Two of the three founders, and original performers, of the “Blue Man Group,” and commencement speakers at the Ross School graduation this Saturday, on expanding their once small off-Broadway performance art piece to an international multi-city show and what lessons they have for young people.
Could you give us a taste of what you will be telling this year’s Ross graduates? Is this the first time you are giving this kind of speech?
Matt Goldman: Even though I am totally terrified of it, I am totally looking forward to it. Everyone wants to inspire young people when doing high school and college commencement speeches. I really don’t feel qualified to give a lot of advice to help with inspiration. What I can do is tell them a little bit about our story and the things that worked and didn’t work. I am especially excited to speak to this class because I do have a way-longer-than 18 years relationship with one of the graduates and his family.
I have never given a commencement speech. I have given a lot of speeches in different contexts at the [Blue] school or to press. I find that to be less nerve wracking than getting up in front of all these young folks. [I’m scared they’ll think] “Oh no, why did they choose the guys from Blue Man.”
Phil Stanton: I’m nervous as hell about it. This is my first, but I would like to do it more. I think I’ll talk about the value of collaboration. And what I have been good at that would be valuable for people to hear. My friendships and what they have meant to me over the years.
What inspired the original concept of the “Blue Men” and the inaugural piece “Tubes”? You were crafting this piece at a very artistically fertile time for New York City in the 1980s. What were you listening to, seeing, reading, etc.?
MG: It didn’t feel like an artistically fertile time. It was quite a barren time. There was no music scene to speak of in New York. There was a downtown performance art scene and for the most part it was angry monologists. Reaganomics had trickled down. It was the time of the yuppie and owning a BMW was a big thing.
What we had was a choice. We recognized that we could sit around and complain or do something about it. And we had these salons and the only thing that was required was to bring something exciting. We wanted to try and immerse ourselves in a creative lifestyle; life as a creative act. And then we went into the usual haunts La Mama [Experimental Theatre], Gusto House, the list goes on and on. Then we started writing two or three minutes at a time.
PS: For us there wasn’t a movement you could belong to at that time. It didn’t seem to us like a very fertile time. [That vacuum] inspired us more than anything. We tried to see if we could have our own voice and forget trying to belong to any kind of movement. The Internet was just beginning to happen. Technology and what it was going to mean caused us to start asking, what is essentially human? Technology does all of these amazing things but what remains a constant and doesn’t change over time?
I know we were inspired by Joseph Campbell. I remember [American psychologist] James Hillman. He was kind of a mad voice in the desert. He had the concept that you can be around 26 million people in the city and feel completely alone. [He expressed] the kind of isolation and alienation you can feel in the city.
It has been really fascinating to see technology through history. It is a mixed bag or a yin and yang. I think we have seen just as many examples of it uniting people. The central question that still remains for us is this idea of a live performance.
Why does audience participation play such an important role in your pieces? Both during and after the show, when the “Blue Men” interact with audience-goers?
MG: It is not really audience participation. That has such a specific picture for someone. It really is that there is no fourth wall. It is all real based. Someone drops a phone in the audience and the blue man has to react to it. Some of the show takes place in the audience. Sometimes the audience is on the stage and the blue men are sitting in seats. We think about it as sort of a neutral space between their world and our world. At first you think you are watching some strange looking beings. And then a third or halfway through, I love watching the audience when they have this wave of realization, “Oh my God, I am watching myself.” The blue man is once you stripped down everything. You take away hair style, skin tone, gender and passion. What you are left with is what is essentially human.
PS: I just remember we really wanted to blur the lines in the way the audience looks at the performer with this genius or star worship mentality. It was another reason for the blue paint and makeup. We wanted the identities to melt away so the blue man could become everyone. Another thing is we tried to create things that were interactive.
I think the blue man is a kernel of humanity. It is sort of the everyman. We used to bastardize Freud’s theory of the superego, id and the ego. We talk about the blue man as a being with the middle, [ego], missing. The id is what all humanity shares, our base appetites and desires, and the superego is our overarching goals and desires. This ego part is what we wanted to get rid of.
After over 20 years since “Tubes,” The Blue Man Group has flourished and includes shows in cities around the world, television appearances, Grammy-nominated albums, appearances in national advertisements, among other achievements. But the work started as small off-Broadway performance art. What about The Blue Man Group do you think appeals to a broad audience and a wide range of people?
MG: I think it is a couple things. I think it is looking at yourself through fresh eyes in a safe way. The use of humor, since humor is a universal way to break down barriers. I also think the use of music because our musical influences are from all over the world. The blue man isn’t the cult of personality. He is the everyman and is timeless. It is so refreshing to be watching these characters with no ego. We were used to rock stars and movie stars with the ego being front and center.
PS: I think on a practical level the characters don’t speak so people all over the world can understand them. There is something they can relate to no matter what culture. The irony is that although they are silent characters the show has a lot of language.
[Audiences] see something about their own humanity that goes beyond our race or economic strata or religion. There is something overarching that allows them to look at themselves in a basic way. Our humor is very simple too.
The Boston Children’s Museum is currently hosting an exhibit titled “Blue Man Group – Making Waves,” which incorporates light and audio play into different equipment for children. How do these pieces of equipment help educate children? And do you use the same methods at the Blue School in New York City?
MG: We are so proud of that. It is a very sweet exhibit aimed at younger children. It is fully interactive and cool. The parents love it as much as the children. The amazing thing is that the exhibit was fully committed three years before it was set up.
The Blue School has all sorts of Blue Man influences. They use shaving cream with a black light. The kids can talk to each other using tubes. There are interactive light floors. The Blue School is all about sort of trying to instill in all of us, including adults, that we are all creative beings. The social/emotional parts of our daily lives are at least as important as everything else. The school is just this incredible wonderful place where we as a whole community get to try to build the school we always fantasized we wanted to go to.
PS: I am not an expert in education but I think it helps the kids understand sound and light in a tactile way. They can literally see how the length of a tube relates to pitch. They see how sound actually translates in to motion.
Our curriculum [at the Blue School] is very student led so if the class decides to bring in something they use that as a learning tool. One class got excited about tornados. They started to understand what wind is. They learned about geography and where else on the earth tornadoes take place. It starts with something a child or children are excited about, and that is extrapolated to all these other disciplines. We obviously have musical instruments but it isn’t like we take things from the museum.
I like to talk about the school in the context of the three C’s: creativity, collaboration and community. I think what we really try to do is find out what each child is good at.