Sunday, July 9, 2017
Just drumming is not enough to make you Blue
Blue Man Group, the popular and increasingly-pervasive trio of mute drummers putting on a surreal show, were purchased last week by Cirque du Soleil, a marriage of like minds if ever there were. I saw Blue Man Group when it opened on Broadway, and again a time or two over the years. In 2011, I stopped by to watch them audition future Blue Men.
By 9 a.m., 10 men are standing in a steady drizzle outside the Briar Street Theatre on Halsted Street, waiting for their chance.
"Cold, rainy, windy and damp enough to annoy you," says a 20-year-old with the Hollywood-ready name of Nathaniel Hawkins, first in line, having driven in from Cedar Falls, Iowa, the night before and been here since 7:30 a.m. "I always wanted to give this a shot if the chance came up."
"The chance"—the first in Chicago since June—refers to the open auditions last Tuesday for Blue Man Group, the wildly popular mix of music, vaudeville and social commentary.
If you think of Blue Man Group as three bald guys painted blue stuffing Cap'n Crunch in their mouths, you're behind the times. That was 20 years ago, when Chris Wink, Philip Stanton and Matt Goldman created the show "to celebrate the human spirit through music, science, art and theater."
Now Blue Man Productions has some 600 employees worldwide with about 60 full-time Blue Men performing in seven cities: Boston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Berlin, Tokyo, New York, where it has played for 20 years, and at Briar Street, where it has run continually for 15. Not quite the Disney Co., but a long way from busking in Central Park.
The Briar Street lobby is crowded with men, and a few women. (Two females have become Blue Men). They have driven from as far away as Nebraska. An acting professor at Notre Dame canceled classes to be here.
Those waiting to be called sit on the floor, filling out forms, many drumming with drumsticks they brought with them, or with the flats of their hands on their chests.
"I love music," said John Curulewski, 24, of Plainfield. "I want to play drums." Being a Blue Man would be "pretty sweet, it seems like a good job: be kinda crazy and drum."
Were it that easy. Playing drumheads splashing brightly colored liquids is only part of the job, and the five-level audition process begins with neither craziness nor drumming, but an earnest two-minute interview, sitting in salon chairs facing casting coordinator Tascha Van Auken, who glances at each resume, makes small talk - "So how far is Plainfield?" - then asks about acting experience. Those with none find themselves quickly, but with notable gentleness, thanked for coming and sent on their way.
"If you went out and got some acting work, we would totally be into it," she tells one. "It doesn't make sense to put you through the process now."
Those who make it past Van Auken—and most do—are put, five at a time, through a pair of tough non-verbal acting exercises.
Someone in the room has "a deep sadness" within them, explains Tim Aumiller, director of casting. "You have an opportunity right now to look at us once, just once, and you have to determine who in this room has this deep sadness.
This weeds out those whose talents are limited to drumming, and the irony is, that test is next. The two skills just don't compare.
"Almost anyone can learn to be the kind of drummer we need them to be," says Aumiller. "But it can take years to teach someone to be an actor."
Those who make it this far stand, one at a time, at a drum pad on the Briar Street stage, facing Jeff Quay, the music director.
"Track my dynamics," he tells one hopeful. "I get softer, you get softer." They mirror each other. "Excellent. Let's keep it going - you track my tempo changes."
In the audience are current Blue Men Matt Ramsey and Nick Rush, 23, the one actor picked out of 150 auditioning last June.
"Once I got to training, one of the directors said 90 percent why you get the job is the moment you walk in the door," says Rush. "You can just tell: He's a Blue Man."
Of the 164 would-be Blue Men who tried last Tuesday, 18 were called back for more intensive exercises and auditions, leading to final trials, in makeup, in the weeks to come. All to get . . . how many new Blue Men?
"One would be good," says Aumiller, noting that some city auditions yield none.
A final thought, from hours watching this success funnel, with 164 earnest aspirants pushing themselves into the wide end and one, maybe, emerging from the spout:
The American dream is that if you have ambition, if you truly believe in yourself and try, really hard, you will succeed, with a bit of luck. And that is sometimes true. But not if you're only a drummer, and what they're really looking for are actors who can drum.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 25, 2011