The blue brothers

Special to The Times

The first day of the Blue Man Group auditions is mostly about drumming. Ron, a rough-hewn guy with hunched shoulders, stands in front of the practice drum pad holding the mallets tightly.

"Have you seen the show?" asks Karen Rockower, a Blue Man casting associate with long, multicolored hair and a gentle manner.

"Yes, twice."

"Please forget everything you've seen."

This is a tough request. Anyone who has seen a Blue Man show is left with an indelible image of the three bald and shining men dressed in black, heads and hands painted blue, at play in a world of their own making. Still, Ron gives it a shot, draining his face of expression and staring into space above the judges' heads.

"Please look at us," Rockower guides.

Ron gets off to a promising start, but he lets the rhythm falter. He has noted on his resume that his dad is a drummer, presently touring with some famous folk singers. It doesn't seem to be helping much.

Clearly nervous, he backs up and tries it again. This time he attacks the pad with the sticks, his head bobbing in time. Deb Burton, the Blue Man casting director, stops him.

"Right now you're hitting the sound into the pad. Think of it as lifting the sound out of the pad." He lightens his touch, but cannot keep an even rhythm. "Free up your forearms," Anthony Sturnick, the third member of the casting team, suggests. But it is no use. Ron is thanked, and before he leaves he says, "I know today was rough. But believe me, drumming is in my blood."

About 15 actors sat huddled in the Hudson Cafe in Hollywood last week drumming nervous tattoos on their thighs as they awaited their turn onstage at the theater next door. For some, this is a callback, having made the first cut the last time the Blue Man casting team flew out from New York. For most, it is a first audition.

Eli is next. He looks to be in his late 40s. He slips off his shiny silver shirt, grabs the mallets and twirls one in the air like Keith Moon. He misses the catch and the mallet goes skittering under a chair. This kind of bravado is grounds for instant disqualification.

Twirling a drumstick might make it as a bit in "The Complex," Blue Man's tongue-in-cheek touring rock concert that explores the cliches of the rock 'n' roll vernacular, but it has no place in the main Blue Man character profile. Eli is run through some patterns and then dismissed politely.

"We're feeling out the vibe and the drum chops today," Burton explains. "There's freaky good and freaky bad. That guy was freaky bad." It's clear that finding new Blue Men isn't easy.

In the beginning, there was one show, which has been running at the Astor Theater in New York since 1990. The Blue Men are, in the words of their own PR, "three enigmatic characters that lead the audience in a multi-sensory experience that combines theater, percussive music, art, science and vaudeville into a form of entertainment that is like nothing else."

What strikes most people, especially those sitting in the first five rows -- the "Poncho Section," in Blue Man parlance -- is the goo that spews from the stage. Blue Man likes to make a mess; they drum in pools of paint, spew squished bananas and make sexually suggestive advances on gigantic mounds of cream cheese. It takes a special guy to be a Blue Man.

The three original Blue Men -- Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton -- did eight shows a week for more than two years before they succumbed to exhaustion and brought in one of their sub-drummers to lighten their load. Soon after, they opened another show in Boston. Shows in Chicago and Las Vegas followed quickly, and they plan to open in Berlin next year. With the five shows and "The Complex," the Blue Man Group franchise employs more than 45 Blue Men. Casting has become a crucial element of the operation.

What makes a perfect Blue Man? "The most important quality is being open: open-minded, open-hearted, open-visioned," Burton explains. "It's sort of an expanded, extended way of being excited by and interested in the moment and all of its potential."

"Blue Man communicates from his heart chakra," Sturnick adds. There is a strange alchemy of vulnerability and heroism that makes a Blue Man.

The fact is, Sturnick admits, "You've either got it or you don't." This simpatico casting team can spot a nascent Blue Man almost the minute he walks into the room. This is not to say a Blue Man must be male, but the group has had limited success casting women. One factor is the height requirement; a Blue Man must stand 5 feet, 8 inches to 6 feet tall. And then there's the drumming. "Women who are good drummers probably already have good gigs," Wink says.

Everyone seems excited about the next candidate. Peter had been in on the last round of auditions and showed enough promise then to be enrolled in the Blue Man drum school. Now he's back to demonstrate his new chops.

"It's better to have a good actor who can't drum, than a good drummer who can't act," Rockower says. "We can usually teach them to drum." Potentials are referred to Ameenah Kaplan, a striking, dreadlocked gig drummer and actress whose vibe is solidly in the pocket.

Kaplan plays along with Peter, giving him props and tips. In three lessons she has turned the actor into a very passable drummer. Afterward, she says, "this guy is not just keeping the beat, he's hearing the music." He makes the callback list.

The second day of Blue Man auditions is mainly about acting. But it's acting of a kind that most Hollywood hopefuls have never experienced. Rockower and Sturnick alternate taking actors through Blue Man's emotional paces. There are four main "phrases" they must communicate using only their eyes, for Blue Man never speaks.

The sequence: "What is that?" (Blue Man is investigating and uncovering information); a kind of oh-my-God moment that has an expletive in the actual phrase (the moment Blue Man realizes he is out of his depth, but rises to the occasion); "Wait ... wait ... it's different" (the moment he reevaluates as time is running out); and, finally, "Yes! It's wonderful!" (Blue Man wants to share this amazing thing, draw people in to see it).

David, a tall, angular fellow with an already shaved head, gives it a try. He's neither a professional actor nor a drummer, but he says he's felt a sense of awe watching Blue Man and wants to be a part of it. In his first audition he demonstrated to Burton that he is a good listener. "That is huge for the show," Burton notes. Now he is negotiating the acting phrases.

Sturnick prompts David into the first phrase as he simultaneously drums and observes the audience. "What is that?" Sturnick urges. "Search! Discover! Is that good or bad?"

When David notices someone take a sip of water or shift in a seat he is to do a "call," a variation of the beat, signaling his changing emotional state. His drumming gets tighter and more tense until he suddenly stops. "I see if I cheat and do it tight, then I can go fast. But it's just all wrong, isn't it?"

This kind of emotional honesty is just what they're looking for. And he's got an intriguing off-kilter vibe, placing him squarely in the "freaky good" category. He'll go on to drum school.

The day is over and Sturnick lets off steam by walking on his hands across the stage, his wiry, tattooed body in perfect balance. Burton shuffles thoughtfully through her stack of resumes, which are now covered in notes.

Overall, it's been a very successful session. Out of 20 applicants, the team has found three new drum-school enrollees and one guy to fly back to New York for the final phase of casting, which includes workshops and a full-costume "bald and blue" audition. If he gets the job, he can look forward to six weeks of training in New York, then at least a year of doing six shows a week.

Those who make it become part of the large, close-knit tribe. "The Blue Man way of seeing the world seeps offstage and into the members of the community," Burton says. The "community" shares ideas, food, books, music and inspiration.

"What's exciting to me is to have one of these people, in their raw form, walk into a casting session. Finding another Blue Man is like finding someone in a foreign country that speaks your language. It's flat-out amazing."

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