Blue Man Group Takes Las Vegas by Storm Take three bald, silent guys with blue heads, add some incredibly odd performance material, mix in edible props, heavily percussive music, and flying paint, squeeze into a tiny East Village theatre, and the result is Blue Man Group's Tubes, one of New York City's longest-running and most indescribable Off Broadway experiences. Move the entire concoction to a 1,200-seat theatre at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, rename it (Blue Man Group Live at Luxor, appropriately enough), and the result is a show that's bigger, messier, more explosive, and more fun - but just as indescribable.
"It's not exactly a move, since so much of the show is new," explains set designer Lauren Helpern, who collaborated on the concept for the designs with "CMP," the original Blue Men: Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton, as well as with designer David Gallo. "The show is such a collaborative entity. I feel that our job as designers is to make real what the creators of the show envision, so in some ways we operate as translators," says Helpern. "It's what I would call an ego-less show, since so much of it is about function and problem-solving."
Blue Man Group also has a large in-house, New York-based framework of people involved with the creation of their shows, which is how they've put together not only the New York and Las Vegas productions, but also the Chicago and Boston versions of the show as well. Some of the concepts for Vegas, in fact, had been in development for months or years. "Las Vegas was also the first time the group encountered union production people," notes Helpern, who credits "an amazing group put together by our technical supervisor, Hillary Blanken, and her company, Juniper Street Productions. It was tough at first to get the two different approaches to doing things working together."
One of the first things the design team had to confront was the Egyptian-style decor of the theatre at the Luxor, which is of course not in keeping with Blue Man's contemporary character. And there was a mandate from the Luxor: Do not destroy the original decor. "This made it an interesting challenge," says Helpern. But in order to "modernize" the interior of the space, four Egyptian columns were removed and the walls (up to the cornice) were covered in flameproof black velour provided by David Rosenberg of I. Weiss and Sons in Long Island City, NY.
"Above the cornice we painted the remainder of the wall black," explains Helpern, who points out that black is also the basic color of the set, which she describes as "textured underfoot, and smooth on the vertical surfaces. If anything, the less aware of the scenery the audience is, the better. Black is a great background for all the flying paint and colored light in the air."
Some of the other factors that affected Helpern's designs for Las Vegas are sightlines, transitions, and cleanup. "Sightlines are particularly important to CMP. They want everyone in the audience to see the entire scene, which is difficult in a fan-shaped auditorium," she says. "We used our fact-finding trips to Vegas to determine the best locations for the big set pieces."
The seven-piece band in Las Vegas is larger than in New York, and had to be split into two groups. From a design standpoint, the band needed to be placed at a height where they were visible but not intrusive. "They also needed easy access to the stage," notes Helpern, "because they perform in the matrix scene," which occurs near the end of the show. "To accomplish this, we tied the band lofts into the existing stairways, so it is a safe and easy run."
There was also some tricky planning for the quick movement of large set units onstage. "This was the first time the show had to have a large number of moving units," Helpern says. "The pieces that move on the deck in the other shows - the feast table and PVC instruments - need to be as compact as possible and don't go very far. It was a different way to look at the dynamic of the event, and definitely a challenge to every department to make the moments fluid and interesting."
Cleanup provided another interesting challenge. The entire stage needed to be waterproof and configured for drainage to make the turnover between shows go as quickly and smoothly as possible. "Because of all the different substances - from paint to Jell-O - that land on the deck, it needs to be slip-proof, which means a textured surface, making it even more difficult to clean," says Helpern. "There are also pieces that get cleaned during the show in an upstage wash-down area."
To enlarge the concept as well as the size of the show, "CMP" added some new pieces that they had been developing (the numbers involving the drum matrix) as well as some of the show standards: the Twinkie feast, the Captain Crunch boxes, and the live paintings based on works by Yves Klein. "They wanted the show to be bigger but not stray from the qualities that make it so accessible," Helpern explains. "We knew we were going to have to play with making certain moments more intimate, bringing them down onto the apron, and then turn other ones into huge statements. This meant figuring out how pieces could be played together, basically creating Swiss Army-knife scenery."
How much bigger are things in Las Vegas than in New York? As Helpern points out, the set piece used for the Twinkie feast - in which the Blue Men and an audience member dine on Twinkies, with unexpected results - is comparable to the size of the entire stage of the Astor Place Theatre, where Blue Man Group performs in New York. To compensate for this, many of the things used in the show were simply made much bigger, including posters and cereal boxes. Other units were expanded as well, including paint drums, which grew to 6' tall, and performance platforms placed at different elevations, in order to use the height as well as the depth of the space.
As Helpern recalls, "We made several trips out to the venue to determine the appropriate sizes of the different elements. Blue Man Group's in-house prop people (headed by Blakely Braniff) made about half a dozen of each item so that the proper balance between legibility and believability could be achieved."
An automated, waterproof deck with rust-proof tracks is one of the major set elements and was developed in conjunction with Fred Gallo of Entolo, a division of Production Resource Group, whose shops in Las Vegas and New Windsor, NY, worked on the project. The company provided scenic fabrication and painting, as well as show control and Stage Command Systems[R] scenic motion control.
Other major units were built by Showman Fabricators, Inc. in Brooklyn, NY (project manager: Warren Katz). "They had done some work for Blue Man prior to Vegas, so they understood the needs of the show," says Helpern. SFI built the matrix, which is the largest piece in the show. "It was a little like building a house: it is three stories tall, has scrim roman shades, multiple staircases, and has to withstand all sorts of abuse," Helpern notes. "That piece has to incorporate sets, lighting, video, and sound."
SFI also built the feast unit, which incorporates A/V elements as well, from a flat plasma screen TV embedded in the front of the table to a the microphone on the wall. "It is probably the most complex of all the pieces because it needs to move in two different directions," Helpern says. "It is driven downstage on a track and then pulled upstage at an angle by a cable above the ground that is attached to the upstage side of the platform. It is completely waterproof, has step units that track upstage into its wall, and incorporates all sorts of fun things, from giant posters to a Jell-O catapult. Not to mention that the surface needed to be as smooth as possible. They did a great job making it all work."
Another technical collaborator on this project is Scott Fisher, of Fisher Technical Services in Las Vegas, who worked on a series of specialty pieces, including the water vortexes and zoetropes, which stand downstage left and right. "The original vortex machines were created by Phil Stanton and have always been a part of the show. This time they needed to be almost twice the size of the ones in Chicago, which meant a significantly larger motor and propeller, not to mention all the engineering issues," says Helpern. "To make it more difficult, they had to be freestanding in the center of a donut turntable.
"The turntable is what we call the zoetrope, which is based on a 19th-century optical animation toy," she continues. "Ours, based on a three-dimensional version developed early in the 20th century, is called a stroboscopic zoetrope. There are 12 sculptures mounted in a circle. When the turntable moves, it is synched up with a strobe, creating an effect that looks like a single dancing figure. We played with this in a much smaller form for a workshop, though then the sculptures were all tethered to a central point on a solid disk.
"The turntable needed to be incredibly fast, start and stop quickly, and have an easily controllable variable speed," Helpern continues. "Also, the figures, which were sculpted by Andrew Benepe, needed to be beyond secure, so Scott had to develop the armature and connection. Basically, we didn't have much to do with Scott other than give him the space parameters and stand back. He was wonderful." Helpern also credits the work of scenic coordinator Patrick Fahey, who oversaw the drafting and worked with the various scenic shops during the build and in the theatre, as well as Kevin Cwalina, who did much of the drafting and the set model.
One of the high points of the show comes at the end, when rolls and rolls of white paper come careening over the audience from the back of the house. The audience gets into the act, passing the seemingly unending streams of paper forward as they work their way toward the stage.
"Inevitably, the solution, involving modified paint rollers and Velcro, was very simple and low tech considering the requirements - it had to be a surprise, which meant the paper and the cover needed an easy release, the changeover had to be fast, and it needed to flow," says Helpern. There is an army of people who help it happen during the show, get the streamers started, help them jump the dead areas, like the huge center aisle and the voms, and collect it afterward, because it gets recycled - a big Blue Man Group concern.
The audience is also pulled into the show by a series of funny messages on LED signs built into the set. "There is a sense of community in the audience, which is created as everybody reads them together," notes Helpern. These messages serve as the only "language" in the show. "So much in the show is about connection, with the paper being the most literal display," she adds.
At the same time as the paper gag, a forest of long PVC tubes starts spinning from the ceiling on small-gear motors (provided by Capital Scenic of New York). Peter Flathers, Blue Man Production's technical director, points out that there are 54 tubes (27 double sets) made of white neoprene-impregnated vinyl industrial hoses strapped to Tomcat truss. Columbus McKinnon chain motors are used to lower the truss for accessibility, as the tubes are re-hung after each performance. The tubes are automatically released via a cue from the lighting console.
Video is also an important element in the show to help enhance what is happening onstage, as well as behind the scenes. "One of my favorite moments is the final one with the Blue Men's shadows on a DNA strand, another statement about how close we all are," says Helpern. "The scenery functions as a backdrop for all this wild video and light. I love the way scale is played with through video and shadow."
The video images were created by Caryl Glaab, Blue Man Group's associate artistic director and video designer. "The show in Las Vegas has the largest video component; in our other shows, video was mainly used to expand the parameters and see the action backstage," says Glaab. This time, the sheer size of the venue allowed Glaab to create original video pieces that are incorporated into the visual landscape of the show.
During the Twinkie feast, for example, there is a live feed of the Blue Men selecting a participant from the audience. You also see the feast itself in a screen above them and in the small plasma screen built into the front of the table, so you can see intimate details. In another scene, large prerecorded images of the Blue Men's eyes are projected on multiple screens. What is interesting here is that the Blue Men themselves are blocked to the movement of the images and a Wybron AutoPilot system allows the moving lights to follow the men.
For a singalong to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," three circular screens are used with the text set against fractal computer-generated images. "We bumped this piece up to the next level," explains Glaab, who likes the juxtaposition of the classic 60s music with cutting-edge video technology creating a psychedelic look.
To create the images he used Dataton's Tracks software, which runs on a Macintosh G4 computer, and Avid to create some of the text. The live video cameras are two Sony D30s and one Sony XZ999 small "cigar" camera. Playback is via three DoReMi DDRV1 units. The projectors are from Digital Projection Inc. (DPI); the screens were custom-made with material from Gerriets.
"One of our goals was not to lose Blue Man's traditional character in the bigness of the new show," Glaab says. "We maintained the use of video for moments of intimacy you couldn't see from the back of the house, and to see further backstage, yet we did things we couldn't do in the other venues." In effect, they tied together what they did before with new applications, using video in the same conceptual manner yet on a larger scale.
Helpern says her biggest challenge was making everything function well in light of the constantly evolving, organic creative process. "We are dealing with years of development, so everything needs to stay true to what has come before," she says. "Each set piece needed to be treated independently yet as part of the whole production, since the show was constantly being refined. It is a remarkable thing to work on, because anything is possible. These are some of the most creative individuals out there, which is reflected in the way the audience responds to the show."