It’s hard to find a stranger show in the city of Chicago than the iconic, three mute and alien-like blue men located off Halsted, at Briar Street Theater. The theater itself is quite small in comparison to those that stand in the Theater District, but it’s abundantly clear that the Blue Man Group is no “Hamilton” or “Annie.”
The theater is intimate and brilliantly designed to withstand the Blue Man Group’s comedic theater, rock concert or dance party. It’s a messy show. The five or more rows closest to the stage require the audience to wear a poncho in case of any paint or food, and anything in between, splashes on them.
The audience is just as much performers in the show. While the crowd may judge the show after its finale, the Blue Men are judging the energy prior to the show itself. Callum Grant, one of the six casted Blue Men, talked about how he reads an audience member’s energy before choosing them to come on stage.
“This show lives and breathes with the audience, it kind of matters what they brought to the show,” Grant said. “We always joke that the audience is collectively the fourth Blue Man. And we can respond to it, we can try and inject some energy.”
The show, which regularly interacts with its audience for the almost two hour running time, also contains two skits which requires an audience member’s participation on stage. One skit requires a female audience member to join the Blue Men on stage for a goofy and messy dinner of Twinkies.
“When we bring a guest on stage, there’s a lot of latitude they can have and this woman is the ‘x’ factor,” said Brett Presson, the show’s stage manager. “The lady we had tonight for that skit was delightful, but some people can sort of shut down or feel like they’re being made fun of. So a lot of it is a tool box or a bag of tricks to get her to play along with us.”
Being around for 25 years in cities from New York City to Lax Vegas and Berlin to Chicago, the Blue Man Group has evolved into an ever-changing show that audience members keep returning to.
“Each show is somewhat new in its location,” Grant said. “Whenever we open in different or new countries, we try and update it at least to make it relevant to that culture. It’s constantly growing and evolving.”
Presson agreed, stating he’s seen some new acts by the Blue Man Group while traveling across the country.
“Some of the new content I’ve seen in Vegas, is that it’s getting more abstract and more into the music thing,” said Presson. “Whether that means the whole show will follow that, I don’t know, but we always add new material over the years.”
For Callum Grant, his blue painted career started 11 years ago and since then his career on stage has been something he could’ve never imagined.
“I’m from Scotland and we never had a Blue Man Group there, this whole thing was a perfect gig for me that was pure coincidence and luck and the timing had never been better,” Grant said. “A friend of mine saw the show in New York while I was training in theater at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, and he came back and told me, I’d be great for it.
“And by pure weird coincidence and luck, they were doing auditions in Glasgow two weeks later. They haven’t done that before or since.”
The tightly scheduled training each Blue Man must go through to test their ability of timing, drumming, performance and everything in between, is quite exhausting and demanding. With the Blue Men shooting and catching marshmallows and gum drops in their mouths at a 30-foot distance, along with impeccable costume change timing, there’s no surprise at just how much the performers are required to practice. With about 10 shows a week, the talent behind the Blue Man Group is unquestionable.
“It was intense and rigorous but really fun, the most fun hard work I’ve ever had. You basically learn the show and are judged in front of a collection of different directors who were all Blue Men at one point,” Grant said. “When I trained back in the day, you would learn the whole show and then go in and perform. It was terrifying.”
“Now I believe you learn sections of the show and they switch the guys in and out of performance, but because we all look quite similar the audience can’t tell.”
While all the Blue Men are indeed musically talented, as one can tell from their drumming performance with paint or percussion tubes, there are still moments in which the upbeat synthesizing music must play on as the Blue Men continue their antics with the audience. That is where Thomas Benko’s role as the Blue Man Group band member comes in, located tightly above the stage in a small transparent box.
“We have a full drums set, a lot of equipment. Only three people up there but it’s pretty tight,” Benko said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
The members of the Blue Man Group have certainly become a sort of family – one that must communicate silently on stage with one another but through music, dance and partying with the audience.
“For me the, the character of the Blue Man lends itself to being a good person. It is kind and it looks for the best in everything, the potential in everything,” Grant said. “And when you’re that for so many years, it starts to become you. I’m not a different person when I’m on stage.”