Without warning, you’re part of the show, even before the curtain rises at Universal Orlando’s Sharp AQUOS Theatre to reveal three bald, earless, bright blue-painted heads and faces, known as Blue Man Group (BMG). One of them is Richard Cravens, ’94.
What comes next is an interactive adventure like no other. Though the threesome never speaks, each Blue Man says a lot about innocence, joy, camaraderie and living in the moment. You might be asked to join in that moment on stage to eat Twinkies or have your ears drummed. Or you might stay in your seat, bobbing your head to the beat of PVC pipes, airpoles, a zither and a drumbone, just a few of the unusual instruments you’ll see and hear Cravens and the other Blue Men play. Either way, you’re a participant, not just an observer, for two mesmerizing hours of vibrant artistry and innovative sounds.
Orlando is only the fifth city in the nation to host a Blue Man Group stage show, and summer 2009 marks its two-year anniversary at Universal Orlando. The original Blue Man Group theatre show began in New York, where it still goes on, along with shows in Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas.
BMG has also gone international, performing shows in such cities as Berlin, London and, the latest addition, Tokyo.
But Blue Man Group is more than just a show. The blue guys also have a touring rock concert called How to be a Megastar Tour 2.1, as well as several DVDs and CDs, including Grammy-nominated AUDIO and The Complex, which features other artists like Dave Matthews and former Bush front man Gavin Rossdale.
B.B.M.G. (Before Blue Man Group)
Music has come naturally to Cravens since his parents bought him a drum for his first Christmas. He sang in all his elementary school productions and was in the school band starting in the sixth grade.
After his first year on a music scholarship at UCF, Cravens realized he didn’t necessarily want to earn a degree in music. Since he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do at that point in his life, he switched his major to business. But soon after, he took a general psychology course as an elective and was hooked. “Everything about psychology intrigued me,” he says. “I had no idea what I was going to do with a psychology degree, but I knew it was the major for me.”
While pursuing his new passion, Cravens continued to play music — tenor drums and snare drum — in the UCF Marching Band. “A lot of my fun memories at UCF came from being in the band,” he says. In fact, some of his closest friends today are people he met in the Marching Knights.
While he was in college, Cravens worked as a student musician at Disney, where learned how to be a performer.
After graduating from UCF with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he started graduate school at the University of Florida, where he took more classes in psychology, played in the marching band and continued to work part-time at Disney until he was offered a full-time opportunity at the Magic Kingdom.
Blue Man Group’s motto is “Follow Your Bliss,” Cravens points out, and that’s exactly what he had to do.
“I honestly never thought I would make a career out of [playing the drums],” he explains. “It was just something I enjoyed doing. [This] was a real opportunity to make a living pursuing my passion, and I figured I could always go back to school later if I wanted to.”
Blue Man in Training
After working for Disney for nearly 14 years, Cravens was ready for something different.
“Being a theme park entertainer was more for the sake of entertainment,” he explains. “The audience isn’t going to take anything away from it. But performance is not just for the sake of performance — you can use it to reach people on a different level.” That’s why he decided to audition for Blue Man Group. He loved the idea of using music and performance as a vehicle to reach people.
His favorite way to do that comes in a piece of the show he calls the PVC 4.
“There’s a great musical and character arc of discovery that takes place in the song,” Cravens explains. “It’s like a microcosm of the whole show. It has a powerful climax that captures the whole audience and brings a great energy to the theatre. It captivates everything about the Blue Man — his innocence; uncertainty; the joy of what he’s doing.”
He earned the opportunity to perform that piece on stage after a long, grueling process — one that he describes as a cross between Survivor and American Idol.
After initial auditions in several cities, a rare few make it through for a New York City callback. But Cravens was one of the lucky ones.
Following two days of being judged strictly on his ability to perform the character, he made it to the eight-week Blue Man training in New York, where potential BMG members are expected to make progress every week. If they don’t, they are sent home, just like on a reality game show.
“It’s supposed to be tough and intense. They want to see how people react under stress,” Cravens says. “The most important thing is getting rid of your own ideas about the character, which are probably false, and just try to react in the moment in a truthful way and without ego. It’s a general tearing away of things that aren’t a Blue Man.”
After months of Blue Man training in New York and Chicago, Cravens came home to Central Florida to open the show at Universal Orlando, where he has been performing for the past year.
A Typical Day in Blue
Cravens and his fellow performers arrive at the theatre about two hours before their first show of the day. After a quick sound check on stage, the guys start getting into costume and makeup. Then, they break for a brief group meeting before finishing off their costumes and head painting, and warming up backstage until show time.
Although there can be up to three performances in a day, due to the physical demands of the show, Cravens and his fellow BMG members never perform in more than two.
As you might imagine, being a Blue Man is greasy, sticky, ooey, gooey work. Thanks to hypoallergenic cleansers and a stringent cleansing routine, the faces under the paint are able to keep a healthy complexion. But that doesn’t mean there’s never a trace of blue left behind.
“I think I might have permanent blue eyeliner on,” Cravens says. “It takes about three or four days of not doing shows to get off all the paint. I even blow blue out of my nose for days after every show. But it just becomes part of your personality — you just accept it.”
It’s Not Easy Being Blue
Blue Man Group members are known for being able to express reactions and emotions through straight faces. But how do they keep from laughing when something funny happens? Like, for example, when a fellow Blue Man decides to incorporate a new dance move into the show.
“The hardest time to keep a straight face is when one of us does something we’ve never seen or done before,” he explains.
“But it’s not as hard as you think. You’re in a different mindset [during the show] — you are the character.”
Audience reaction is key to every Blue Man performance, because in Blue Man Group show, the audience becomes part of their world.
“The subjective nature of our show lets everyone take away something similar, but it’s different too,” Cravens says. “I think a lot of times people are truly affected by our show on different levels.
“It’s like a play that involves the entire audience, and the audience gets to say lines in the play. The audience gets so intertwined with the story. They have a profound effect on what we do up there.”
Sometimes the men in blue have to improvise large parts of the show due to unexpected technical problems or audience reaction, like one time when an obviously intoxicated man tried to walk up on stage during a performance. Cravens promptly met him at the stairs and escorted him back to his seat before the situation could escalate. (Had the man been belligerent, he would have been escorted out of the theatre.)
“It’s so much about the reality of the moment,” he says. “We notice everything. We even notice when people get up to go to the bathroom.”
When he’s not covered in blue paint and drumming on PVC pipe, Cravens is drumming for Zero Taiko, a band based on a form of Japanese drumming. He found a passionate for Taiko drums while living in Tokyo during part of his employment with Disney. “It’s a deep and emotional performance art versus just drumming,” he explains.
Ironically, when he performs outside his regular job, he always gets the same comment: “You should be a Blue Man!”
Cravens anticipates being a Blue Man for another seven to 10 years. After that, he thinks he will probably stay in entertainment, although he has considered teaching a class at a university one day. “I think it would be cool to come into a class and just lecture utilizing my practical applications,” he says.
Ultimately, he likes to do and create things that affect people; things that allow people to truly be in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.
No matter what he’s doing, Cravens always looks forward to going home at the end of each day to see his wife, Rachael, and their 2-year-old son, Richard Cravens III, who already loves to sing and play the drums. “I want him to be an astronaut, but I think he’s probably going to end up performing, like his dad.”
But Cravens’ ultimate long-term goal may surprise you.
He wants to be a politician and, eventually, president of the United States.
“Bringing truth to politics…” he says, “I don’t even know if it’s possible. But who better than a Blue Man?”