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)

It's not easy becoming blue. It's pretty easy to be sad. It's a piece of cake to paint your face cerulean or powder or some other sky or sea shade. But actually becoming a Blue Man? That's a multipart challenge, sort of a decathlon of acting, or, perhaps, a postmodern pentathlon.

It involves lots of drumming and expressive looking. It requires you to be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 1 inch tall, with an "athletic build," although the casting call doesn't specify Michael Phelps or Charles Barkley. Oh, and you must be able to attach a descriptive adjective to your first name as you sing in a circle with near strangers in a rehearsal space atop a pita restaurant.

Jumpy Jed. Rambunctious Robert. Vivid Vince. Gnarly Nelson. Etc.

These guys, and a couple of dozen others including one woman, tried to become anonymous blue marshmallow catchers in the most recent Blue Man Group open casting call.

Only one, perhaps, survived. But that's getting ahead of the game.

First, let's take you to the Briar Street Theatre, where the percussive theatrical experience "Blue Man Group" has been making the theater's owners very happy landlords since October 1997.

The fact that "Blue Man Group" has been running so long — and has spread out from its original home in New York City to include shows in Boston, Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas, cruise ships and more — means that more Blue Men are always needed.

Occupying the stage as a trio, the characters are part wide-eyed innocents, part merry pranksters toying with audience expectations. They are percussionists and comedians, and, if you can infer from one scene, aficionados of Cap'n Crunch. They don't have official lines, although they manage to convey plenty, both with their eyes and via the show's heavy reliance on scrolling text. And they are, of course, bald and blue and, almost always, men.

"The Blue Men are kind of formalists," one acting hopeful will explain.

Actors transfer between shows. Collin Batten, who was on hand for the recent Chicago casting call, has been a Blue Man in Las Vegas, New York, Boston, Orlando and, for the past two years, Chicago.

And more are always needed, especially in, say, holiday weeks, when the performance schedule gets really heavy.

Groupers won't deny that there's a press element to the casting calls, a way to generate new publicity for a show that the reviewers visited long ago. But the calls — which happen annually in Chicago — produce results.

"We see a lot of people, because you never know, because every now and then you get one of those people who is coming at this from a pure, raw place," says Tim Aumiller, director of casting and training and one of the few in the upper levels of the organization who has not done time under the bald-head wig and blue paint.

And what is being sought? "The most essential things are truly esoteric things: charisma, presence, mystery," says Aumiller. "There has to be an element of an individual when you see them that you kind of want to know more about them. That is a fundamental element of every Blue Man."

From there, it gets to a more concrete question, he adds: "Are they able to tell a story with their eyes?"

Seeking those qualities will send the hopefuls through a long string of events that, if they do well enough, could stretch the audition into three days. On the first day, there's an initial screening interview, an acting audition, a drumming audition and a second acting audition. Those called back for Day 2 — the day that produced the adjectives — take part in a series of exercises meant to test how well they can speak with their bodies and eyes. Then there is more winnowing for a third round.

Even then, some of the people wash out before they ever reach the stage, unable to master the drumming required, or lacking one of those essential qualities. The troupe recently lost what would have been its second woman at this stage, says Aumiller.

Compared with a standard audition where you might read a monologue and get an instant "no," all that work under pressure, not to mention taking time off from the day job, is a lot to go through. But although being a Blue Man can seem, to the outsider, like generic-izing yourself, it's actually a "great gig," says Batten.

"It's different every night," he says. "There's a ton of flexibility, a lot of freedom in it as an actor ... and to get a yearlong contract is amazing."

And the long audition gives an actor what he is always looking for, Batten says, "more time in the room."

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."

It all seems as esoteric as the qualities Blue Man Group is looking for, but it makes sense to the actors.

Marty Dubin, 25, of Evanston, made it to the drumming audition. But he was, he says, "lackluster" there and didn't get a callback to come to the pita space. No matter.

"I plan on taking some percussion classes and resubmitting to 'Blue Man Group' in a year or two," he says.

And as for the survivor, or the potential survivor? That, at press time, was still a secret.

One candidate was being "seriously considered," says a show representative, but "no offer has officially been made at this time."

It's not easy becoming blue.

sajohnson@tribune.com

'Blue Man Group'

When: Open run

Where: Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: $49-$69 at ticketmaster.com

 

5 long-running Chicago shows

"Things are so good in Chicago, there's no end in sight," a Blue Man Group spokesman told the Tribune — 13 years ago. Here's where "Blue Man Group" ranks among some of the current longest-running plays in the city, according to Tribune reports and the League of Chicago Theaters.

•"Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" by the Neo-Futurists: 24 years

•"Late Nite Catechism" at the Royal George: 20 years

•"Blue Man Group" at Briar Street Theatre: 15 years

•"Cupid Has a Heart On" at Stage 773: 10 years

•"Bye Bye Liver: The Chicago Drinking Play" at Pub Theater: 6 years

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