Glossy blue heads, wide eyes and childlike innocence. That’s generally the image that pops into my mind when I think of the Blue Man Group. I never imagined them speaking; just banging out a brilliant tune on their steel drums, splashing paint and wondering if they are all bald. But on Wednesday, I had the chance to speak with Blue Man Kalen Allmandinger, and he erased all preconceived notions that I had. Supremely articulate and funny, Allmandinger is an example for all performers and represents the energy that is central to the Blue Man Group.
Danielle Georgiou: How did you get first get involved with the Blue Man Group?
Kalen Allmandinger: Blue Man holds auditions periodically for new talent, and while I was studying theater at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, the Chicago production of Blue Man Group opened and they were casting for it. A friend of mine … told me he thought that I would be good for it because I was a drummer as well, and that I had the physicality of a Blue Man.
I actually auditioned while I was still in school, but since I was a freshman, they told me to finish school first and if I was still interested when I was done to give them a call. So, that’s what I did. In the meantime, the show opened, I saw it and thought, “That’s right up my alley, something I would love to be a part of, if I got a chance.” So, I auditioned again after I graduated, and that’s when I actually got cast. That was in September of 2000. 10 years ago!
D.G.: Wow! That’s amazing that you’ve been with the company for so long. That’s great especially in these economic times. Since you are both a drummer and an actor, do you switch back and forth between roles?
K.A.: Well, the Blue Man character is non-verbal, so he uses his body and eyes – and music – to communicate and explore the space in which he finds himself and deconstructs whatever is around him. So, we do both. I happen to have some experience in both – the musical and acting side of it – but people come from all walks of life and some people who are really talented musicians just haven’t had any acting experience, but they are able to bring themselves to the character in an interesting way, and vice versa. We do a lot of both on stage.
D.G.: Would you say your theater training was beneficial in helping you discover the character and keeping him alive and fresh?
K.A.: Yes, you certainly learn techniques you can always dip into in any performance situation. I definitely picked up some techniques at school that help out. But, it’s funny, the character itself … if you are able to enter his mindset, it is geared to [keep it new each time]. Even though I’ve done it over and over for years, the character really approaches things as if it’s for the first time and we often use terms like, “He has a childlike sense of wonder and innocence,” and getting yourself into that mental state certainly helps.
But beyond that, I’ve been able to do the show all over the world and with many different casts and different versions, and while the character remains constant, everything else around him is changing. And of course, from night to night, the audience changes and each one brings with it its own particular energy. Something that you try one night that works particularly well is really dangerous to try to replicate again, because you just don’t have the same circumstance under which it happened the first time.
D.G.: So, there’s room for improv? The show is so well-rehearsed and structured, and there is an organizational flow to everything, I didn’t think there was much room for spontaneous creation.
K.A.: It’s not necessarily improv, where we are creating a brand new story based off of what happens in a particular show. We do have a set order of events, and there is the technical element that necessitates precision in its execution night to night. So it’s not so much the arc story that changes. The improv really lives in smaller, subtler ways, in that there’s no fourth wall.
The character comes into the space and really takes in the audience as another character or another being sharing the space with him. As we gather information and connect the dots for ourselves and for our character’s arc over the evening, we do respond to the audience’s response. For example, if there is someone in the front row who is outwardly into it and vocal, that’s going to be a constant source of focus. Because they are right there and available. It’s in those moments that the improv really exists.
D.G.: I think that’s fantastic, I’m a performer myself, and I find that I feed off the audience’s energy to sell the performance. I think it’s wonderful that you set out to involve the audience right from the start and allow them the chance to become involved to whatever extent they want.
K.A.: Absolutely! So as you know … it’s good to see a change occur. You start out and it’s more of a quiet crowd. The audience is sitting back in their seats, and they want you to prove yourself to them a little bit. And as the evening progresses, you just see them kind of strip away whatever they came in with and turn into a little bit more of a child … especially in this show right now. There is this moment at the end … it’s hard to not be affected by it. It’s kind of overwhelming. There are a few really simple elements in it that still thrill me. We just started, and I’m sure for a long time to come it’s going to be this constant source of inspiration. It’s just really funny to see people literally … [laughs] OK, maybe not literally … turn into children! Everyone just melts … but I don’t want to give anything away.
D.G.: Oh man! Now you’re making me really curious to see the show!
K.A.: [laughter] It’s a lot of fun! It really is! We basically introduce this element into the crowd at the very end, and we’re still doing stuff on stage, but no one is paying attention. It’s really simple and pretty cool. I’ve heard these big collective sighs and people see this thing just start to happen … it’s cool to see that energy.
D.G.: So, this show is a brand new one?
K.A.: Well, it’s not completely, 100 percent brand new. It’s based on our theatrical shows as opposed to the previous tours that have been more of the rock concert form. This has a lot of the pieces that we’ve been doing over the years. But there is a considerable amount of new content as well – a lot of which is based on some pretty spectacular video, which is one of the new technological pieces that we are working with.
D.G.: Was the idea to introduce new video work a collaborative one?
K.A.: Definitely. Since the beginning of the company (which started in 1988), it’s been a collaborative project born out of these salon session that Chris Wink (and Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman) would hold. It started with conversations about what they liked and didn’t like about art and politics and life in the late ’80s, and they said, “Well, let’s make a piece out of this.”
But as they mounted more and more shows, they would bring in different people and collaborate with different musicians and video artists and eventually scenic designers. So, it’s always been a highly cooperative process, and this show is certainly no exception. They’ve been developing this for a while, and it’s great to see it finally breathe on stage.
D.G.: How did the opening night (Sept. 14) go?
K.A.: It was pretty good. It’s always different in a new place, but the crew has been working non-stop, and they are doing an amazing job, especially the local crew who came in. They have to take on this weird show and don’t have any experience with it … they’ve done a great job.
The audience seemed to really respond. [That night], in particular, seemed to be one of those nights where they really did change gears. It was a little bit quieter at first and by the end of it; there was a standing ovation!
D.G.: Well, you can’t really ask for anything more than that!