I used to be totally freaked out by the Blue Man Group.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t checking my closet for blue men or anything, although I might after writing that. I just always found their mute blueness and baldness creepy enough to avoid the show.
But after my roomie snagged us free tickets in January, FOMO outweighed my fears. The show rid me of my Blue Man phobia but replaced it with curiosity. Because after 38 years, everyone knows what the Blue Man Group is. But the inner-workings of the Blue Man Group are still such a mystery.
And like a kid watching a magician, I wanted to know how the hell they do what they do.
So I did what any good journalist would do, and I talked to my Mom. Turns out, one of her former high school students, Michael Datz, was in the Blue Man Group.
Despite the neon paint the musicians wear onstage, they’re still a more humanizing part of the group. And I may not have lost my Blue Man phobia, but working my way up to talking to one of them (if he would talk at all) was a good start.
So I called him up with one main curiosity in mind; how do you prep for a show that seems nearly impossible to prep for?
“It was almost like a big improv jam session,” Datz told me. “You utilize those same skills…you have shows where you’re almost like anticipating what each others’ next move is going to be because they’re just so good at what they do.”
The show keeps you on your toes and constantly on high alert. For the musicians, that involves watching the Blue Men, trying to figure out what they’d do next and figuring out how they’d have to react.
“You never got bored,” Datz told me. “I played it hundreds of times and I watched it every time.”
Talking to Mike Datz also revealed an element of the show that I wasn’t prepared for – the family dynamic. Even the way they train isn’t through formal, intensive training sessions. CDs, DVDs, tapes of performances, and notes are all passed down and “very almost tribal in how things were handed down from one person to the next.”
It’s a good representation of the connectedness that the company encourages – something you don’t often hear about in big entertainment industry shows.
[quote_right]”“You never got bored. I played it hundreds of times and I watched it every time.””[/quote_right]
“It was as much about if you got along with everyone as much as it was your ability to perform,” Mike Datz told me. “Everyone got along, everyone hung out socially, and it’s very rare that you get that kind of creativity in one place. It was a huge confidence builder, it was a huge thing to…be a part of something everywhere I went.”
This conversation left me hungry for more.
Mike Datz offered to connect me with his friend, current Blue Man Jeffrey Brown. I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
There was something surreal about interviewing Jeffrey Brown, purely because it was strange hearing someone who usually operated in voiceless, faceless anonymity.
Brown is a Chicago native and DePaul alumnus. He used to perform in the likes of The Elbo Room and Beat Kitchen and has been involved in Blue Man for an impressive 15 years. He started in Las Vegas when Blue Man was just starting there – the group’s jump from local to national. But even after leaving Las Vegas for TV work in LA, Brown’s history as a Blue Man is what got peoples’ attention.
“I’ve done a ton of TV jobs and nothing buys me the cred or wow factor of like wow, you were a Blue Man! It definitely gave me confidence.” His TV and Blue Man lives even intertwined when he appeared on Arrested Development – throwing marshmallows into George Bluth Sr.’s (Jeffrey Tambour) mouth and watching Tobias Funke (David Cross) audition for the group with a song from “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Of course, the actual audition process is a little different than trying to serenade a table of already speechless Blue Men.
Brown’s first audition was normal drumming, but the one that followed was unique to the group. It’s something to the level of looking into a camera and, without using any words, changing your facial expression from everything from ‘oh my god, it’s a bomb!’ to ‘wait, is this bad?’
But the real quirkiness starts in the training. Brown explained, “we would go on walkarounds where we would walk around in character and we would spend a lot of time watching dogs because the character is very much like a dog.”
Even the bit where they throw and catch marshmallows and gumballs in each others’ mouths – something that the original Blue Men did as cater waiters first – isn’t just an inherent skill everyone who auditions is required to have. It’s taught. And to my surprise, Brown told me that it’s much harder to throw the marshmallows than it is to catch them. So much so that he got creative with practicing it, taping a Kleenex box to his wall and practicing throwing into it.
Who would have thought?
But there is a method to the ‘improv madness’ involved in the training for both the musicians and Blue Men. Because while it may be a structured show, there’s not a moment where you’re not alert and on your toes. “It’s all real time, we are figuring it out as we go along.”
So much so that before some shows, you don’t even know which of the three Blue Men you’ll be playing that night.
One of my favorite things to find out was that each Blue Man does have a distinct personality. Brown explained, “If you look at the stage, the [Blue Man] on the left, [that character] knows the most. He got the latest version of the manual. The guy on the right got the second to latest version, and the guy in the middle got a completely outdated version of the manual.”
In all the years that Brown has been doing the Blue Man Group, he said pretty much everything and anything that could happen has happened. People drunkenly coming onstage, people having heart attacks in the audience, there were countless stories. But even in the amount of time Brown had been doing the show, just like Datz – he said that it always stayed interesting and it was always friendly.
“It was a huge confidence builder, it was a huge thing to…be a part of something everywhere I went.”
I was worried about my “Interview With A Blue Man,” but not because I used to find them creepy. It felt like being offered a chance to know how a magic trick works.
Do you voluntarily shatter the illusion or healthily retain the ignorance?
If anything, looking behind the curtain did the opposite – it gave me a greater appreciation (even a love) for the group. As unique as the group was when it first hit the scene, it continues to do things its own way, whether audiences are aware or not.
And like a kid watching a magician, I’m still as amazed by Blue Man Group as I’ve ever been.