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Blue Man Group

Blue in the face

Blue Man Group was founded in New York in the late '80s, the product of a series of performances initiated by long-time friends Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink. But there's no way any of the initial members could have predicted how wildly popular the group would become, with shows now running in Boston, Chicago, and New York. A unique mix of multimedia, improvisation, performance art, circus tricks, satire, and set pieces, Blue Man Group exists at the intersection of human interaction and technology. The Blue Men themselves are tall, bald eunuchs painted blue, and their show involves everything from drumming on paint cans to marshmallow catches to a Twinkie Feast. The Onion spoke with three of the eight Blue Men—Michael Cates, Tahmus Rounds, and Brian Scott—about audience interaction, the group's purpose, and the anonymity of being blue.

The Onion: How does the anonymity of being a Blue Man affect you?

Tahmus Rounds: Outside the show or inside?

O: Outside. It doesn't really matter during the show.

TR: Oh, yeah. It's great.

Michael Cates: If you need to get into a restaurant, it's always good to say, "Well, I'm a Blue Man." And they say, "Oh, come right in!"

O: But wouldn't you then have a legion of strangers claiming to be Blue Men descending upon restaurants?

TR: That's what happened, so they stopped letting us in. It's cool as something you can drop at auditions, but I've only had a couple of people notice some blue eyeliner on me, or blue around my neck. When they figure out that, hey, you're a Blue Man, it's kind of neat.

O: Does Blue Man Group primarily aim to entertain or challenge?

TR: I don't know if the word is challenge. Stimulate?

MC: Inspire, aggravate.

TR: It challenges people in terms of their traditional theater-going. You see people who are passively watching the show, because they've seen Rent or Cats or whatever, and those are shows where you can just sit and watch. I think our show demands, or inspires, people to become more involved.

BS: It gives them an experience they didn't expect: The show demands something from the people who are at it. People aren't accustomed to that. They are accustomed to watching TV. It's supposed to be really easy when they see a show. But with us, the lights are on the audience, and we go out into the audience and look at people. We do things with people. People don't expect that.

O: Are you ever concerned that the performance might be viewed strictly as a gimmick, like a Gallagher show?

MC: No, because I think we're performing at quite an abstract level, with lots of rehearsal and talking about what we're doing. So it would never occur to us to just rely on a gimmick. I think a lot of the audience taps into the fact that we do perform with that vibe. If we were just to plug through it and join the dots, and not really invest any emotion in it, it could come off as just a bunch of tricks. There's something people see in us; they can't quite put their finger on it. "This is unusual, weird, and very engaging, and there's a level we're on here that we didn't expect." And that's a very cool thing that allows us to do this night after night.

TR: You can't deny the element of spectacle, or its roots in Vaudeville-type entertainment, but that art form has been around for a long time.

BS: That's definitely something we draw from. When we rehearse or have workshops, we never discuss the comedy, or the literal interpretation of the comedy. We try to get as far away from that as possible, because the comedy happens in and of itself, and we, as Blue Men, don't understand what's happening, or why it's happening.

MC: There are probably a lot of people who come [expecting the gimmicks], but hopefully they leave with something completely different.

O: How much does the show change from night to night?

MC: Hardly any, in terms of order of bits, and what we hit, and the songs. But there's a different energy, and obviously a different three guys.

TR: The things that change are the elements that involve us working with someone from the audience. If some kind of prop breaks down, a physical thing happens in the show where we have to act in the moment and make it work anyway. But that's part of the live performance. I've been in shows where an actor just left the stage and never came back, right at the beginning of the show. You just have to deal.

O: Have you ever encountered an audience member whose lack of participation somehow hampered the performance?

TR: That does happen. We call that person the Feast Guest, and their level of participation is different every night. Some people will not eat the Twinkie; some instantly cut the Twinkie in half and try to feed it to us. We try to pick someone who's maybe a little shy, who doesn't really want to come onstage but can pull it out of themselves to come up anyway. You don't want to pick someone who wants to be up there, because often someone who is gregarious will try to take control of that piece. We need to keep control, so the audience doesn't think we'll do whatever they want.

MC: The worst thing that can happen is when [the Feast Guest] thinks they have to be a Blue character. We try not to tell them what to do in any way.

BS: We're looking for anyone at any level who is going to be genuine. That's the bottom line. You can tell by the way people react how they'll behave. You can look at someone and see that they're terrified, but you get a feel for how genuine they'll be. Sometimes they'll be so scared that they can't do anything, and that's funny. Other times, they're really comfortable and try to manipulate the scene, and that's funny, too.

MC: We actually always pick that person at random, and then through eye contact we sort of decide who we like. In our minds, this is a massive thing. We're going into their world and bringing the person back into our world. We try to keep the story going. We might as well take them right back if we sense that it's going to be a disaster. We don't just say, "Oh, look at her. Blonde hair, nice top."

BS: That's a lie! [Laughs.]

TR: Michael and I have been in the show for about the same time, and just in the past two months or so, I've found that we're developing a lot of little ways to communicate things.

MC: Like using words! Or pointing! [Laughs.]