to him in the plural. 

“For metaphor purposes, we often talk about them as ‘three as one,’” says Stanton. “But they’re actually different. We try to create character differences, and sometimes that’s what leads to the comedy. In the scene with the gumballs and marshmallows, they’re three very distinct characters. There’s the one that catches the marshmallows; he seems kind of nervous, like he’s not sure it’s going right. The guy that’s catching the gumballs seems more confident, like he’s got some kind of prowess and knows that the outcome will be good. And then you’ve got the guy in the center, who’s a little bit of a trickster. He’s not telling either one of them everything; he’s got a few secrets up his sleeve. So there sometimes is a difference in the characters – and sometimes there isn’t.” 

Goldman adds, “A lot of people think that being bald and blue is putting on a mask of sorts. We consider it the opposite, that we’re taking off the mask. Once you strip away the hair, the skin tone, the gender, the ears, and have no particular style of clothing, what’s left? It’s really the rawest, purest form of what’s essentially human. We’ve found that for the first third or first half of the show, audiences think they’re looking at these very strange, unusual beings. But somewhere in there – and I see this over and over – it suddenly dawns on them that they’re actually watching themselves. And then the question becomes – and I go back and forth on this myself – are we watching three different beings with three different personalities, or are we watching one being that’s been split into three? I like to live in the ambiguity of it.”

The Blue Man uses every facet of his being to engage the audience in situations and ideas and behavior and sights and sounds that intrigue him. And he does so without ever speaking.

“Talking is so limiting,” says Goldman. “We talked once, and it was painful. It was horrible. But we don’t think of the Blue Man as a mute. We think of him as someone who has chosen not to say anything.”
The show is not without words. LED screens display a series of messages designed to make the audience laugh and think. An authoritative, other-worldly voice wittily explains the intricacies of modern plumbing and choreography and technology. But more often than not, words are unnecessary. When the Blue Men are playing their unique polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pipes – instruments of their own making – or fiercely pounding on drums, words would just intrude on the giddiness being felt throughout the theater.
But even when the audience is in a heightened state of exhilaration, the Blue Men are often teaching them something – even if the audience is unaware of it. Take, for instance, one of their most famous pieces, beating paint-covered drums, which never fail to rev up the crowd. What audiences likely aren’t aware of is that they’re being given a lesson in synesthesia, a mixing of the senses. The great choreographer George Balanchine was famous for saying, “See the music and hear the dancing.” That’s synesthesia. So is seeing the sounds of the drums and feeling the colors of the paint.

“The paint on the drums for us is a visual representation of the music,” says Puck Quinn, creative director of character development and appearances. “We want to create a visceral experience. We want you to feel it in your gut. That’s why we have as big a drum as we can find. Because that drum will literally vibrate your viscera, your guts will resonate.” 

Connecting to the audience and creating a community within the walls of the theater is what matters most to Blue Man Group.

“The relationship with the audience is everything,” says Goldman. “Because at the end of the day, the Blue Man is really just trying to connect. He knows, whether intellectually or on a gut level, that in order to get to that ecstatic, heightened moment, he’s got to connect with these strangers. That’s why the Blue Man is so respectful of the audience. That’s why he wants to gain their trust. It’s all about the connection.”

People sitting in the front rows immediately feel a part of the proceedings, as they are given slickers to protect their clothes from paint and other possible splatterings. The Blue Men also make an enormous amount of eye contact with the audience, both from the stage and by interacting with them. Most famously, a woman from the audience is chosen to join them onstage for "The Feast," and share in a repast of Twinkies. What follows is spontaneous – as is the selection of the woman.

“The choice is made completely in the moment,” says Stanton. “You can kind of tell that the woman has suspended her disbelief, that she really buys into the character and is reacting to him. When we go into the audience and look into someone’s eyes, and we see both joy and a little fear, it means she’s not hiding, she’s not guarding herself. That’s what we’re looking for. It’s intangible. We want somebody who’s going to be really lively and free to react to things in real time. We don’t want someone who’s going to go up there and try to act.” 

For Goldman, Stanton and Wink, the entire show is a build up to the breathtaking finale, which unites the audience in a magical way.

“It’s all about the connection,” says Stanton. “And we also wanted to make a statement about how important the live experience is. Even though technology has made it so that we don’t have to have that live experience, there’s something about our humanity that will always need it.”

Be part of the live experience with Blue Man Group October 9-14 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Tickets are on sale now at foxcitiespac.com

© 2010 Blue Man Group

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