A couple of decades ago, three young guys picked up some discarded PVC pipe on Canal Street in Manhattan, began banging away and, in doing so, found what would become a staple of every Blue Man Group performance since. A few weeks ago in Bealeton, Va., 10-year-old Derek Madrishin grabbed an empty raisin box, blew into it and found what could be his entry into Blue Man’s Invent an Instrument contest.
With its laminated cursive alphabet and presidential calendar on the wall, and copies of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” spilling out of desks, Michael Snell’s fifth-grade classroom at Grace Miller Elementary School in Fauquier County is a long way from Central Park circa 1988. That’s where Blue Man founders Chris Wink, Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman painted their skull-capped heads with blue grease paint and held a “funeral” for the ’80s. They burned a Rambo doll and symbolically buried the serious-art pretention, yuppie-fueled consumerism and postmodern architecture of a decade that had traded its organic silliness for shoulder pads and a Sony Walkman.
But Derek’s discovery — the kid can play a mean snack box — and the contest itself illustrate how big the Blue Man Group universe has become. It’s not enough to have shows in eight international cities, a new traveling show (at Warner Theatre through April 3), one pre-Super Bowl performance, millions of fans, an alternative school and one very funny homage on “Arrested Development.” The group is now extending its cobalt finger into fifth- through ninth-grade classes across the country.
“One of the biggest compliments we get from audience members is that they feel invigorated, excited and reconnected to their own creativity,” Goldman says.
The group is rewarding that pursuit with $5,000 for the winning student and $5,000 for the sponsoring teacher’s school. The winner will also get, among other prizes, a chance to appear with the Blue Man Group, which will create a composition using the student’s instrument. Celebrity judges include Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and some big names in the recording industry more likely to impress Mom and Dad than fifth-graders: Stevie Van Zandt, Nile Rodgers, Pat Metheny and Joel Peresman, chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. The winners will be announced by the end April.
The rules require that students must, in keeping with the “always be discovering” mode of the Blue Man Group, use found objects. Garages, linen closets, woodpiles, sewing kits, junk drawers, attics and lunchboxes have been emptied. One inventor at another school created a wall of zippers, which he played by unzipping them at different speeds and swiping a coin across the teeth like a guitar pick. Rubber bands are a popular choice in Snell’s class; they prove equally useful in the construction of guitars and drums.
The project, Snell and students say, isn’t as simple as banging pencils on empty coffee cans, especially when your dad throws out the coffee can, as was the case for Lauren Wright, who settled for a beach bucket. To get different pitches, students have tweaked the size of a shoe box, the depth of the trash can, the number of holes in a raisin box and the number of lima beans in the water-bottle maracas.
Dylan Kezele, 11, had struggled with his shoe-box guitar until a few days before his classroom’s deadline. He then added pencils on each side of a hole, giving a more guttural pitch to a middle rubber band. Dylan described the sound as “haunting.”
Jamming on three plastic wastebaskets and one trash lid, Michael Rubio says he asked his mom before robbing her of three household essentials. His percussive chops could be heard across the classroom, where Nakayla Cabella was experiencing the frustration only an artist bent on perfection can appreciate. To make her bead-filled, top-of-a-Gatorade-bottle drum sound “just a little more cool,” she added water to create a different rattle and hum. She was not pleased with the results (“I hate my instrument now”) . But she wasn’t giving up.
If you think about it — and the Blue Man Group is all about getting you to think about it — the blue performers and fifth-graders do share some ground. Many happily ingest Twinkies, gum balls and Cap’n Crunch with nary a dental second thought. They enjoy physical, zany comedy without irony and zing back and forth between childhood playfulness and more adult concerns — the encroachment of technology into our very souls for the Blue Men, the nearing of middle school and its hierarchies for the fifth-graders.
The similiarities end with the Blue Men’s commitment to silence. Fifth-graders are a chatty bunch, but Snell has ways of quieting them that the Blue Men might appreciate. To release the energy that builds up sitting at a desk, he regularly has students do a lap around the room and five push-ups. When the chatter starts to rattle the walls of the trailer that houses his classroom, Snell has the kids clap, then put both hands on their heads. Physical? Check. Zany? Kind of. Effective? You bet.
Snell used that technique when he wanted his students to stop fiddling with their instruments and take in a performance of the Three Amigos, a group some students had just formed without knowing that collaboration and the power of three is a big deal in Blue Man doctrine.
Dylan and his haunting guitar were joined by Makaela Kessler, 11, on the Solo Cups and Whitney Watkins, 10, on the glass beads in a plastic container as they played a rousing pre-recess tune with their backs to the audience — an avant-garde touch the Blue Men Group would surely applaud.
Long is a freelance writer.
Through April 3 at Warner Theatre, 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. For more information: 202-347-4707.