ITS AN ACCLAIMED PERFORMANCE ART PIECE playing on Manhattan’s bohemian Lower East Side, but don’t buy a ticket to Blue Man Group’s Tubes expecting a sophisticated aesthetic experience. Eight times a week the Blue Men—Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton—don cobalt paint and skullcaps and purvey their own brand of magic: They perform a symphony for teeth and Captain Crunch cereal, squirt snakes of banana from their chests and catch paint-filled gum balls in their mouths, among other stunts. It isn’t to some people’s taste. “This poet-type guy we know came,” says Wink, “and afterward he said he thought the show was going to be more ‘rigorous.’ ”
That’s precisely what the Blue Men didn’t have in mind. Their performance, which has been selling out to fun-loving types since it opened last November, is dedicated to the idea that “our brains help us only so much. You have to have your heart, you know?” says Wink. To that end Tubes offers haunting music, audience participation—the chance to have your head encased in Jell-O, for one—and plenty of mess. (Viewers in the first few rows are given plastic sheets.) By the time the show’s silent, expressionless stars reach their exuberant finale, audiences are cheering.
“Combine[s] the malicious vaudevillian humor of Penn and Teller with the rambunctiousness of…Animal House” declared Frank Rich of The New York Times. “An opportunity to regress….”
Which is not to say, however, that Tubes contains no food for thought. Sitting in the almost furnitureless uptown Manhattan apartment that Wink and Goldberg, both 31, share (Stanton, 32, lives downtown), the Blue Men are fairly brimming with ideas. Blue Man Group started, they say, as a Sunday salon to which they invited friends for discussions about art, science and “whatever was exciting out there,” says Goldman. Wink and Stanton were working as waiters, Goldman as a software producer, and all three were seeking ways to express themselves in 1987 New York, which struck them as a cultural wasteland. “Rock and roll had become MTV, all safe and non-communal,” says Wink. “We heard about this art world thing happening, but you’d go and look, and it was like, you were always in the wrong gallery or something. We wanted to shake things up.”
Enter the Blue Man. Explains Stanton: “We thought that to turn the corner and see a blue man would be surprising.” Not as surprising as they’d planned, apparently. When the trio would barhop after getting blue, the blasé denizens of Manhattan nightlife barely blinked. But friends responded enthusiastically. “We don’t play with ooze ourselves,” explains Wink, “but we thought the Blue Man would. We pictured him having been born off a painting, being this moist gooey thing.”
Gradually Blue Man increased his repertoire, each piece growing from his creators’ musings: about ritual, the limits of technology, information overload (one segment involves signs flipped too quickly for the audience to read every word). The group performed at nonprofit theaters in New York City and across the country and won an Obie in 1991. “That was wild,” says Goldman. Adds Wink: “We didn’t write pieces about having stuff spurt out of your chest thinking mass appeal. The first time I saw an actual upright adult see that and not leave the theater I was really surprised.”
Among the upright adults the group numbers as fans, in fact, are their parents. Goldman’s “are on a high about the show,” Matt says. Stanton’s have seen only videotape but are planning a trip from Savannah, Ga., this summer. And the Winks, says Chris, “are proud I haven’t sold out.”
Wink grew up in Manhattan, where his father taught at Union Theological Seminary and his mother was a bioenergetics therapist. He and Goldman, the son of writers, met at New York’s private Fieldston School. They remained friends while Wink studied art history and pop culture at Wesleyan and Goldman got his B.A. and M.B.A. from Clark University. After college Goldman landed a job producing software at Omni Resources, a then fledgling computer company. (“It was actually very creative,” he says.) Wink, casting about for a way to “combine all my interests,” synopsized American magazine articles for a Japanese company, played drums in a punk rock band and worked as a caterer. It was at the East Side catering company Glorious Foods (where he helped cater Caroline Kennedy’s wedding) that he ran into Stanton.
“We connected,” says Wink. Stanton, an acting student from Georgia, is the son of a Pentecostal minister and a housewife. “Our show now is in some ways similar to a Pentecostal service—a ritual, emotional thing,” Stanton says. A theater grad from Evangel College in Missouri, he shared Wink’s interest in art and technology. Before long the think tank that would be Blue Man was born.
Today the show seems to occupy most of the group’s thoughts and all of their time. Aided by a crew of 15, “who’ve never worked in theater and don’t have a clue, just like us,” says Wink, they spend 90 minutes making themselves up, perform and then stick around for cleanup. Given that 60 pounds of bananas, a 70-pound Jell-O mold (courtesy of Glorious Foods’ Jean Claude Nedelec) and reams of crepe paper are integral to each show, that’s no simple task. They have little excess energy to squander on romance (of the three, only Wink has a girlfriend) or leisure activities. “Once, in the middle of winter, I did go to the beach,” says Goldman.
How long can they keep this up? “We’ve never planned ahead, and it’s worked for us so far,” Wink says, shrugging. Theater producers around the world are clamoring for Blue Man’s services, and the group has scheduled a tour of Japan. “We’re making enough money to live on, we’re not catering, and we love our work,” says Wink. “We’re the happiest people in town.”