Blue Man Group: The boys in Blue

Heard the one about the bald, blue-painted men wowing comedy audiences across America? Alice Jones meets the Blue Man Group, who find out tonight whether the joke works here
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The Independent Culture

As well as a sell-out show, the three men have performed to a television audience of 55 million at the Grammys, clocked up 10 appearances on Tonight, appeared in the sitcom Arrested Development, written the score to the animation Robots and starred in a high-profile advertising campaign for Intel. And they did all of this while painted bright blue. So why hasn't anyone over here noticed them before?

From today, Blue Man Group are bringing their eponymous show to the New London Theatre as part of a empire-building mission that has taken in New York, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, Toronto and since 2000, a lucrative spot at the 1,200 seater Luxor Theatre in Las Vegas.

One reason the Blue Man Group has not filtered through before may be that their show fends off easy categorisation. In trying to describe the comedy spectacle of three blue, bald men performing on stage without words but with a variety of objects, paint, instruments and music, the press release ties itself in knots, settling on "a techno-tribal-rock-art-drama". Dustin Hoffman has described it as "like an acid trip in first grade that happens when the teacher leaves the room".

Phil Stanton, one of the original three Blue Men and co-founder of the Blue Man Group, prefers to call it "a renegade look at theatre". When pressed, he lists the music hall and vaudeville tradition: "If I had to, I'd probably categorise it as something that doesn't really exist any more.... We want people to feel engaged, to feel free to react and yell and not just be passive participators", he explains.

The Blue Man Group is the bizarre brainchild of Stanton and two old friends, Matt Goldman and Chris Wink, who bonded over a love of punk music and a dislike of the 1980s art scene. They set up their own "salon" or "social scene" where they would get together and discuss books and magazine articles, discovering a common desire to create something new.

Their first public "performance" was a funeral for the 1980s, staged in Central Park in 1988, in which they ritualistically burned a coffin crammed with symbols of the age, including cocaine and yuppie effigies. Further guerilla street performances followed, although they claim a "love-hate relationship" with the term performance art.

These happenings were an articulation of their sense of urban isolation at the dawn of the IT revolution. Stanton cites the bleak, lonely works of Edward Hopper as inspiration: "They have this context of what it's like to be in a modern city where there are so many thousands of people per square mile, but you feel even more alone in a crowd. The feeling that you can be connected to people with fax machines, or by e-mail, yet you feel very isolated at the same time."

In 1991, the Blue Man Group took up residence at the Astor Place Theatre in New York and has remained there, spawning franchises across the world. The operation, which began as three men sitting around on a Sunday, has grown into a 500-person theatrical powerhouse. Three men could not act in all of these theatres and eight shows a week began to take its toll, so the original trio gave birth to cobalt clones. There are now around 60 Blue Men around the world.

David Bray is one of six new Blue Men trained up for the London run - "We have an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Polish guy, a Frenchman and two Americans. Fill in the blanks to make your own joke," he quips. He has spent the last three weeks learning from Stanton: "We've come from the womb in New York and we've never met our mother."

Universality is the Blue Man mantra: "Everybody has the Blue Man in them somewhere", says Bray. Although the show is conventionally plot-less, it builds to a magnificent climax, breaking through the fourth wall to embrace the whole audience. This denouement is accompanied by the tribal, primal rhythms beaten out on the trio's drums.

Stanton describes it as a "tribal group release" or an "exulted moment." "We're trying to give a new name to what can only happen when you get together with people - that old impulse to get around the fire and sing songs. We were looking for a euphoric experience that didn't involve religion, or other ideology. We're trying to have a celebratory moment for no other reason than that we're all human."

This collective euphoria is an antidote to contemporary alienation, comparable with the feeling of abandoned joy experienced by crowds at a football match.

Stanton considers his Pentecostal upbringing as a formative influence: "They would get together and have a euphoric experience but it couldn't happen without this idea of God or another being. What we're trying to do is to almost recreate a Pentecostal revival experience without the religious dogma."

The original trio played the Blue Men for the first three years without understudies, but now Stanton has few qualms about letting others take on the role. "Conceptually the character was never about personalities. It's more appropriate for our show than for many others that it should go on to have other people play the character. That's a testament to how universal the idea of the character is, it really transcends races and cultures."

Nevertheless, new Blue Men must survive an exacting audition and training process. Candidates must be between 5ft 10ins and 6ft 1in, have good drumming skills and be able to communicate non-verbally, but Stanton admits, "You either see a Blue Man or you don't and I'm not sure we can always define that."

Eleven weeks at Blue Man boot camp follows at which the actors must leave their ego behind and attain a "purity of behaviour". Although the characters do not speak, the Blue Man group is not a mime or clown act. Bray says it is one of his most challenging roles: "There's no chance you can fake anything.... You're not relying on stereotypical gestures like putting your hands to your head," he says.

Their unusual appearance is part of this stripping away of personality. But Stanton admits the decision to go "bald and blue" was more of an intuitive move which turned into a winning decision. (Green was associated with aliens, red with devils, orange with clowns and, as for purple, "the make-up doesn't come in that colour".)

Training also involves shadowing the crew. The Blue Man Group prides itself on a lack of separation between backstage and on-stage, bringing the crew up to take a bow at the end. This Stanislavskian ethos, where there are "no stars", goes some way to explaining how three friends have kept a tight hold on their original concept, says Bray.

All-consuming dedication, along with genuine surprise at their good fortune is the key to their continuing success. Stanton marvels, "Who in their right mind would have envisaged that getting bald and blue and playing home-made drums would end up being something you could make a living from?"

Blue Man Group, New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London WC2 (0870 899 3342, to 26 March