uvm a - z directory search


FEATURES

DEPARTMENTS

Letters

President's
Perspective


UVM Notebook

Sports

Faculty Voice

Class Notes

Ask an Alum

Extra Credit

LINKS

Athletics

Alumni news &
Services

BACK ISSUES

ABOUT US

 

 

 


photographs by

MARIO MORGADO

Blue Period
Vermont boy changes hue,
keeps soul, finds success

by
AMY SUTHERLAND

After some nagging, Brian Scott ’90 finally sits down before the mirror in a cramped, subterranean makeup room in a New York City theater. A tin of cobalt-blue grease paint is on the table in front of him. Mousetraps nailed to the wall hold three pairs of stiff rubber gloves, also blue. Stacks of white towels, tinted blue, line a shelf overhead.

A makeup artist, the slender young woman who has been nagging him, sees her chance and quickly descends on Scott. She swabs a thin white glue on his skin — following his hairline, starting under one ear, brushing her way across the base of his neck, up along the other ear, and across his broad forehead. Looking at his reflection, Scott moans that he’s hungry, that he “needs a little something.” But there’s no time for take-out or raiding a fridge when there’s less than an hour to morph into a Blue Man.

Tonight, Scott will play “Left,” meaning the guy on the left in the performing trio known as Blue Man Group, the thinking man’s Three Stooges. Mute, wide-eyed, hairless, skin a dazzling Van Gogh blue, they look like deep-space travelers who have happened upon Earth. Here they find curiosity after curiosity: Twinkies, Cap’n Crunch, abstract art, and PVC piping. Like anthropologists, they try to make sense of it all, mostly to hilarious or rhythmic effect. During their investigations, mashed banana inexplicably shoots from the Blue Men’s chests. They spew paint from their mouths onto virgin-white canvases. Their thoughts zip across electronic message boards atop their heads.

The show appears at times to take much of its inspiration from junior-high cafeteria food fights. Amid the hijinks, though, the Men manage to get at some weighty questions, such as “What is art?” or “Is fractal geometry a valid metaphor for modern life?”

Blue Man Group has become the little piece of performance art that could. The company has spawned four ongoing shows, regular appearances on “The Tonight Show,” two CDs with accompanying national tours, and even that most-American measure of entering the cultural consciousness — a spot on a television commercial (Intel Pentium).

The founding trio, friends Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton, began performing the show, Tubes, in 1989. The next year the Blue Men moved into the Astor Place Theater on Lafayette Street and have since played continuously, often to sold-out houses, making them New York City’s current longest running theatrical production. Along the way, satellite Blue Man Groups have landed in Boston (1995), Chicago (1997), and Las Vegas (2000). The original three-person troupe has evolved into a 350-person organization, including 30 Blue Men, one of whom is 36-year-old Brian Todd Scott, a UVM alumnus who split his time in Burlington between earning his degree in Spanish and honing his musical skills with his college-era band Brave New World.

Scott joined Blue Man with the company’s first expansion. He had seen a performance in 1991, and thought “I should be in that show.” Shortly after a buddy became the fourth Blue Man, Scott became number five when the Boston show went in the works.

ROCK-N-ROLL ROOTS
What does it take to be a Blue Man? On the simplest level, Scott is the right height, between 5’10” and 6’. His eyes are not deep set, which is crucial because Blue Man communicates much of his character with his peepers. He has the right attitude — very subtle, childlike, immensely curious. “I was a Blue Man before I got the job,” he says. “I inserted myself inside the character. A lot of the mannerisms, things I do in real life are reflected in the character.”

Scott also had plenty of experience on stage, though it was as a musician, not an actor. Growing up in Randolph, where his back-to-the-lander parents moved the family, Scott studied classical piano, then picked up the guitar. Brave New World, which Scott co-founded, and its “post-punk” music quickly became a crowd-favorite in Burlington. Once all the members had graduated they headed south to slug it out in Boston’s tough music scene. There they chased the dream of a recording contract, working day jobs, and playing clubs at night. During the band’s six years in Boston they came close, but never signed a deal. The band members drifted apart; Scott hitched up with Blue Man Group. “I was happy to have a job that allowed me not to move furniture,” he says.

As a novice Blue Man, Scott had to learn to drum on PVC pipes with paddles (“hit them a specific way or the note sounds flat”), to spit tempera paint onto canvas (“does not taste good”), to stare at the audience (“terrifying to do”). During his training, Scott lived in an apartment above the Astor Place Theater, hearing the show every night, its thrashing music worming its way into his brain.

For four years in Boston, he did the show seven or eight times a week. Then in ’97 he launched the Chicago show. Six years as a full-time Blue Man is not without its occupational hazards — Scott had some back problems, stiff necks, and sore knuckles from the drumming. And, night after night covered with blue grease paint, he occasionally struggled to keep his performance fresh, “so you don’t find yourself going over your grocery list during a performance.” Overall, though, being a Blue Man has suited him well.

“I would be doing if it paid a lot less,” he says. “It’s fun. There’s a window of improvisation and that keeps it fresh.”

ACTOR TO DIRECTOR
Scott, who lives with his cats Stinky and Dennis in an apartment near Brooklyn’s bustling Flatbush Avenue, has been one of the company’s five directors since 1999. In that role, he develops new material, keeps current productions on track, and trains new generations of Blue Men.

“The hardest thing to get across, the thing that comes up the most, is getting people to stop acting so much, to trust themselves more, invest themselves in what they are feeling,” he says. This winter, Scott will have a little extra challenge for his teaching when he begins work in Berlin on the first international Blue Man troupe. “I suspect they will have different instincts,” he says of the German actors.

Directing has freed Scott from the tyrannical schedule of performing and allowed him to return to his own music. He recently formed a new band, The Donkeys, which plays, in Scott’s words, “aggressive pop.”

“For a while the Blue Man thing satisfied my urge to be a rock star,” Scott says, “but then I started to realize, as wonderful as it is, it’s not my project.”

Still, the Blue Man thing is at the center of Scott’s artistic working life. He will don the blue grease paint tonight at the Astor essentially as a quality check. The company’s directors occasionally perform in the shows to keep them tight and to keep their own Blue Man reflexes sharp.

As showtime approaches, skull caps in place but yet to be painted, the performers take a long warm-up. Scott reacquaints himself with the PVC tubes. He throws chunks of cooled cream cheese shaped to look like marshmallows into the gaping maw of a fellow Blue Man. With a furrowed brow, he carefully aims, one arm cocked, one leg behind him, then fires a dozen in a row in quick order. “I usually catch the cheese,” he says. “The throwing is the hardest part.”

Then he descends into the theater’s basement, where there are shelves full of Cap’n Crunch boxes and gallon bottles of brightly colored paint, to once again turn blue. It’s surprising, really, how natural the transition is, a rocker in his mid-30s with fashionable, moppish hair, becoming a hairless, silent droid.

While the theater’s resident cat prowls the room, the makeup artist (who minds the Blue Men like a school marm, ordering one “don’t grunt”) flips down the edges of Scott’s skull cap and blow-dries the edges so they seal to the glue. Another Blue Man drops a bunch of bananas on the dressing table and Scott’s eyes widen. At last, the little something he’s been needing. He does away with two.

Scott begins carefully circling each eye with blue paint, a kind of Cleopatra look. Then he takes gobs of blue and lathers it over his nose and across his cheeks while the makeup artist begins to slick the top of his head with grease paint.

The final steps are quick. Scott dons the chest harness from which the mashed banana will spew, pulls up the top of his jump suit, slides on the rubber gloves. The transformation is complete and before me stands, not Brian Scott, but a staring, earless, speechless Blue Man. He blinks a few times, then wordlessly slips away.

Journalist Amy Sutherland recently published her first book, Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America, Viking Press.