Pinpointing the Blue Man Group’s identity can be difficult.
If you go
What: Blue Man GroupWhen: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. SundayWhere: North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum DrivePrice: $42-$72more info: www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com
At times, they’re a band of skilled percussionists with three audio CDs to their name. On stage, they’re painters, actors and all-around performance artists. Behind the scenes, they’re innovative philanthropists trying to change the way people learn and perceive the world.
Born from the idea of three friends in New York in 1987, Blue Man Group grew from a trio’s street antics, painted blue and dressed in black, into a variety show on stage. By 1991, Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton debuted their full-length show, “Tubes,” at the Astor Place Theater in Manhattan, where near-daily Blue Man performances still occur.
The show soon spread to Boston, then Chicago, and eventually around the world on touring and semi-permanent installations.
A television advertising deal with Intel helped ensure that the Blue Men became recognizable figures in households around the nation, increasing the public’s appetite for additional shows and venues.
Thanks to the anonymity of the characters, achieved with bald caps and striking blue paint (even the lips and ears are painted), the original trio was able to train and add new Blue Men to their ensemble.
Productions now concurrently run in Orlando, Berlin, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, New York and on the Norwegian Epic cruise ship, as well as the touring ensemble that will visit North Charleston for three nights this weekend.
Evolving Blue Men
Chris Smith, 27, is one of three Blue Men traveling with the cast.
An actor and juggler by trade, he auditioned for the role in 2011 before spending six months in intensive percussion training. After performing with the group in Chicago and Orlando, he landed his role with the touring ensemble.
“The funny thing about my journey is that I thought the joke was on them,” recalls Smith. “I really did the audition as a kind of experiment, to get out of my comfort zone and keep me on my toes, and went in with the mentality of, ‘I’m not going to get this.’ ”
Unlike other Blue Men who came to the organization with experience from marching band drum lines, Smith’s acting and improv chops were solid, but his drumming skills were lacking.
After “faking his way” through the percussion segment of the audition, Blue Man Group offered Smith the chance to travel to New York to learn to drum.
“That was a call to action,” Smith said. “A huge thing that drew me to this career path as a performer was the ability to glimpse into worlds that you would otherwise not be able to see from the inside out. They offered me an opportunity to learn to play an instrument, for free, and a reason to do it, so it was a win-win.”
Various iterations of the Blue Man show can tend more toward theater or live music, but in any performance, percussion plays a key role.
The group creates instruments like the “drumbone,” drawing different tones from twisted tubing as two Blue Men adjust the interconnected segments’ length while one plays with two mallets.
Another segment features colorful drums filled with paint and lit from below, creating a visual and aural array as paint splashes high and the Blue Men pound away. (Attendees with seats close to the stage are given ponchos to wear to protect their clothes).
“There’s such a variety of skills that you’re required to know that when I saw the show for the first time, I said, ‘I’m expected to do that?’ ” recalls Smith. “You end up learning a lot of crazy things that you would otherwise never think to do, like catching 30 marshmallows in your mouth.”
After releasing 1999’s Grammy-nominated “Audio” and 2003’s “The Complex,” which featured vocals from Dave Matthews, Gavin Rossdale and Tracy Bonham, Blue Man Group’s performances began to play out like a rock concert. The “Rock Concert Instruction Manual” served as the theme of their “How to be a MegaStar” tours throughout the 2000s, featuring multipiece rock bands fronted by the Blue Men on percussion.
The current show, however, returns more to the group’s theatrical roots. A four-piece band still backs the three Blue Men, allowing for musical moments paired with classic scenes. In one, the characters invite an audience member on stage to share dinner with them, only to discover that their “chest hole” regurgitates much of the food back onto the table.
“This show still has the elements of that large-scale rock concert, but it’s infused with more intimate segments that are character-centric,” explains Smith. “It’s kind of alt-Broadway, ballooning into this big spectacle that utilizes new technology and is really visually impressive.”
When explaining his job to family, friends or people he meets while traveling the country, Smith claims he encounters a lot of misconceptions about what the Blue Man Group does.
“Someone may say, ‘Oh, you’re a clown.’ Well, no, but yes. Or, ‘Oh, you play drums.’ No, but yes. The thing I really strive to tell people is that it’s centered on a character. It’s a perspective and a point of view.”
Inside blue skin
For an actor trying to make a name for himself, donning blue makeup and becoming an anonymous character may seem counterintuitive to career building.
“This has kind of become the dream job that I never thought I wanted,” said Smith, countering that notion. “It’s an ego-less character, which is rare in entertainment. You can forge deep connections with people in the audience and then step out of makeup and they won’t know you from Adam. It’s humbling, especially for an attention-hungry kid, where you have to swallow your pride and understand that it’s not about being a front-man rock singer or movie star. That’s the most profound thing I’ve taken away from it.”
The Blue Men never speak, even when interacting with the audience after the show in a theater’s lobby. Smith enjoys the meet-and-greet because it re-emphasizes the connection with the audience.
“People normally go to theater to see people performing on stage without being acknowledged — there’s a fourth wall,” he said. “We literally jump right through that by pulling people onto stage and stepping right into their laps. After the show, the Blue Men are stepping out into their world but staying in character, and suddenly it’s not about the performance but about this relationship we’ve created that exists beyond theater.”
On stage, the Blue Men’s sole means of communication with each other is through their eyes, and body language is their vessel for conveying emotion to the audience. Much of the Blue Man Group concept relies on wonder and creativity, whether it’s a Blue Man’s fascination with a gadget or instrument or a splash of paint.
“The confines of the character may sound a little claustrophobic, but it’s within the constraints where you find the freedom to bring your own individual flavor to it,” Smith said. “There are certain rules: You can’t talk. There’s a certain way that a Blue Man carries himself and a way he walks, but outside of that, you really let your imagination fly.”
For the group’s 20th anniversary on stage in New York last year, 20 current and previous Blue Men returned for a “Blue Man summit,” with the founders, their proteges and special guest Dave Matthews performing throughout the night. That network of Blue Men remains strong, with the company regularly taking ideas for new show segments from the actors.
If there’s one aspect of being a Blue Man that truly feels like “work,” Smith admits that it’s the makeup. Removing the thick blue grease paint takes about 30 minutes each night, including unsticking the glued-on latex cap and wiping paint from the lips and inside the nose and ears.
“There are always remnants,” Smith laughs. “I went out for New Year’s Eve in Austin and wore a collared shirt, only to find a blue dollop of paint on it. But it’s a good conversation starter if you’re at a bar.”
Equally good conversation fodder is the continued inspirations and purposes behind the Blue Man Group’s existence after two decades.
The founders transferred the spirit of their creation into the formation of the Blue School, an elementary school in Manhattan that draws from the same principles of innovation that they used to create Blue Man Group.
Just as the Blue Men interact with their world like children, fusing a desire to create and a primal curiosity into the modern world, the founders felt that an education style based on ego-less inquiry and collaborative creativity would benefit their children and others in their neighborhood. They’ve largely shed the blue paint to pursue the Blue School project and manage the burgeoning Blue Man Group business, leaving freshly inspired Blue Men like Smith to carry the torch.
“This company is founded on artists and people that have ideas, and creating a safe space to give those notions a shot. I think the school is a great example of that Blue Man mentality,” Smith said. “What’s so valuable about this show is that it conveys innocence. The Blue Man character looks at our world that we take for granted with fresh eyes. That creates a connection with people and brings a communal feeling along with it. There’s a lot going on, and it’s pretty deep.”