It wasn't supposed to go this far. On a muggy Tuesday afternoon in July, I'm standing on the steps of an unfamiliar apartment building in Lakeview. I've just pressed a buzzer labeled "Mr. Blue," and I'm thinking, I'm in way over my head here.
I'd decided to audition for the Blue Man Group on a whim. The company's newspaper ad had said "open call." All necessary audition equipment will be provided, it promised. I wasn't willing to relocate--the ad said the Blue Men needed backup in Boston and Las Vegas as well as Chicago--but that didn't matter, since I didn't have a prayer of getting the job. I'd get a good story out of the experience, I figured, and I'd go back to my cubicle.
But here I am at the acting audition, the third phase of the process. Of the 235 people who showed up for yesterday's open call, only 19 of us are still in the running. I'm in danger of making it.
A couple years back, a friend who works as a crew captain for the Chicago company told me I had the right kind of face to be a Blue Man, and the right body type--between five foot ten and six foot one, weight proportionate to height. Plus I play the drums. But the weekend before I auditioned I finally went to see the show, and afterward I was pretty sure I wasn't the man for the job. Yeah, the drumming looked like a snap, but catching a couple dozen marshmallows in my mouth would be another story entirely. The fact that they stick together in there once you've caught them--they're actually blobs of cream cheese, dusted with cornstarch--can't help much. Though I wanted desperately to play with the Blue Men's toys, especially a sort of organ-xylophone hybrid made of a sofa-size tangle of fluorescent PVC pipes and played with rubber paddles, I doubted I'd be able to keep a straight face when a handful of ropy banana puree spat out of a brass grommet in my chest. I have a hard time telling a joke without cracking up just short of the punch line.
I decided not to talk myself out of auditioning, though. I arrived at the Briar Street Theatre for the noon call at 11:25 that Monday morning. Already nearly 50 people, mostly young white men, were waiting on the sidewalk in the sun. The ad had invited women to try out too, but I could only see a half dozen. I'd worn black jeans and a black T-shirt. Mercifully after a couple minutes a staffer shepherded the line to the north side of the building and into the shade.
Most everybody else was dressed casually too, and the majority had brought resumes and head shots. Maybe one in three had drumsticks, perhaps having misunderstood the words "equipment" and "provided." A camera crew from Channel Two showed up around noon, and as it moved down the line a man with a microphone goaded particularly telegenic auditioners into impromptu performances: "Show me what you got!" A guy a few places ahead of me--probably the only person there other than the TV personality himself wearing a shirt and tie--broke into a herky-jerky hand-clapping soft-shoe routine. An unshaven middle-aged passerby, already vividly drunk at noon, crossed the street toward the crowd and asked me twice if I knew how to kung fu. Then the interviewer tried to persuade the guy right behind me, whose name was Sam, to do a little air drumming. Quietly mortified, Sam wouldn't consent until the crew agreed to film him only from the neck down.
Once inside the air-conditioned Briar Street lobby we were each given a questionnaire. Name, address, phone number, name of agent, agent's phone number. Agent! I didn't talk to anybody all afternoon who'd cop to having an agent.
The form also asked about acting experience and drumming or musical experience. The first answer was easy: none. I'd been in a couple friends' short films, but I doubted I'd done anything that counted as acting--in one I'd had to lower my face into a plate of mashed soft-boiled eggs, and in the other my job had been to get stabbed to death in front of the Broadway Armory by a guy in a terrible blond wig and a track suit riding one of those little aluminum scooters. I wrote it all down, though, since I'd noticed in Playbill that weekend that two Blue Men in the Chicago production had graduated from the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver and I figured I had to compete somehow.
The second question was tougher, since I was obliged to give a real answer. All right, then--seven years of bassoon in high school back in Texas (including two trips to all-state) and three seasons underneath a bass drum in marching band. For nine years I've been bashing on 55-gallon oil barrels, steam pipes, saw blades, and derelict cookware in a small-time "experimental" band called Lozenge, and since moving to Chicago in 1996 I've played trap set for two even more obscure garage-punk outfits and fronted a third. I didn't know "Free Bird" or "White Rabbit," both of which the Blue Men had covered in the show, but I was pretty sure I could learn them.
Once I finished the questionnaire I had plenty of time to look around. There were only a few chairs, so most folks were sitting cross-legged on the floor. The lighting in the lobby was dim, and almost every surface had been covered with a thicket of vacuum hoses, clear vinyl tubing, PVC pipe, and neon; over by the bathrooms, lawn sprinklers chattered and hissed in basketball-size Plexiglas bubbles embedded in the walls. The Blue Man Group's distinctive music--bland, deliberately synthetic quasi-tribal stuff, mostly--pulsed out of hidden speakers, almost inaudible over the murmur of voices.
Under the black lights Sam's drumsticks, which had been a pale translucent green in the sun, glowed like those photochemical necklaces you see at street fairs or amusement parks. Here and there a pair of socks, the lettering on a T-shirt, or the stripes on somebody's running shoes fluoresced brilliantly, leaping out of the bluish gloom. I remarked to nobody in particular that the place looked like probably the most boring dance club ever. Sam smiled but didn't laugh. We'd been talking on and off for over an hour. Like me, he was a self-taught drummer, and wary about relocating--because he was married, though, not because he'd just signed a lease. He said he'd heard the training period to be a Blue Man was six months.
As more and more applicants finished their questionnaires, something started happening that's inevitable whenever you put a hundred drummers in a room together and make them all nervous. Some people play with their hair, bite their fingernails, crack their knuckles--but drummers tap, pat, rap, knock, on Formica, tile, or carpet, on their own legs or shoes or stomachs, and it's even louder if they have sticks. Together these guys sounded like a hailstorm, like a dozen popcorn machines all going at once, and in a sudden moment of ego-destroying self-awareness I sympathized with every one of my friends who'd ever begged me to please please quit it for fuck's sake. Not even the bathroom was safe--somebody in one of the stalls was drumming on the partition.
Back in the lobby I made it through all of six pages of Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, reading practically every sentence twice, before my name was called. It was 12:50.
Things started happening fast. Eight of us were led into the theater. Just past the double doors, behind the merchandise counter, a small group of casting personnel waited for us. They collected our questionnaires. We were lined up shoulder to shoulder and each given a rubber skullcap--not blue, actually, but the color Crayola used to call "flesh." Once I'd struggled into mine, it covered about as much of my head as a motorcycle helmet, with a thick strap under the chin and a bottom edge just above the nape of my neck. (The Blue Men, in case you haven't noticed, don't have ears.) The thing smelled powerfully like an unlubricated condom, and I couldn't get all my hair up into it--my bangs stuck out like the leaves on a turnip. A guy with a digital camera took a head-on shot of each of us, his lens about two feet from our noses. There wasn't a mirror around, but if I looked half as silly and obscene as my seven comrades, that picture alone could keep me out of public office.
As soon as the photographer had backed out of the way, the people behind the counter studied us intently, evaluating our build, our posture, our bone structure. After less than a minute they looked down again and shuffled through our questionnaires. Everybody stripped off their caps and handed them back. Two of us were asked to stay, and the rest were thanked for their time and politely dismissed. I wanted to say something to Sam as he left; I could feel what a crashing anticlimax it must've been to wait so long for an audition that had lasted maybe 45 seconds. But I couldn't think of anything in time. I held up my hand lamely, in a sort of not-quite wave.
The two of us who'd made it were led to a row of chairs along the theater's left-hand wall to wait our turn for the drumming audition. Heavy drapery at the end of the aisle screened the stage from view, but I could hear someone up there tapping on what sounded like a practice pad. There were maybe a dozen of us sitting there, no women. To my right there was a guy from Lombard; to my left, an Actors' Equity candidate all the way from Atlanta. I checked my watch again: 1:05.
My friend the crew captain was supervising us at this point, but her presence didn't do much to put me at ease. I was jittery. Notwithstanding my epiphany of half an hour ago, I started drumming, patting my hands on my knees and bouncing the ball of my right foot on an imaginary kick pedal--simulating a trap kit, basically, like I do to keep myself awake on the train at three in the morning, coming home from a show. Most of the other guys were drumming too, either playing along with whoever was onstage auditioning or just drilling to keep their muscles warm. I didn't think they'd mind me.
In only a few minutes it was my turn. Beyond the drapery, the theater was empty. A man and a woman waited onstage next to a snare-drum stand. Instead of a regular practice pad, it held a disk of translucent blue silicone gel the size of a pizza. The man, vigorous and friendly, handed me a pair of mallets, their handles wrapped in foam tape, and explained the procedure. We'd stand face-to-face across the pad, he'd play a simple pattern from one of the Blue Man numbers, and I'd join in. He'd drop out and I'd keep playing, speeding the pattern up gradually. Then I'd "burn it"--hammer away as hard and as fast as I could until my muscles gave out and I couldn't grip the sticks anymore. Then we'd start over on a new pattern. The pad sucks up impact, he said. It's designed to hurt you. Your sticks won't bounce. We want you to use your forearms, not your wrists, and really pop the accents--get the sticks up by your chin.
Nine years of beating on steel barrels had taught me how to compensate for a drum with no rebound--the audition might as well have been designed for me. And the patterns really were simple. When I was asked to play one leading with my left hand, not my right, I didn't even have to slow it down. After I finished, the man shook my hand in both of his, smiling, and told me I'd kicked ass. I noticed my mouth was dry. My throat felt papery. My friend intercepted me on my way out and said I was definitely gonna get a callback. The job's yours, she said, if you want it. Seriously.
I left the theater at 1:50; the callback came before seven. But I was already giddy before I got the message. I'd walked into the audition never imagining I'd get this far, and now my thoughts were racing. Would the company let me stay in Chicago? Would I be able to keep playing any of my own music once I was working nights and weekends at Briar Street? I even started thinking about what I'd do with the extra money--I'd heard Blue Men can make more than $50,000 a year. I wanted a van, definitely. Something I could cart my drums around in. And an apartment with no roaches, a porch, and halfway decent water pressure. The voice mail the casting people had left for me was, to my mind, just a formality. I was way ahead of them.
So now it's the next afternoon, and I'm sweating on the stairs of this building in Lakeview, waiting for Mr. Blue to answer his door. A trim, bearded man named Anthony appears--I recognize his voice from the message--and escorts me to a half-furnished second-floor apartment. He hands me a double-sided sheet of audition instructions ("Don't get too heady about it," he advises) and asks me to wait in the den. It's been reconfigured as a conference room: a large wood-veneer table, six or eight empty black captain's chairs, a water cooler, a stack of plastic cups, and a wheezing, dripping air conditioner on the windowsill.
On the table there's a sleek gray conference-call module that looks like a distant relative of the horseshoe crab. I drink a glass of water and read through the instructions without absorbing much. I can hear people talking in the front room. I'm restless, I can feel my heart racing, so I decide to explore. Try to get comfortable. There's a bedroom of sorts in back--just a made-up futon piled with boxes labeled "Blue Man promo material." On the kitchen counter, a giant frosted chocolate chip cookie sits under a clear plastic cover. It's missing a few wedges, and I wonder if I'm supposed to feel free to help myself. I don't. Maybe I should take another look at those instructions.
The first section describes the philosophy that underlies the Blue Man character. He's supposed to be a hybrid between two archetypes, the hero and the clown: childlike vulnerability and constant wonderment combined with selfless devotion to the greater good. The Blue Man aspires to draw people out of their private routines and into a visceral, optimistic place. The Blue Man has no ego, because ego prevents human connection. Pretty high-flown stuff for an operation that bills itself as an "off-Broadway sensation"--but the pretension is pardonable, as far as I'm concerned. Despite its roots in performance art, the show's more like a circus now, with its uneasy mix of showbiz crassness and naive idealism--and circuses have been drawing crowds for long enough that I figure they must speak to something pretty basic in people.
In the second section the instructions detail what will be expected of me in the audition. I'm to attempt to communicate four distinct emotions or states of mind without speaking, moving my mouth, or using the muscles in my cheeks and jaw. "What is that?" I'm examining the most fascinating, compelling, mysterious object I've ever seen. "Oh shit!" It's a terrible engine of destruction, a bomb or a virus, and it's going to kill everybody! "Wait...wait, wait...don't move...wait"--on the other hand, maybe I've misread it. It might still kill me, but it could be great. "Yes, that's it! That's wonderful!" Not only is it a good thing, it's the best thing in the universe. It'll get your whites whiter, solve the fossil-fuel crisis, and just generally transform life as we know it, forever and ever.
The next section, called "Putting the story together," strings these four elements into a simple narrative: I'm trying to find shelter on a desolate island for myself and my family before a violent storm hits. I've reached the island's lone building, locked up tight, and the fascinating object/bomb/Holy Grail is on the front stoop--a box bejeweled with blinking colored lights. Is it an alien artifact? A motion-sensitive anthrax grenade? Nope. In fact, it holds the key to the building. We're saved!
I think to myself, Oh man, this is some fucked-up shit. In a few hours, the casting people are gonna be drinking beer and swapping hilarious stories about me.
It's time for me to head to the front room. Two women, Deb and Sarah, are waiting for me. I notice a video camera on a tripod. The three of us chat a little. They're trying to warm me up, and I'm grateful. They say they want me to be myself. Let everything inside come out--it's not so much acting, they tell me, as it is finding your way to a certain kind of openness.
Then it's down to business. I stand facing Deb, with maybe three feet between us. The camera's over her right shoulder. Sarah coaches from a sofa to my left--I need to get into the Blue Man stance, my hands open at my sides, my elbows slightly cocked like a gunslinger's. Think potential energy, she says. You're relaxed, but if we were to throw something at you, you could snap out and catch it in a flash. Pow!
Deb tells me to look into her eyes. Lock my eyes on hers. She's deeply tanned, and the whites of her eyes almost seem to glow. She says I'm not supposed to turn my head. I'm not supposed to move at all, except my eyebrows and the muscles around my eyes. She tells me I might find it easier to keep from moving my lips if I press my tongue hard into the roof of my mouth. Focus on that, she says, and it'll help you stay set. I notice a radiating tattoo below her navel, between the bottom of her shirt and the top of her jeans. Look up, I think. Focus. The eyes.
Then Deb runs me through the four expressions. This time the accompanying story doesn't involve a storm or a blinking mystery box; she tells it in terms of a message written across the inside of her skull, behind her eyes. What does it say? You can't quite make it out, she tells me. Look harder! It's very important that I know what it says! This part is easy, except I have to fight a strong impulse to mimic her expressions. Because she's using her mouth, I get into trouble a couple times with mine.
Next she tells me I've just deciphered the message: There's a bomb here! And it's her head! My head is going to explode, she says, sounding genuinely panicked. I crack up, break character. I make a joke about that old Cronenberg movie Scanners. Then I have to shake out and reset my face. Come on, she says. This is very bad news! How are you going to help me? My head's a bomb, and I don't know it. You need to tell me! I try to look terrified, aghast, yet somehow purposeful. I keep my eyes on her eyes. I wish I'd been able to practice in front of a mirror--I have no idea what my face is doing. Without realizing it I ball my hands up into fists, and Sarah calls out from the couch, "Open your hands!" Reflexively I turn my head to acknowledge her, and it's back to square one, twice in a minute. I'm choking. Deb is smiling, but she's also barking out a countdown: five, four, three, two, one.
The third emotion, suspension and uncertainty, is a lot more manageable. The message about the bomb, Deb says, has just scrambled itself into a language you don't recognize--but as I puzzle over this imaginary text, I suspect I'm repeating the same expressions I was using to try to look urgent and curious. I realize I'm afraid to use my squinting muscles. I'm pretty sure they're connected to my cheeks, and I don't want to move my mouth inadvertently. This is absurd, even thinking these things--and I start to feel absurd, right there in the middle of the audition, standing toe-to-toe with an attractive woman and her potentially exploding head. The jig's pretty much up for me now. I've broken the spell. When I'm supposed to switch to elation, stage four, I'm completely lost. If I can't smile or lift my arms, how can I make this look any different from terror? All the air's rushing out of my delusions of grandeur. I'm not a Blue Man. I feel like waving the audition to a halt, to salvage a little dignity. There'd be no shame in it--I'm not an actor, and I never pretended to be.
But I stick with it. In another minute or two I'm through. Before we started, Deb had said she'd talk me through the exercise the first time--but we don't do it a second time, and I reckon I know why. I'm a little relieved it's over. The audition took less than ten minutes, but it felt like an hour. I'm clammy with sweat. The women try to console me, all smiles--a lot of professionally trained actors freak out when we ask them to do that, they say. It's a totally alien thing for just about everybody. I ask, Am I done for the time being? Yes, I am.
Now the crew has to take the videotapes back to New York and review them. I'm told I'll be notified by phone, one way or the other, within two weeks. Then it's back down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk, the heat and humidity dropping onto me like a heavy curtain. From Belmont I see a Blue Man Group billboard, with those giant, glossy, supernaturally intent faces, and I shake my head and laugh.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.