By Alex Solano
Brian Tavener might have the coolest, most bizarre job ever. Each night that he and two castmates are on stage, a lucky audience is dazzled by sights and sounds so completely unique you would be hard-pressed to find them anywhere else. There’s one catch — they are all performed by three bald men in black clothes and blue-painted skin. As you might have guessed, Tavener is part of the famously experimental theatrical organization Blue Man Group.
Many will recognize the group for the unusual instruments they use, their odd and completely non-verbal behaviour and of course, the unmistakable blue paint that covers all of their visible skin. The concept of the “blue man,” however, goes much deeper than physical attributes.
When Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton began the Blue Man Group in 1987, they hoped to convey an attitude of endless curiosity and wonder at the world through the figure of a blue man who would, in turn, push the audience to take more notice of the beauty of their surroundings.
Although the three-man operation is now a company that holds shows all over the world, the basic premise of the blue man has not changed. The curiosity, exploration and discovery that makes up their story is not communicated to the audience through words, but in the only way the blue men can communicate — through music.
PVC pipe instruments are a trademark of the group’s performances, and they come in three forms: a “drumbone,” backpack PVCs and a regular set that rolls out.
“[The drumbone] is a classic piece in Blue Man that’s the blue man exploring. It’s kind of the beginning of finding the PVC pipe and being like, ‘Wow, we can make music with this’ . . . that you can use your brain and creativity and science and just explore a little bit more, and that can be music,” Tavener says about the simplest PVC pipe instrument used.
While the blue men explore new ways to make music, a band behind them uses more traditional instruments to play what Tavener calls “the soundtrack to the blue man’s mind.” Featuring some of the best percussionists in North America, the band captivates the audience as much as the blue men do.
“You’ll find me, in character, watching them perform, taking it all in because the blue man takes everything in . . . that’s part of the show, too.”
Like everything Blue Man, the band is not limited by conventional and expected formats. Besides the standard drum kit, guitar and bass combination, an additional percussion kit and several rare instruments are combined to create the Blue Man sound.
“I think some of the more interesting instruments are played by the band,” admits Tavener. “I’ve never actually seen or heard a band that plays an instrument called a ‘zither,’ an instrument called a ‘Chapman Stick’ and drums. Those are the main tones of the band.”
Although generally “rock-driven,” the Blue Man music is its own genre, completely unique to the show. In fact, as audience members often discover, the music might not be the same from one performance to the next.
“We explore these instruments differently every night. There is an infinite amount of exploration with rhythms, with tone,” says Tavener.
How the blue men decide to play each instrument is almost entirely dependent on the actual audience. This is a challenge faced by the performers, who not only have to play the part of both actor and musician, but must also observe the observers to take their cues.
“You can approach that instrument boldly if you’ve got an audience that’s already on board with you, or you can approach it very inquisitively if you’re really trying to draw some people in,” says Tavener.
The audience is an integral component to the blue man’s journey of self-discovery. It’s a mutual experience not established through words that can be misunderstood or misconstrued, but through visual and musical elements from which each individual can derive a personal meaning.
There is an irony in three alien-like individuals inspiring a human connection, but ultimately that is the Blue Man goal.
“You reach these primal elements of humans [through the music] that I don’t know if we tap into enough, and we maybe even put up social masks to block these instincts inside us that we maybe have forgotten about,” Tavener says.
The concept is universal and therefore allows for the show to be successful all over the world, despite cultural and language differences. What makes this connection is the root of the Blue Man sound — drums.
“There’s this subconscious thing that happens when you hear a beat that your head starts moving or your legs start stomping and you can’t really control it,” explains Tavener. “Or you’re dancing in your own little way and a lot of people don’t realize they’re doing it. Then you’ll look at your neighbour and they’re doing it too . . . that’s the connection that we’re going for.”
Whether seen in Vegas or Tokyo, the blue man is able to strip down the aforementioned “social masks” to reveal characteristics that we all share with each other. The common element might be as simple as an instinctual reaction to a beat, but it’s enough to convey the feeling of unity among humankind.
“I think that’s what Blue Man’s here to do — to remind us that we’re all the same at the core. We all react the same to a lot of things, and we just don’t remember those common elements enough,” remarks Tavener.
Whether seen from an intellectual perspective or simply taken in as a spectacle, the Blue Man Group offers a must-have experience that not even a blue man himself could define.