Blue Men wanted: Auditioning for Chicago's 'Blue Man Group'

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Hopefuls audition for "Blue Man Group" at the Briar Street Theatre on July 10, 2013. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune)

The hopefuls wait in the theater's lobby, decorated with tubes and pipes that are an essential part of the show. For the interview, they are called behind a curtain. They sit on stools in front of the merchandise table.

"So you're coming from kind of a clown background?" asks Rachel Schripsema, the Blue Man official conducting the interviews. "So you have a little percussion experience? Tell me more about that."

Jed Feder, a trained drummer, tells Schripsema he had auditioned once before and "it was unlike any audition I've ever done."

Alex Levin, with the clown background, says that when he tried previously, he got to the drumming part. "Unless I totally misinterpreted the feedback," he says, "my wrist was a little stiff on the left side. I've loosened that up a lot."

Another hopeful says that "my cousin is a Blue Man" and since his last audition, "I've learned more about presence and being able to stand your ground."

"I'm in a show right now," he adds. "'The Three Musketeers.' I'm playing the king. It's a great role."

Schripsema explains that, for the acting portion, "they're taking dudes over in small groups."

That portion is closed to the press, but actors who come out explain that it incorporates nonverbal exercises.

"It's one of the most terrifying things to ask an actor to do," says Levin, 27, of Edgewater. He means being yourself, "not getting a chance to hide behind a character."

The actors spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the drumming audition, but the truth is, great acting chops and some basic rhythm are preferred over a killer drummer who's an acting novice. If "Blue Man Group" likes you, a lot, as an actor, they'll pay for your drumming lessons.

"My job is to make sure they are workable, that it makes sense to invest in them," says Jeff Quay, musical director for the Chicago production.

Quay stands onstage with a drum pad, has the actor drum simple patterns with him. Then he'll change the pattern, make it more complex. The guys without the training have a hard time; the sound is halting, out of sync. "Come in with me," he says, starting a rhythm on the drum pad. "Just listen as best you can."

The trained drummers, including Feder, roll easily with him. Quay changes tempo or force, and Feder follows right along. "You've got the chops. Let's attack it visually," Quay says to Feder.

Feder's arm movements become more theatrical, less cool. And the two men stare at one another as they drum, eyes locked in, body posture mimicking body posture. It's at once a duel and a partnership, an illustration of the way the Blue Men are interconnected when they are onstage, and it's actually exciting to watch.

"You have to be sounding good, but also performing for the audience," says Robert Rashid, 24, a drummer who is on his first acting audition.

Both Feder and Rashid make it to Day 2, in a Blue Man room above the Eat A Pita restaurant just up the block from Briar Street Theatre. The name game that starts things off is both a way of loosening the actors up and helping those evaluating them with identification.

"I know it's an audition, and it's stressful, but, you know, try and have fun," says Tascha Van Auken, manager of casting training. "And, you know, go too far."

They break into smaller groups and are given an objective. There's a pile of household and kitchen items on the floor, and the actors are school kids who, without talking, need to make them into a bomb that will end the tyrannical rule of their teacher, who has just stepped away momentarily. For the second group, the device the first group has built is a bomb, they are English teachers, and they have two minutes to defuse it. Again, no talking.

Afterward, Van Auken says things like, "All of you could have connected with the group more," or, "you never really stopped to check in with each other."

Scott Bishop, a current Chicago Blue Man who is helping, says, "No matter what happens, it's about the group. The task is less important than the group."

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