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Apr 2, 2014

Coloring the World Blue: The History of the Blue Man Group

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Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink are entrepreneurs who created and oversee a global enterprise that has brought joy to more than 17 million people. They are also innovators, educators, artists, and contemporary comedians, known collectively as the founders and originators of Blue Man Group. That these three bald and blue characters would become a cultural phenomenon – let alone the foundation for a most dynamic and successful artistic organization – is an idea that was all but unimaginable when these inscrutable beings first emerged, walking the streets of New York.

“We weren’t really goal-oriented,” says Stanton. “When we started walking around the city, we did it because we wanted to see how people reacted. And being bald and blue was our social life. We didn’t want to go to bars and be part of a singles scene, a drinking scene. We wanted our social life to be somehow creative, and this was a lot of fun. We knew we would eventually do some kind of performance, but we never envisioned a commercial theater run.”      

Blue Man Group’s wildly popular, always evolving theater piece has been a mainstay in New York, Boston and Chicago for years. Now touring the country for the first time, there are also productions in Las Vegas and Orlando, and there are or have been productions in Tokyo and numerous European cities.

The show is an absurd and wondrous blend of music, painting, science and technology, as the Blue Men silently engage in a variety of set pieces that run the gamut from primitive and childlike to witty and sophisticated. And the character has been the springboard for numerous additional ventures, including a rock tour, a museum exhibition, a 3D movie and a school.

“It’s all about creativity and innovation,” says Puck Quinn, creative director of character development and appearances. “If someone asks, ‘What does Blue Man Group do?,’ my answer is simple: ‘We innovate.’”

Everything begins with the Blue Man, and although he’s been around for more than two decades, his founders still can’t entirely explain where he came from. Like the character himself, his origin is enigmatic.

“There really isn’t an explanation,” says Goldman. “Chris dug up a picture that he drew when he was five years old, and it had three blue men in it. And I had a thing in my wallet for years with a blue tribe in South America. I don’t know why it was there; I never put pictures in my wallet. We think the Blue Man has always been here. The best answer is that we found each other.”

The impulse for going bald and blue emerged, in part, when the three longtime friends observed a clash of cultures on a New York sidewalk that no one else noticed.

“We saw three punk rockers – giant Mohawks, safety pins in the cheekbone area, leather and chains – walk between three other gentlemen who were dressed in Armani suits and carrying alligator briefcases,” says Goldman. “These six guys didn’t even blink, and the people around them didn’t even blink. And we turned to each other and said, ‘If that scene didn’t even get one iota of consciousness put to it, what human imagery possibly could?”

Eventually, an image began to emerge.

“We thought, ‘What would surprise people?” says Stanton. “‘What’s going to catch someone’s eye and make them think?’ We thought that if we created a bald and blue character, that image would have the ability to surprise and spark some thought for a long time."    

Goldman adds, “The first time we got bald and blue, we knew instantly it was something very special. And it was so freeing, because it wasn’t us. Our own egos were gone.”

Eager to see an end to the 1980s, they carried around a coffin and staged a “Funeral for the ’80s” in Central Park – two years before the decade ended.

“We also walked around the streets or into bars; we were really interested in being a little provocative,” Goldman said.

The traits of the Blue Man developed gradually.

“There was something about him that seemed timeless, and something that seemed a little bit futuristic,” says Stanton. “He seemed to have the ability to be beautiful and comic at the same time. I’m not even sure we thought about that at first. It was really intuitive. We were trying to create a character that somehow represented humanity, but was able to be outside of humanity and look at it at the same time. We wanted to make a statement about community, about the power of a group, as opposed to the American individualist mentality. We thought the character would express community through something tribal, and drumming seemed the way to go. Chris had trained as a drummer, and I was from a really musical background. We wanted to draw from our own interests and backgrounds, and bring them into some kind of performance. We wanted to express something about the process, or the impulse to create.”

They built drums and instruments made of polyvinyl chloride – or PVC – pipes. They caught thrown objects with their mouths, and learned how to make things squirt out of their chests. Not all their experiments were successful. “We tried these hats that had tape recorders in them,” says Goldman. “They were called ‘Read Your Mind’ hats.” An acquaintance complimented them for their bravery.          

They continued to develop material for three years, performing in downtown clubs and event spaces.

“We wanted to do work that had never been seen onstage before,” says Goldman.

Their shows were fresh and funny, exhilarating and experimental, but they were uncertain how long they could continue; they often paid out more than they took in on a gig. But in 1991, they were invited to perform at La MaMa, the prestigious off-off-Broadway theater. The show created a buzz, and that summer Blue Man Group took part in Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival. In the fall they moved off-Broadway to the Astor Place Theater, where they remain to this day.

Two decades later, Goldman, Stanton and Wink are still tinkering with, refining, and updating the show. Each additional production, including the tour, provides an opportunity for new material, and even the New York show is refreshed from time to time.

“Sometimes we just see something that we think is really cool, and we’ll try and see how we can make it theatrical,” says Stanton.

The success of the show has enabled Blue Man Group’s founders to do what they most enjoy: innovate, create, and inspire. Among their many enterprises are CDs and DVDs; toy development; and the Megastar World Tour, their take on what a rock concert should be.

“It plays around with all the trappings of the big arena concert,” says Quinn, “all the things we do that we don’t even think about – waving your hands in the air and bopping your head and dancing in your seat. We’re poking fun at all those little actions. But at the same time, we’re trying to put on the best rock concert there is, with all the stuff we want to see.”

A 3-D movie, scheduled to premiere in 2011, is a 3-D live-action comedy, in which the Blue Men journey through the human brain.

“We avoided the movie genre for years, because we’re live performers,” says Quinn. “But 3-D movies are really interesting to us. We’re about visceral experiences, about breaking the fourth wall and reaching across the plane and touching people. That’s what we want to do with this film.”

With the Boston Children’s Museum and JBL they developed an interactive exhibition called Making Waves, which is touring the country.

“We wanted to create something that would be as close to letting kids up onstage as possible,” says Quinn. “What we’re really doing is discussing sound waves, and how sound works. The exhibition deals primarily with sound and music.”  

Perhaps their most ambitious and far-reaching endeavor is the Blue School, a charter school for children ages 2 to 7.

“Several things went into starting a school,” says Stanton. “There was the fact that we were having children, and we wanted to create a great place for them to learn. We see a real need to change education to include things like our relationships and our emotional life, and understanding how the brain works. We want to be part of the national and international dialogue. From the very beginning, there’s been an education element in our theatrical show. We’ve tried to find ways to make science theatrical. And I think that if you look at the Blue Man character, there’s a nice continuity there. The Blue Man is a learner. He’s always trying to figure something out, or to learn something about us, or about technology. He’s always trying to express something about the creative impulse. And that’s what the goals of the school are: to help create healthy and strong relationships and community, to help us to continue to be excited and have fun learning, to bring creativity to everything. And we’re not just talking about painting and music and the lively arts. We’re talking about business. We’re living in a world where we have to educate people very differently than we have in the past.”

Blue Man Productions, the parent company that oversees all projects, employs several hundred people around the world. Goldman, Stanton, Wink and their staff pay the same attention to the details of their business as they do to the details of their art.

“From the beginning, we valued what went on offstage as much as what went on onstage,” says Stanton. “It’s important to us how people are treated. The creativity that goes into what happens offstage is viewed as part of what ends up onstage. We never separate the two. We always wanted to own our own show, and live with the decisions that we made, rather than hand all of that off to somebody else. We want to be responsible for what happens, and we wanted to make sure it was a life-long journey.”

See The Blue Man Group at the Peabody Opera House, April 25 – 27th tickets at the Ford Box Office or through ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.com

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