We are all familiar with the funny blue creatures otherwise known as the Blue Man Group.
Luckily for us, co-founder Phil Stanton sat down with A Plus for the group's 25th anniversary to talk about all of their accomplishments and how he helped come up with the concept along with his friends, Chris Wink and Matt Goldman.
From their early start on the Lower East Side of New York City to taking over the bright lights of the Empire State Building last week, the group has gone on to achieve success many acts and bands only dream of. As Stanton explains, this longevity is due in large part because of their original concept — exploring humanity at its core.
It wasn't about becoming rockstars or touring worldwide, it was about taking something "ancient and tribal," combining that with modern technologies that consume our lives, and interpreting them through the curious lens of the intriguing blue characters.
When we take a look at the co-founders 25 years later, it is easy to see why this act has continued to be loved by audiences of all ages. They simply love to share their many passions with other inquiring, "animalistic" minds. Whether that is passing on the blue man character to the next member of the group or inviting their closest fans to come and explore their three-story exploratorium of imagination, everyone is always welcome.
Get to know the founder behind the blue mask in our exclusive interview below:
Jason Pollak: Blue Man Group was founded 25 years ago in New York City. What was your background and inspiration to start Blue Man Group? How did it come together with Matt Goldman and Chris Wink?
Phil Stanton: I grew up in Georgia and came to the big city looking for opportunities. I had some interest in becoming an actor and also had interest in becoming a performer. Chris was the same in some ways. I met him at my first job in New York. He had more of a background in art history and pop culture, but also wanted to be a performer. Our other partner, Matt, was really up for anything and had a business background.
So, we kind of all rounded each other out, and if you're doing something like performance art, in those days, having someone with a business background is really helpful. We started hanging out downtown, the Lower East Side, and got started there. This was right around the time the internet and digital technologies started to emerge, which allowed us to be around the world all at once. We knew the world was about to start changing really fast and it was really awesome.
We thought about what would stay the same, no matter how much technology changes, and we all had this love of comedy. We didn't want to beat people over the head with a message. So, it kind of all came out in this humorous, musical, and tribal way, and Chris had this intuitive idea of an abstract, blue comical character.
JP: Yeah, for sure. You all move in an interesting way. It is definitely comical.
PS: Yeah, it's kind of like we were trying to get rid of idiosyncrasies we have as individuals in order to say something more about everyman and humanity at its core. Our hope is that it comes off as something neutral, or animalistic. You know, it's acting on instinct. But we wanted to have something in contrast to all of the modern technology, and we wanted to have something ancient and tribal.
We thought we could do that with drums, so we built our own. We would also have outsiders come in to use our instruments and we would pick up how they used them differently. That's kind of how all of that core material developed. It's a little bit of satire, humor, and a celebration of curiosity and spontaneous creativity. But it was always meant to be something where you felt part of a group. That's why the characters don't have any differences between them. It was supposed to feel like a community where we can collaborate.
JP: I feel like you guys definitely changed the perspective in terms of theater and interacting with a show. Like you were saying with the drums and how they are used to evoke emotions. When I listen to music, I always pay attention to the drums first. It's what reels me in and tells me what the tempo is, this is the feeling you're going to have when you hear it. I don't think there were many performance pieces that were really doing that at the time.
PS: Yeah, there really wasn't too much that ran outside of conventional music and theater. I think it was something that was kind of waiting to happen, whether we were the first or not. Cirque du Soleil were also some of the early people to do this. I think their style was very revolutionary and had this edge. They were inspiring back at that time, too.
JP: I find it very interesting that you were inspired by them, but I also feel like you guys brought something else to the table. It wasn't this whole production with hundreds of people. It was three of you in these blue costumes and were able to create your own show out of it. I don't think people see Blue Man and think Cirque du Soleil. I think there are two different identities.
PS: Thanks, hopefully we are still doing that today. Our core principals are still there. We have been around and keep changing it. Blue Man is such an interesting character and was the right choice. I think we're still trying to figure out why it was the right choice. It's so intuitive and we're still trying to figure out our DNA.
We're lucky the show and character, to be true to itself, has to change. So, that allows us to evolve the show, which I think, keeps it fresh. I think it has the same impact that it had, but all of the topics are up to date. We're still talking about the contrast between humanity and technology. I think that's the reason why we last.
JP: The way you guys use something as simple as breakfast cereal as an instrument is something interesting. It's cool how you can take objects we see every day in life and apply them to the show. I visited your 6,000-square-foot facility recently. What's it like working there?
PS: It's really fun to me. Most of that space is devoted to new visual effects and instruments. It's hard work because it's difficult to come up with something new. Every now and then you do and you go, "Oh wow! We got something!"
We have a new instrument now, it's a percussion instrument, but it has strings. It has this wheel with different pieces of plastic on the outside of the wheel. So you spin it and those pieces of plastic strike the strings. So, instead of a pick, you have these strings striking the plastic. It sounds like a dirty guitar or bass.
I always try to find things that the character can play, something odd or homemade enough that carries melody. It's easy to incorporate drums that are percussive, but you have to find things that a Blue Man would play with melody. I don't think we've gone far enough with the product phase, though. Things like Cap'n Crunch are great and I think that will be sort of the next phase for us.
JP: I'm trying to think of something else you can use that both new and old audiences could understand. Maybe like an iPhone?
PS: That's actually something we have in the show right now. They are these giant iPhones or iPads. Technology and product meld together often. I think virtual reality would be something that is fun. We had a piece on virtual reality back in 1991, but it kind of lost its way for a while. Now it's coming back and becoming doable. You can tell no one really knows how it's going to make its way, but the technology is really getting there.
JP: It would be super cool if there was an instrument the audience could play from the crowd. You know, through the goggles, they can play the instrument on stage.
PS: Boom! Done! We'll give you a line credit. That's what everybody hopes it will be. It's hard to imagine how we are going to do it. It might be something a bit difficult right now to get everyone in the audience a piece of hardware. They did it with 3-D, with the glasses, so we'll see.
We'll find a way to celebrate it and also make some commentary about how we are a live experience, but trying to escape to something else. Even some things with augmented reality would be interesting to explore.
JP: That would be awesome. What does it mean to you that Blue Man is still as important and relevant as ever after 25 years?
PS: In the early days they weren't really performances, they were more "happenings." We were very accepting of everyone. We had little gigs at performance art spaces around the East Village, but I think there's still a lot more we can do. I thought we might have more costuming, so that's something we work on still. I think we can still expand on the musical instruments.
I'm not performing too much anymore, but that's something I really enjoyed. When you're wearing that mask, it's something that reveals who you are, not hides who you are. It's your eyes looking into the eyes of the viewer. It feels like these years have kind of flown by, but we've been very lucky to do something that we really love.
We also got lucky by inventing this character that can keep reinventing itself and staying fresh. I'm looking forward to the next 25 years to see what happens.
JP: How did you go about introducing the next wave of Blue Men?
PS: In 1995 we introduced the first new member. We all kind of realized at once that other people should be able to play this character. The very concept of Blue Man is that he is an everyman. It wasn't really ever supposed to be about the three of us.
For a while, I think it was. We were kind of like a band. What happened was I injured my thumb and someone else had to go on. It was around that time I realized that this is something we should do. It was a good accident. It expands your worldview in a way.
JP: So what is planned for the rest of the year?
PS: We have some ideas for larger theatrical experiences, larger multimedia experiences, so we'll be working on that and trying to get them produced. We will certainly still be working on this show. It will continue to evolve and change, as well as our music. I think over the last few years, we've found a way to mash our acoustic tribal vibe to EDM music.
There were times where I wouldn't have considered using electronic instruments, but now I think people are using this type of music to achieve something very human and not mechanistic at all. Maybe we can incorporate our ideas into a theme park attraction.
We're interested to see if we can reinvent the show in that format, and make it sciency and interactive. Burning Man is a cool example of what we would like to do. An immersive walkthrough. Or maybe even developing an interactive experience that can take place in an urban environment.
We also have our album Three out now as well.