Blue Heaven: Interview with Blue Man Group’s Kalen Allmandinger

Blue Man Group image courtesy: Google

So you’re walking down the street and you see a tall, lanky man riding a one speed, fixed-gear Swobo road bike. If you happen to have seen recent signs proclaiming the arrival of the legendary Blue Man Group in your city, take a closer look at the Swobo-riding cyclist. You just might glimpse a forgotten smear of blue greasepaint at the tip of his nose, or in the corner of his eye, left over from a packed-house performance the night before.

Despite being an internationally touring member of the Blue Man Group off and on for over a decade – or perhaps because of it – Kalen Allmandinger still finds time in between performances to explore the streets of whichever city he finds himself in. One of his favourite parts of being involved in the mega-successful touring show is the fact that it takes him – and his bicycle – all around the world.

“I get to do this all around the world,” says Allmandinger. “It’s allowed me to see places all over this planet. And especially touring now, I get to do this on a weekly basis. I get to see places that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have a chance to go to.” I had the opportunity to interview him for Cadence Canada Magazine while the Blue Man Group was in Toronto on their North American tour, performing at the Mirvish-owned Princess of Wales Theatre from July 19-30. Having seen the show, with its adherence to a dialogue-free performance using instead elastic facial expressions, digital LCD screen-walls, pulsating rock music, and a variety of nonverbal cues to tell a story – or rather, several stories – it is a bit unnerving to actually hear a Blue Man speak. The natural question, of course, is whether he gets the urge, after not speaking for hours at a time each night, to let loose and talk nonstop whenever he has the chance.

“Not really!” he insists with a laugh. “I mean, maybe it happens, but that’s what the interviews are for, I could say.”

The ten-year veteran of the popular show says that, in fact, the role gives him a great outlet for finding other ways to communicate on stage.

“It’s actually a pretty fun way to perform, to not really rely on our voices, and to try to find the specificity and ways in which we can communicate and get the point across. And of course, we use music to do that, but it’s also just physical storytelling,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun to kind of be in this character’s shoes and see how clear we can be with the audience, with what’s going on without saying anything.”

Allmandinger initially became interested in the Blue Man Group while a freshman at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, where a fellow acting student encouraged him to try out for the part of a Blue Man.

“[He] had seen the show in New York – this was before the Chicago show was opened – and he saw that they were holding auditions and knew that I looked the part – that I physically looked the part,” says Allmandinger. “He knew that I played music and that there was a heavy music element to the performance, and so he recommended that I go audition.”

Although he didn’t get the role at the time, the show’s casting directors must have seen something in him because their directive to him was: go back, finish school, and then give us a call if you’re still interested. He was.

“In the meantime the Chicago production opened and I saw it, and I thought that yes, indeed, that would be something I’d be interested in being a part of. So when I was done I gave them a call, and I auditioned at that point and that’s when I was hired.”

It is certainly an incredible opportunity for any actor, because unlike your typical theatre-going experience, improvisation and audience interaction play a huge role in each Blue Man Group performance, leading to what amounts to a different show every single night. However, what may appear spur of the moment and whimsically spontaneous is actually tightly engineered and choreographed – especially considering that they have to account for unpredictable reactions from participating audience members.

“The show is a very specific sort of set list, or order of things that happen,” says Allmandinger. “But I think, partly because it’s a nonverbal show, you know the character obviously doesn’t speak at all, which sort of leaves a lot of breathing room. So how we get from point A to point B can sort of change, or at least the intention or feeling behind it. . . . And then within that, we try to base what we’re doing directly on what we’re getting from the audience, you know, and I think in most performances the crowd influences how the evening goes.”

One of the lengthier pieces of the show involves the three Blue Men inviting a randomly selected young woman from the audience up on stage for an elegantly staged dinner (of Twinkie bars). The extended nature of the piece means that whoever is selected becomes the focus, and in turn influences the actors’ reactions more than a scripted act.

On one night, the young woman selected was so shy that the first few minutes on stage had her covering her face to hide her nervous giggles. But no more than a few minutes later she was fully involved in the skit, to the extent that the three Blue Men began to work off her responses to improvise their own performances.

“That’s one of my favourite parts of the show, because it’s designed to have that energy, so it really depends on who we get up there and how she’s going to take to what we’re giving her,” Allmandinger says. “So it always has a nice sort of dangerous feel because you don’t know how it’s going to play out.”

The sense of trepidation is not unfounded because, according to this Blue Man, the show has had its share of unpredictable feast guests.

“I guess a pretty standard way that it can be unexpected is if somebody’s maybe had a little bit too much to drink and it’s not obvious at first,” he says. “And then they get up there and then maybe are a little too . . . kind of loose? I don’t know!”

He lets out a self-deprecating laugh, then adds, “I mean, not to say that it should go a certain kind of way, but the more bold the – we call them the ‘feast guest,’ the guest at our little feast there – the more sort of bold and out of control they get, the more difficult it can be to try to sort of guide the events in a streamlined way. But if that is the case, you just have to roll with the punches and kind of say yes to the moment, and sometimes what you think might turn into a catastrophe might be some of the most interesting and rewarding versions of that piece.”

As for the audience participation, the selection of participants is entirely random, Allmandinger says, so it literally could be anyone from out of the crowd who gets chosen to come on stage for whatever madcap activity is lined up. However, he notes that they also try not to get anyone onstage who would not be comfortable with the experience.

“It could happen to anyone, but we don’t try to force it on anyone, either. You know, if someone’s not willing, we’re not going to bring them up. It’s just if it’s something they would like to do.”

One of the more unique aspects of the show is that the nonverbal nature of the show allows the Blue Men to perform for audiences in any country around the world – as they have done – and still be a massive hit, using the universally understood human languages of music and physical humour.

“I opened the show in Berlin, and London, and also Tokyo, and in each place that we go to – I mean, obviously in London they speak English; it is their primary language!” he says, catching himself with a laugh. “But it doesn’t really matter who comes to see the show because the character has no language barrier. Our sort of language is music, and that transcends language.”

Not just the music, but the elaborate lighting, multimedia effects, and unforgettable social comedy are what make Blue Man Group an internationally acclaimed theatrical experience. According to Allmandinger, this collaboration between the worlds of theatre, music, design, and multimedia are reflections of the aims of the original three Blue Men and show creators Chris Wink, Philip Stanton, and Matt Goldman.

“There are a lot of people who are involved in the company, and that’s kind of how it’s been from the very beginning,” he says. “The original three guys who came up with this idea and were the original three Blue Men have always worked with lighting designers and musicians and video designers, and it’s always been a multimedia thing. They’re really inspired by these people, the work that these people do. [Creating the show] can be a long process and pretty involved, and not always the most streamlined. There’s a little chaos in that, but they’ve always been good at embracing the chaos and creating something special out of it.”

And this fascination translates seamlessly into the show itself, making it possible for three silent, blue-skinned men with the wonderment of two-year-olds and the scientific curiosity of anthropologists to entertain and amaze crowds of people night after night, all across the globe, and providing more places for Kalen Allmandinger to find a city street to ride down.