Blue Men wanted: Auditioning for Chicago's 'Blue Man Group'

Hopefuls audition for "Blue Man Group" at the Briar Street Theatre on July 10, 2013. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune)

It's not easy becoming blue. It's pretty easy to be sad. It's a piece of cake to paint your face cerulean or powder or some other sky or sea shade. But actually becoming a Blue Man? That's a multipart challenge, sort of a decathlon of acting, or, perhaps, a postmodern pentathlon.

It involves lots of drumming and expressive looking. It requires you to be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 1 inch tall, with an "athletic build," although the casting call doesn't specify Michael Phelps or Charles Barkley. Oh, and you must be able to attach a descriptive adjective to your first name as you sing in a circle with near strangers in a rehearsal space atop a pita restaurant.

Jumpy Jed. Rambunctious Robert. Vivid Vince. Gnarly Nelson. Etc.

These guys, and a couple of dozen others including one woman, tried to become anonymous blue marshmallow catchers in the most recent Blue Man Group open casting call.

Only one, perhaps, survived. But that's getting ahead of the game.

First, let's take you to the Briar Street Theatre, where the percussive theatrical experience "Blue Man Group" has been making the theater's owners very happy landlords since October 1997.

The fact that "Blue Man Group" has been running so long — and has spread out from its original home in New York City to include shows in Boston, Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas, cruise ships and more — means that more Blue Men are always needed.

Occupying the stage as a trio, the characters are part wide-eyed innocents, part merry pranksters toying with audience expectations. They are percussionists and comedians, and, if you can infer from one scene, aficionados of Cap'n Crunch. They don't have official lines, although they manage to convey plenty, both with their eyes and via the show's heavy reliance on scrolling text. And they are, of course, bald and blue and, almost always, men.

"The Blue Men are kind of formalists," one acting hopeful will explain.

Actors transfer between shows. Collin Batten, who was on hand for the recent Chicago casting call, has been a Blue Man in Las Vegas, New York, Boston, Orlando and, for the past two years, Chicago.

And more are always needed, especially in, say, holiday weeks, when the performance schedule gets really heavy.

Groupers won't deny that there's a press element to the casting calls, a way to generate new publicity for a show that the reviewers visited long ago. But the calls — which happen annually in Chicago — produce results.

"We see a lot of people, because you never know, because every now and then you get one of those people who is coming at this from a pure, raw place," says Tim Aumiller, director of casting and training and one of the few in the upper levels of the organization who has not done time under the bald-head wig and blue paint.

And what is being sought? "The most essential things are truly esoteric things: charisma, presence, mystery," says Aumiller. "There has to be an element of an individual when you see them that you kind of want to know more about them. That is a fundamental element of every Blue Man."

From there, it gets to a more concrete question, he adds: "Are they able to tell a story with their eyes?"

Seeking those qualities will send the hopefuls through a long string of events that, if they do well enough, could stretch the audition into three days. On the first day, there's an initial screening interview, an acting audition, a drumming audition and a second acting audition. Those called back for Day 2 — the day that produced the adjectives — take part in a series of exercises meant to test how well they can speak with their bodies and eyes. Then there is more winnowing for a third round.

Even then, some of the people wash out before they ever reach the stage, unable to master the drumming required, or lacking one of those essential qualities. The troupe recently lost what would have been its second woman at this stage, says Aumiller.

Compared with a standard audition where you might read a monologue and get an instant "no," all that work under pressure, not to mention taking time off from the day job, is a lot to go through. But although being a Blue Man can seem, to the outsider, like generic-izing yourself, it's actually a "great gig," says Batten.

"It's different every night," he says. "There's a ton of flexibility, a lot of freedom in it as an actor ... and to get a yearlong contract is amazing."

And the long audition gives an actor what he is always looking for, Batten says, "more time in the room."

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