The Blue Man Group is one of those shows that defies classification; it's like theatre, but different. It's interactive, but different. It's like a rock concert, but different. It's like an acid trip, but…no, that one works pretty well.
Outside of their live shows, Blue Man Group has become a cultural icon, and those blue bald heads have shown up everywhere from an Intel commercial, to their music video “I Feel Love,” to even appearing on The Simpsons despite Homer's disdain for the group (he delayed a trip to the hospital to have his thumb sewn back on just so he could complain about the Blue Men in Moe's Tavern! D'oh!).
Audiences have come to expect the unexpected when attending one of the Blue shows, the longest running being the flagship show in New York City that has been playing for 12 years at the Astor Place Theatre. In addition to Berlin and the Big Apple, Blue Man shows are currently in Chicago, Boston, and Las Vegas and The Complex Tour recently concluded its US rounds. A new show is scheduled to take over Toronto's New Yorker Theatre some time in 2005. The shows are loud, exciting, and unpredictable. To a certain extent, the lighting is too.
The new Berlin show's unique look is largely due to renowned rock LD Marc Brickman, Blue Man's long-standing lighting director Marc Janowitz, and video director/artistic designer Caryl Glaab. Brickman was brought in to design the new show at the Potsdammer Theatre in Berlin because the Blue Man Group wanted to develop a show that was completely different from any of its previous incarnations, according to Brickman. “They wanted a hybrid of the Vegas show, The Complex Tour, and completely new material in an envelope that was more theatrical than rock and roll,” he says. “Since we already had a working relationship [since December 2002, when Brickman came on board for The Complex Tour], we just fell into it and gave it a shot to see if we could be successful. They were all very happy with the results so I guess I will be hanging around a while.”
Brickman, of course, is no stranger to readers — his work with Pink Floyd is nothing short of legendary. But just because a living legend was brought in did not mean that long-time lighting director was pushed out; Janowitz served as associate production designer for the Berlin production, and Brickman was the production/lighting designer. “I try to have an overall vision of what the set, lighting, and video should be,” Brickman says. “Sometimes, I'm successful, and I'm able to achieve the full vision, and other times, I collaborate and fall back into a lighting and video or just lighting position. But when I say I am the production and lighting designer, that comes with a caveat because it is a completely collaborative process. It's not about one person; it's about all the people throwing it down into the chaos, and out of that comes the vision. It's a scary way of doing things because you really have to put yourself out there, but I'm used to it now, and the results are really great.”
While in some situations, when another LD is brought in to design a new show and the in-house person is still around, there could be, well, tension. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case, and the relationship is very father/son in nature since Brickman has a couple of decades on the younger Janowitz. “I see a lot of resemblances to myself when I was younger,” he says. “He's really knowledgeable, and he's been invaluable in acclimating me to their whole culture. We have a great relationship.”
A TOUCH OF GRAY
When Brickman set about lighting the new show, he drew on his experiences as a stagehand many years ago. “I've always hated hanging lots of lights and then having to individually focus each one of them,” he explains. “So given the chance to put something in permanently, I chose the Vari-Lite VL1000s as the base light. The way we positioned them really worked as the keys along with the follow spots.”
The VL1s also came in handy to contract or expand the stage, according to Janowitz. “We used them to project onto the band loft and upstage percussion matrix to expand the space outward,” he explains. “When you turn on a bunch of overhead lights and pin down to center, you isolate the Blue Men. You create intimate moments then you pull out into the environment surrounding them. That was a challenge because we don't really hide the scenery.”
The scenery would be hard to hide even if they wanted to; the set for the Berlin show is modeled on the work of abstract artist Peter Halley. “A lot of his paintings have nondescript boxes with connecting lines between them that reference both the digital age and plumbing systems. In our show, we translated that into a boxy urban isolation that represents modern city life,” Janowitz says. The band is placed in various boxes with each musician in his own box, all of which are interconnected by large, 1m diameter tubes. The boxes are suspended overhead via cables and stabilized to the stage. “From the front, you get a sense of a conduit and electrical boxes,” Janowitz continues. “Everything seems to float. Having a continuous visual presence through the entire show is a change for us because in the past shows, the set was dictated by functionality for the Blue Men to perform their rituals.”
Another new aspect of the Berlin show's set is the color, according to Caryl Glaab. “It's a gray set instead of the traditional black, so you can either backlight it to turn it black or use it as a surface for light or projections because it is a more receptive surface, as opposed to black, which looks a little like a mistake,” he says. “It also helps pop the Blue Men off the set a little more, too. Since their costumes are black, it gives them a little separation and actually makes the set present, which is something we really haven't done before, as our sets are basically black voids and very functional. Using gray demanded that we worked with the set as a visual element, which is very different from the other shows.”
BLUE BY YOU
Automated fixtures came in handy due to the collaborative nature of the design process because they allowed the team to “design in the moment” so that everyone could decide on whether or not the team liked a particular look. The Berlin show did not abandon conventional fixtures altogether; the house lights are mostly conventionals with a ton of Lekos and UVs. However, there are also VL1000s on the balcony rail, booms, and FOH pipe. Selecon 90-degree conventional fixtures were used to light the underside of the balconies, since an essential element is the transformation of the theatre space prior to the actual show to prepare the audience for the experience that is about to take place. The Selecons bathe the house in a template wash with a very short throw without any noticeable distortion.
There is also a smattering of PAR cans mixed in with the VLs because Brickman wanted to keep costs down by utilizing what was already in the inventory of the show's promoter, Stage Holdings. He also used VL2Cs and VL4s from inventory for a retro look because, as Janowitz explains, “Brickman loves those lights. He knows those lights, and he knows how to use them well. So part of the plot is brand new, while another part is completely retro.”
To take audiences into the ethereal world of the Blue Men, UV paint and material is used for the set and props. The dream-like effects that are created demonstrate how the creative team has mastered the art of mixing the lighting and set design into a single cohesive world.
To further emphasize the UV, the designers turned to a new fixture, the Altman UV-250. In the past, Altman UV-705s were used because, according to Janowitz, they were considered the most powerful UV fixtures available. However, with almost the same output, the smaller 250 was easier to tuck into the scenery, so it was used to highlight the musicians who are costumed in UV material.
To add to the show's manic atmosphere, strobes play a big part in the lighting scheme, but they are not just for lightning effects anymore. According to Janowitz, the strobes are vital for the opening scene, where huge shadows of the Blue Men appear on an RP screen. There are 69 strobes used, 12 of which are converted Selecon Pacifics with strobe modules for the zoetropes, spinning turntables that add an obtuse dance element to the show. The strobes, the majority of which are Atomics with Martin color scrollers, made the action come alive while also adding a hint of danger and excitement. “They really have a lot of horse power,” Janowitz says of the Atomics. “Other strobes are as bright, but you have more control and more options when it comes to programming the effects.”
Ten High End Systems DL1 Digital Light fixtures are also thrown into the mix, even though the specs say only eight are used (“We had two left over so why not use them?” Brickman explains.) “They did their job really well,” Brickman says. “They can get video information into unique places very quickly and can change the location of the source. Very stunning effects are achieved through DL1s, and everybody was very impressed with them. We were able to create animation that you wouldn't normally see.”
All of the lighting gear was supplied by Holland-based Flashlight Rental.
A NEW GERMAN UNIFICATION
Previous Blue Man shows have always been rich with both lighting and video, but the Berlin show is the first time these two components have been fully integrated, according to Glaab. “We've integrated video and lighting to the point where I could utilize the DL1s as destinations for my video system playback, and I could also take in the [Catalyst] server as a playback source,” he explains. “The standard projection system is a main stage display, which is more like the other shows we have. Now, we can integrate the two systems a lot more and put a live video signal into the Catalyst, so we now have a much larger range of possibilities of what we are able to do. We were able to have maximum flexibility; we had total access to all of our materials in all of our different locations.” Glaab added that there was a lot of onsite trial and error because the team would actually see the designs for the first time in the theatre.
The control system runs three video screens and front projection, all from Barco R10 projectors. Two of the Barcos double-converge on the main screen, while the third washes the set. The videos were controlled by a series of Medialon interface cues. Pre-recorded video and live performance video were run through a Sony DFS 700 switching system off DoReMi players. The cameras were remotely controlled through Medialon, which also controlled video routing shutters and power on the Barcos.
Conceptually, the Berlin show is very different from other Blue Man shows in that it actually has a concept rather than just a conglomeration of stunts and rituals. The new show is presented as a visual representation of modern civilization and its transition from an industrial to a technological society and the space between them. “A lot of our concepts deal with information and technology as it relates to systems,” Glaab explains. “One video talks about technology, and the audience is led to believe that it's about the Internet, but it's really about modern plumbing systems, and it's a juxtaposition of those ideas.”
The video plays on the main screen in the middle of the stage but eventually begins to morph and “flows” throughout the set via the series of pipes so prevalent in the set's construction. “We had the ability to grow the video out of the traditional screen and map it over the entire set and track it over the pipes,” Glaab says. “This was a nice, specific way to use the technology in a way that transcends what the technology actually is. What was happening was transparent to the audience; they just experience the set having a different life to it, which is nice.”
Glaab attributes the Blue Man's tradition of give and take between collaborators as the key factor to not only the new show's success, but also to the seamless integration of video and lighting. “Luckily, we have a group process that allowed us to have checks and balances in place so we could actually use these technologies in a way that supported what was going on instead of just doing it for technology's sake,” he says. “Because we have such an open and collaborative process, we were able to create some effects for this integration, transcend what it was, and it supported what was going on in the show, either emotionally or conceptually. It's a dangerous area in that it can go from being really sublime to being pretty bad in a matter of seconds.”
The Blue Man Group wanted to quantify the Berlin production to serve as a model or a starting point for future shows, so when it's time to spin it off to other cities, creative changes can be made on an as-needed basis. In essence, the Berlin show serves as a “creative catch all” of the knowledge that the Blue Man founders — Chris Wink, Phil Stanton, and Matt Goldman — have had up to this point, from starting at the small Astor Place Theatre, to going on a national rock tour, to playing Las Vegas, and now, wowing crowds in Germany.
But the founders and creative minds of Blue Man also realized that there was more to learn; Wink, Stanton, Janowitz, Glaab, and artistic director Michael Quinn attended the 2004 Broadway Lighting Master Classes in June at John Jay College in New York in order to expand the group's design vocabulary, Janowitz says. “So many people are involved in our aesthetic that it's interesting to see what other people's processes are,” he says. “Almost immediately, we went into design meetings for the next couple of projects, and I could see from everyone around the table how we all seemed to have a new discipline.”
Blue Man Group, Berlin Production Team
Associate Production/Lighting Designer:
Senior Artistic Directors:
Michael Quinn, Caryl Glaab
Associate Video Design:
John Ackerman, Scharff Weisberg
Video Design Assistant:
Lighting Design Assistant: