The lights dimmed as the electronic board above the Astor Place Theatre stage displayed pre-show audience instructions.

The red-letter messages included the standard guidance to turn cell phones off as well as directives more specific to this East Village venue—such as urging collective action to help a woman in the audience imagine that her headache merely was a cow that could be killed. 

The people sitting in the first rows also got ready by putting on heavy plastic raincoats because something would be splashing their way for sure.   

So the special 30th anniversary show of the Blue Man Group—whose silent performers’ heads, faces and hands are covered in blue for an immersive, percussion-heavy stage happening with lots and lots of splashed paint—kicked off like any other performance.

Since its first performance on the Lafayette Street stage in 1991, Blue Man Group has taken the show to 25 countries. About 110 performers—very nearly all men, as per the name—have splashed more than 18,000 buckets of paint and smashed 23,000 drums. 

A show that plays around the globe for three decades needs to keep reinventing itself while also trying to stay true to its original essence. Seems like the perfect challenge for a spectacle whose main mission is to spotlight the ironies of modern life and how we are often oblivious to them. 

Take smartphones, for example 

Calling on the world to pick up. (Courtesy Blue Man Group)

Even as the computers we carry in our pockets allow connections across great distances, they also can separate us from our immediate reality. The Blue Man Group addresses this duality by showing interactive videos in which phone-distracted performers get hit by a car or fall into a manhole.   

“The show is literally a mirror to what’s happening in the world so, of course the show changes,” said Randall Jaynes, senior artistic director and a first-generation Blue Man who joined in 1995 and trained under Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton, the creators of the show.

When Wink, Goldman and Stanton started the group, there was a lot of room to improvise, Jaynes said, because the Blue Man characters were based on their personalities, their specific theatrical-performance skills and a shared interest in combining art, comedy and science. They created new pieces every night. 

That was in our DNA,” Jaynes said. “We’re trained to always improvise and keep it alive.”

When the Blue Man Group developed into a world-renowned performance-art brand—and audiences came to know what to expect from the stage—its directors focused on protecting its trademark ethos. Innovation, while still prized, encountered limitations.

The innocence of the earliest years, when “you could do whatever…” Jaynes said, fell away. “Once you’re exposed on that level you actually can’t do it. It would be immature.”  

How did they solve this conundrum? The answer was waiting within the Blue Man Group’s central essence: Keep breaking the fourth wall and make the audience part of the show.  

“We’re inviting you to be in this room at this moment in time and this is going to be a unique experience,” said Tim Aumiller, head of artistic direction and general manager of the New York production. “Having that community, that communal act—and all having the gasps, and the laughs together—I think that’s one of the things that Blue Man does so brilliantly.”

A good Blue Man will find the audience members who appear hesitant to participate and approach them. 

“Can you get them to play?” Aumiller said. “Can you get them to engage with you?”

Randall Jaynes, Blue Man Group’s senior artistic director, with Tim Aumiller, head of artistic direction and general manager of the New York production. “Why couldn’t it last forever?” Jaynes asks. (Myriam Vidal Valero)

Rethinking the brand

Its leaders say new ownership—Blue Man Productions was bought by Cirque du Soleil in 2017—and dramatic pandemic cutbacks gave the group a chance to reconnect with its founding principles. 

Layoffs by Cirque du Soleil included nearly its whole workforce—3,500 employees across the entire parent company, which declared bankruptcy and has since reorganized. 

According to Aumiller, most of the Blue Man Group’s workers who were laid off  have been hired back. Still, “that kind of chaos, that restructuring, [inspires] getting back to like guerilla-theater roots,” said Jaynes.

The 30-year experiment in light, color and sound continues. (Courtesy Blue Man Group)

Could this include rebranding Blue Man Group to simply Blue Group or something that is gender inclusive? Jaynes said he has been thinking about the issue for a while.

That kind of change would imply having more women in the show. Since its beginning, the show has only had one woman perform in blue, in the Boston production, and another one invited to a training, which she didn’t complete. 

One barrier for women has been the height requirement for applicants, who need to stand between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-2 to keep the staging uniform, the producers say.

I don’t anticipate that will change,” said Aumillier. “But of course nothing is written in stone.”

So has Blue Man Group undertaken any specific action to encourage women to audition?

“The Blue Men act in a ‘3 as 1’ dynamic so height and build are important for the aesthetic of the show,” Managing Director Mary Grisolano said by email. “We believe in the importance of diversity and inclusion and regularly discuss broadening our applicant pools to continue the goal of further diversification throughout every aspect of our organization. Specific to casting calls, we make sure our casting notices are clear that we would like to see all performers who fit our production standards audition.” 

Aumiller said that the women who have auditioned have mostly fallen within the required height range, adding that men and women who do not quite meet the height requirement “may still submit for auditions and are frequently seen.” 

Is the show positioned to see another 30 years? Jaynes said the answer is a resounding yes.

“When you’re investigating communication between cultures in an open way with a nonverbal character in a changing environment that’s adaptive, why couldn’t it last forever?”