theater without a theater

What Do the Blue Men Do When They’re Not in a Group?

One writer, eight Blue Men. Photo: Sonia Weiser

Micheal Smith used to think there were only three Blue Men. That was before he auditioned and became one of the few people of color to join what’s become a pop-culture juggernaut. There are, today, 68 Blue Man Group cast members distributed around the world, some of whom hold down full-time jobs and hue it up on weekends, like Clark Kent but with fewer bad guys and more marshmallows. Since their signature show premiered at the Astor Place Theatre in 1991, trios of those intense-blue faces have been seen everywhere from cruises to behind Bob Boilen’s desk at the NPR office. They’ve even drummed their way through Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, shooting their combination of avant-garde theatrics, clowning, musical prowess, and visual catharsis out of cannons along with copious amounts of glitter and toilet paper.

Despite a childhood terror of the Blue Man Group that I’ve never shaken off, I spoke with eight active members of the company on Zoom, chatting with them about their quarantine experience, the benefits of working with the same company and as the same character for over a decade, and what it’s like to be furloughed and as panicked about the future as the rest of us.

In addition to Micheal Smith, I was joined by Chicago’s Callum Grant and Gareth Hinsley, New York’s Mark Frankel and Matt Ramsey, Boston’s Bryce Flint-Somerville, Los Angeles’s Kalen Allmandinger (who also sells masks as part of the organic kids’ clothing company he and his wife run from their house), and Las Vegas’s Alain Rochefort, all from their respective hideaways.

You guys are experts when it comes to having stuff on your face. So do you have any tips for people who are still very uncomfortable with wearing masks?
Matt Ramsey (Blue Man since 2000): They say “don’t touch your face” right now. We got used to never touching our faces when we have our makeup on. And once you have a physical representation of every time you touch your face or head, you quickly realize that it’s something we’re always doing.

Gareth Hinsley (since 2007): When you first put the makeup on, it feels like you can’t quite breathe. But as soon as you get into a show, that completely disappears, through necessity. Your focus is somewhere else. We’re so unused to wearing masks. But you can make it a game to distract yourself.

Mark Frankel (since 2005): Anonymity is probably the biggest kick about being a Blue Man character. When I put on the mask, all the baggage I carry with me is gone. I become something else and connect with people in a unique way. What does having half your face covered bring out of you? Do you have different interactions with people? I find the [medical] masks, when I wear them, totally uncomfortable and distracting. I don’t want to touch it all the time, but I think more about the idea of “put it on and get brave and psyched about it,” and make it into a game.

Micheal Smith (since 2018): Yeah — making it fun. I think there’s a great opportunity of like, you know, having ownership with it. Just making cool ways to cover up your face. I was walking down the street the other day and there were some people who looked really badass — I would totally go out there and look like a ninja every day.

A big part of your show is using toilet paper and food in excess — when you come back, do you think that’s going to have any effect on how the audience receives those moments?
Kalen Allmandinger (since 2000): Before we shut our show down temporarily, we were discussing ways of adjusting because we invite people up onstage. We walk into the audience, we have a lot of close contact, we throw things into each other’s mouths, we ask audience members to throw things into our mouths. If we’re going to be going back to work before a vaccine is available, we’re definitely going to have to adjust. Certainly the things that involve sharing food.

MR: People have suggested using cloth instead of toilet paper and just washing it.

KA: We should start using bidets in the show.

MR: Yeah, just spray it.

Who would be responsible for making those changes or coming up with those new ideas? How does that work?
Callum Grant (since 2005): We’re kind of going into unprecedented territory. I think that ideas will come from anyone, from a part-time front-of-house staff member to a full-time executive producer.

Alain Rochefort (since 2006): The last year in Vegas, we got the whole ensemble together and we all brainstormed ideas: What are some things we could do? And we brought all those notes to the directors and we refreshed the show. We did a whole new finale, which actually eliminated a lot of that paper, and put in some more lighting and other effects.

A piece I read argued that the pandemic has switched the emphasis from individuality to community. How do you think that will manifest within the company? 
MF: Blue Man will probably revert to how it was in the very early days, where it was a bunch of people experimenting. Everyone had a voice. I imagine that’s something that will be mirrored in all forms as people have to figure out how to rebuild restaurants and scenes and theaters. I imagine fringe theater in New York City is going to have an explosion that’s closer to anarchic than hierarchic. There will be a lot less experimentation on Broadway, and the smaller houses are going to be more attractive, as there will be fewer people in a room and they will be more open to a slightly anarchic creative flow.

MR: What occurs to me is that usually helping others requires physical contact or proximity. I’m curious to see how that’s going to manifest in this new normal of distance and a heightened awareness. Even if we do go back to a place in the real world where we don’t have to socially distance, none of us is going to be unscathed by this experience. So how are we going to help each other when we’re all very nervous about how close we are to each other?

Bryce Flint-Somerville (since 1998): Drive-in theater, drive-in Blue Man group?

MS: Hell, yeah. We can climb on people’s cars.

BF-S: It’s like a safari. It’ll be a Blue Man Safari.

What have you learned about people and how we interact with each other during this time that you think might end up coming onstage with you?
BF-S: We’ve really exposed how fragile we are and how fragile everything we’ve built is, and it’s resulted in a heightened sense of empathy and sympathy. I know that in the past, when I’m connecting with someone, a lot of times they’ll avert their eyes, but if I just stay with them, they’ll give over, and you can see their sadness or see their insecurities and share it with them, and I can only imagine the potential this has to be something profound.

MR: We don’t necessarily mock pop culture. We participate and play in it. And that would have to continue. So I don’t know what shape it will take, but it’s going to include empathy, and be profound, and be funny.

How worried are you about the future of the Blue Man Group?
GH: Everyone’s worried about what their future looks like. I have faith and optimism about the creative industries. I don’t know what that looks like when this is done. I want to have some of that relief via entertainment and community. And I hope that that’s a common thread among people.

MS: Right now, entertainment is pretty crucial. Even when we can all, like, go outside and shit, I think entertainment will definitely be crucial in that moment too.

MR: It’s kind of like toilet paper. We all need it, but who knows if it will exist in another month?

What Do the Blue Men Do When They’re Not in a Group?