Blue Man Group's stage piece "Tubes" is like a Baptist revival on Mars. Three mute, blue figures muck around at the messy crossroads of modern life, splashing around in paint to demonstrate chaos theory, attacking Twinkie's with power drills to re-examine such banalities as shrink-wrap, vacuuming the pathetic Christina out of Wyeth's "Christina's World." Frequent musical segments with deep primal bass lines and irregular-heartbeat drums overwhelm the audience in a purely sensory world, freeing them from the burden of too much thinking. Genteel Boston audiences have become devotees of the Blue Man Experience, tying on paper head-bands, singing along with electronic prompters and dancing in an in-house ticker tape parade. They seem to revel in the group participation, in the sense of collective experience gained from seeing their world inside out.
Blue Man Group today represents a virtual supernova of the group's beginnings. Long-time friends Matt Goldman, Chris Wink and Phil Stanton began Blue Man Group in reaction to the avant-garde art scene of the late '80s. "We were critics," says Wink. "We were like Siskel and Ebert--and Zeppo". They wrote "Tubes" in 1991 and were amazed by the critical and popular success it has become. After four years, European and U.S. tours and Obie and Drama Desk awards, "Tubes" is still selling out two shows a night in New York and Boston. "To be able to have ideas and a short time or even a long time later to see them enacted, that's what it's all about as an artist...combined with the fact that there's more than a hundred people to coordinate it all, its unbelievable," says Goldman.
Parallel to the explosion of the group's reputation has been the exponential growth of "stuff" which they lug around in trailers, necessary to the production of the show. This multiplicity of "stuff" is in sharp contrast to the earliest days of the group, when Goldman and Wink completely streamlined their belongings. "One day we just threw everything out of our apartment.... Every book, every piece of furniture, everything hanging on the walls, everything because we needed to create this vacuum, clean canvas, have this space so that we could create in it. And that was in some regards the first Blue Man and everything since then has been about accumulation. We've got a lot of shit. We can't hold it all."
Blue Man Group uses all this "shit" to recreate the accumulation culture of America in the late 20th century. "Tubes" takes the icons of the 'nineties--the Internet, Screen Savers, processed foods and forces the audience to recognize them for what they are--man-made objects which we control; they don't control us. Says Chris Wink, "Modernization has separated us into cubicles, and now we have to buy our way back together. Theater... is the last bastion of direct interaction."
In terms of interaction, Boston audiences have not been disappointing. "The Boston crowd has picked up more of the content of the show," says Wink. "In New York, they're like, 'It's wild, It's messy' whereas in Boston people are really getting the meaning of what we're trying to say.... They've taken the time to understand it more, and they're also getting the satire, that we're making fun of New York a bit."
The 'meaning' of "Tubes" varies from piece to piece. Some segments, such as the running motif of the men catching objects in mid-air with their mouths, began in reaction to the art the three men saw around them. "It started off with, 'Let's do action art," says Wink. "It started with an intellectual framework. Then it grew into 'Let's catch this, let's catch this and then it went into play. And little by little it turned out to be a comment on the art world."
To be fair to the New York crowd, not every piece has a deep meaning or artistic reference waiting to be distilled. Says Stanton, "There are a couple of things that had a real conceptual genesis... but they got so far away from that, they became so much more an experience, it would be pretentious to talk about them as things that have tremendous meanings."
One aspect of the show in which people insist on finding metaphor is the blue color of the men themselves. The group gets asked 'the blue question' so frequently, according to Goldman, that "I went a few months saying 'You can ask anything, any question except 'why blue." The question is not only repetitive, but its also unanswerable, because, according to Stanton, "It didn't have a thinking process behind it." Adds Wink, "It's like saying 'why these chords' to a musician".
On the other end of the spectrum, some segments of the show are intentionally laden with metaphorical meaning. The fractal segment, in which these exotic patterns become visible on a screen as the Blue Men spread shaving cream with trowels, is significant to Blue Man cosmology. According to Stanton, the unpredictability of fractals, their structure which is both methodical and chaotic, reflects the randomness of modern life and proves that "We [mankind] are not that crazy after all." Goldman is intrigued that "patterns do a thing which nobody expected them to do, which is look more similar the more complicated they become."
Chris Wink views fractals as the only suitable metaphor for life in the '90s, because "they're loaded with paradox, because everything's contradictory...the '60s thought the '50s were the one wrong way, and now we have the one counterway of the '60s. But, for the '90s, there's no one way."
The Blue Man Group's ability to meld fractals and shaving cream-to use optical illusion to comment on generational identity crisis-typifies the balance of fun and metaphor that makes the show work. The effort, explains Wink, is not to let any one dimension of the show eclipse the other. "We start out being avant-gardists and then we say, 'oh look, we're being assholes,' and then we start to play for awhile and our message becomes emotive. Going to a place of spirit and newness or celebration is always where we want to end up, and pass through that other stuff on the way."
Stanton holds that the division between meaning and play is really a false dichotomy, since "cool and playful and understanding can ultimately result in a conversation to be had, too."
Engaging the audience in conversation is the primary concern of "Tubes"; audience feedback is the completion of the piece itself. According to Goldman. "I love it when someone comes up to you after the show and asks you to referee their argument about what a piece meant... Someone comes up and they have this bizarre, in credible, I-wish-I-had-thought-of-it idea. And I go yeah, yeah, that's it".
If this is the standard by which the Blue Men ridge their success, then they have certainly achieved it. The messy exuberance of "Tubes" erases the respectful distance audiences keep from most works of art. For Blue Man Group to continue to connect to its audiences, therefore, it must keep up the generative energy which has rocketed it this far. This goal is the catalyst that keeps Wink, Goldman and Stanton moving forward after nearly seven years, writing more material, collecting more junk, and jetting weekly between Boston and New York to keep both shows running. In the words of Chris Wink: "The bottom line with all this stuff is what every youthful person wants--something to get excited about. We just want to be excited about something, to try to be alive. We just want to gyrate so fast in there you can't predict what's coming next."