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Interview:
Blue Man Group keeps the present, and future, busy
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

It may not be easy being green, but Phil Stanton, Chris Wink and Matt Goldman have done well for themselves by being blue for the past 25 years.

As in Blue Man Group.

The trio launched the performance art project in 1987 as "cultural tricksters," staging street-level "happenings" in New York City. Since then Blue Man Group has grown into a nearly 400-person organization that has permanent theater shows in New York, Boston and Chicago, and a larger-scale standing production at the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Blue Man Group has also released Grammy Award-nominated albums, made TV commercials, been part of Moby's short-lived Area festival and toured amphiteathers and arenas on its own.

Now the troupe is on the road again with its first-ever theatrical tour, which comes to Detroit's Fisher Theatre this week for a 16-show run.

"We felt like it was time to get the kind of show that has been in New York, or a version of it, around the country to people who may not have wanted to travel to Vegas or Chicago or Boston or New York," explains Stanton, 52, a Georgia native who came to Manhattan as a "serious" actor before he began painting himself blue and playing with the PVC pipes and other props that have become Blue Man staples.

Stanton acknowledges it's a bit ironic that he and his cohorts are just getting around to a Blue Man theater tour now, after playing larger venues -- when most productions, of course, do just the opposite.

"It is funny," he agrees. "We went out with the big rock tour because we didn't know a good way to tour our theatrical production. I think we would've preferred people to see a theater tour first, get to know the characters better than they did in the rock show. The rock show assumed you know the characters, which wasn't always the case."

The characters Stanton, Goldman and Wink created are designed to interact with culture with a decidedly, and deliberately, deadpan anonymity. Wink calls the Blue Men "gentle...faceless squires" who wordlessly "comment" on everything from high art to the conventions of rock concert, mixing wide-eyed innocence with sly satire. The Blue Man is the proverbial stranger in a strange land, illustrating the delights, absurdities and contradictions in things we take for granted, occasionally make a mess with paint and marshmallows and playing some original music on a series of instruments of the troupe's own invention.

"We look around our culture and decide what looks like it needs to be highlighted or framed and then create some satire around it," Stanton explains.

He also promises that the theater tour is no mere rehash of the "Tubes" show at the New York, Boston and Chicago installations. "We didn't just take a version of one of the existing shows," he explains. "We went out with a lot of new material and a whole new set design, approach to lighting. For anyone who's seen a Blue Man show before, the touring show has a lot of new material. There's nothing like this out there."

The tour's primary focus, Stanton says, is working with LED technology, including a full-size electronic curtain, High Definition screens and moving pieces. "I think there's a different expectation now," he notes. "It really seems like people come expecting to get immersed in it. They treat it almost more like a rock show than a theatrical show. They know they're free to yell or be a little more boisterous than they normally would be. They come with the expectation they're going to have a really good time."

The theater show, meanwhile, plays into that. The centerpieces are new Blue Man creations called Gi-Pads, which Stanton describes as "giant versions of generic touch-screen devices that are used several times during the show. We created this idea of what we call 2.5 Deep Space -- not the 3D space of the real world, and not the 2D of our PDA devices. It's a humorous way of saying we're becoming one with these devices we hold in our hands.

"So we have pieces that are like giant iPhones, and the Blue Men interact with them. They have abilities we haven't realized; that's where a lot of the humor and satire comes from."

Another irony, of course: some of those at the show will undoubtably be using those devices to chronicle Blue Man Group making fun of them using those devices. "We actually encourage people to shoot the show and e.mail it -- the only thing we try to keep to a minimum is flash photography," Stanton says. "There's no stopping it. If you do, you just look like you're old fogies."

The theater tour is not the only new endeavor in the Blue Man Group camp these days. Stanton, Wink and Goldman -- who seldom don the blue paint themselves anymore -- are currently retooling the Las Vegas show for a new production that will be unveiled in November. The trio is also working on "another set of characters" that will be revealed in the near future, as well as plans to take Blue Man Group into other territories around the world and also "beyond the stage," most likely into visual and interactive media.

"It's a very fertile time for us," Stanton says. "There's a lot of irons in the fire in terms of what we want to do with Blue Man in the next three to five years. With all the new material we put out on the tour and all the new material going into the Vegas show, it's the most active period we've ever had in our existence.

"We don't plan on letting up, either. We feel like this is just the beginning of a new kind of era for us, which is very exciting to say after all these years."

Blue Man Group performs May 1-13 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 West Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $40-$145. Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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