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Chi Lives: the birth of a Blue Man



"The day I got hired as a Blue Man," says Chicago actor Michael Cates, "they told me two things: put on some weight, and get those eyebrows under control."

Putting on ten pounds was no great challenge for Cates, a wiry Scottish native, but his eyebrows were a source of national pride.

"I'm Scottish, I'm supposed to have big, bushy eyebrows," he laments, rubbing the now tamed patches of hair.

Trouble was, those eyebrows snagged a lot of garbage during rehearsals. As one of the three silent, bald, gleefully menacing blue clowns who perform in Tubes, which opens here Sunday, Cates gets pelted in the face with marshmallows, Jell-O, paint, and gobs of breakfast cereal. One of Blue Man Group's signature pieces requires the three skittish pranksters to stuff their faces with Cap'n Crunch and chew their way through a highly amplified sonata. After one rehearsal of the routine, Cates--one of 22 Blue Men shuttling among the New York, Boston, and Chicago productions--left the stage with a face indistinguishable from a clogged drain trap.

Hacking his eyebrows back to a manageable hedge was a simple transformation compared to the other one he had to go through to be "birthed" as a Blue Man--the term company founders Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton use to describe the moment when an actor performs Tubes for the first time before an audience. "I had to create a new spine," Cates says. "They told me my head hung forward and my butt stuck out. The look of a Blue Man is so important. I had to relearn how to move, down to the tiniest detail." Whether drumming on industrial tubing, spitting paint onto spinning canvases, or turning regurgitated food into art, the performers follow a routine choreographed almost breath by breath. Cates says it's not uncommon for the actors, even those who've been in the show since it opened in 1991, to meet once a week to review videotape of their performances.

Had you met Cates a decade ago--at about the time Wink, Goldman, and Stanton were walking around lower Manhattan bald and blue just for the hell of it--you wouldn't have pegged him for a future pop icon. Had you pegged him as a lightning rod for disaster, you wouldn't have been too far off the mark. He arrived in Chicago in 1987, having just completed two years as an apprentice criminal attorney in his native Glasgow. He hated the work, doing it to appease his father and to justify the years he'd spent in law school. He'd dabbled in community theater--his mother is an avid director of local productions back home--but in his heart, he wanted to play in a band.

He took a job with a caterer and one night worked a private party where the crowd turned out to be mostly attorneys. One of them offered him a position at a big Loop law firm. "I was going to specialize in UK paralegal work or some such nonsense," he recalls. The firm sponsored his request for a work permit, giving him a year and a half to stay in the States. But shortly before he was scheduled to report to work, the firm went belly-up. Given permission to linger in America but lacking promising job prospects, Cates dug deep into his soul. "'What do I really want to do?' I asked myself. And I knew...I really wanted to ski."

So off he went to Winter Park, Colorado, where an Israeli friend of a friend had a home. Cates had spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel, and his host delighted in the fact that he spoke Hebrew with a Scottish accent. Cates skied until spring came; then the snow melted, and his host's house burned to the ground.

With nowhere else to turn, he came back to Chicago. "I showed up at Leona's restaurant with a suit and a passport," he recalls. "That job changed my life." There he met future roommates, his future wife (giving him a coveted green card), and, at long last, band mates. They formed a group called Joe (the original drummer was cartoonist Heather McAdams) and produced what they called "cartoon music for grown-ups." Cates describes it as "constantly evolving and occasionally not happening."

Between stints as a waiter, dog walker, and day-care worker, Cates did some theater: The Enormous Room at Next, Othello at Court, understudying at Steppenwolf. In late 1995 he hooked up with director Dexter Bullard to help create Plasticene, a movement-based theater company that drew brief critical acclaim. "We did two shows in three years, not exactly a body of work," he says with a wince. Then last spring his friend Brigid Murphy phoned him to let him know Blue Man Group was holding auditions. As impresario of Milly's Orchid Show she'd hosted their act several times. "I can't pull any strings," Cates remembers her telling him, "but you're the right height and you have the right bone structure."

He bought a ticket to New York--the best $250 he ever spent, he says--and endured about a month of auditioning, reauditioning, and walking around in blue makeup until he got the gig. He was birthed with the New York company in mid-August, but now that the Chicago production is opening he'll be stationed here. "Every day I'm going to a space where I know I want to be," he sighs. "What a difference."

Tubes begins an open run Sunday at 7 at Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted. Tickets are $36 to $46. Call 773-348-4000 for information. --Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Cates photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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