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It's a rare combo: rhythm and Blue

February 19, 2007|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

Phillip Vint wants to be a Blue Man.

That's why the stocky, 29-year-old drummer for a local funk-reggae band made sure he was at the front of the line last week for open auditions to become the newest member of Blue Man Group.

"The first time I saw the show, I said, 'I have to do that,' " he said. "I'd go anywhere they wanted me to. I'd move to, like, Bakersfield."

Most striving actors come to an audition with at least a small hope of eventually being recognized on the streets or at a nightclub. But for Vint and the dozens of aspiring actor-drummers lined up outside of Hollywood's Hudson Theatre, the Blue Man Group offers a chance to beat on lengths of PVC pipe in front of thousands in total anonymity.

"It's not about being noticed," Vint said, "it's about being infamous, which is more my thing."

The 70 performers employed as Blue Men across America and Europe may be the most recognizable mute, monochromatic figures in theater. With blue greasepaint covering every inch of exposed skin, the trios of actors drum their way through a mix of surrealist performance art, populist off-Broadway theater and strobe-lighted rock concert, complete with accompanying T-shirts, DVDs and appearances in computer-chip advertisements.

At any given show, audience members are pulled onstage as subjects of cheeky stunts, and there's a front-row "poncho section," which may suffer fallout from some of the messier bits involving airborne paint.

For the actors, life as a Blue Man requires a unique set of skills. The group's mix of multimedia, music and comedy requires actors to drum on odd objects, convey an array of emotions with only a twitch of an eyebrow or awkward posture, and catch small objects, thrown from across the stage, in their mouths. Open auditions in cities like Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas usually draw more than 100 actors and drummers, who rarely can do both convincingly.

"The skill level goes from zero to a hundred," says casting director Deb Burton.

"A lot of times, it's like someone going to the art museum and seeing a Picasso and saying, 'Oh, my 4-year-old can do that.' They don't realize the intricacies of what we're doing, but they find out quickly."

The audition process begins with a run-through of drum rudiments and ends, hypothetically, with an actor's being assigned to a regular show in New York; Boston; Chicago; Las Vegas; Orlando; London; Berlin; Amsterdam; Oberhausen, Germany; or one of Blue Man Group's touring ensembles. There are a few requirements on height (generally between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-1) and weight (an athletic build) but not one for gender.

"We had a woman perform in our Boston show," said Chris Bowen, senior performing director for Blue Man Productions in New York. "It's something we're open to and encourage. But they have to fit the physical description. It's not like there's two Blue Men and one Blue Woman onstage."

Inside the tastefully ramshackle Hudson, where packing crates and welded bicycle parts make up most of the decor, the actors' first task was impressing Ameenah Kaplan, Blue Man Group's drum coach for the West Coast. They played along with her on a rubber practice pad.

Still, even if they matched her tempo changes and accents, any number of factors could doom their chances. One older drummer seemed to be able to hang with her but was quickly and politely dismissed.

"Anything you want to know about him?" Burton asked Kaplan after he left the auditorium.

"No," she said, "he's a player, but his look was off."

Over the next half an hour, half a dozen other drummers got the same verdict. Others, like Terry Gibson, had a distinct look (for Gibson, a glistening, skin-tight T-shirt and a late-career boy-band haircut) but not the chops needed for Blue Man Group's particular brand of found-object percussion.

Silver Lake resident Leah Luna, a percussionist in an Afro-Cuban band, was the first woman to audition. She earned friendly parting words. "It's always exciting to play with another female," Kaplan said. "Keep on drumming."

Finally, Jason Foidel, a 34-year-old drummer from Portland, Ore., won over the two. Foidel's acting resume is limited to a high school production of "Oklahoma!" Though he received Kaplan's standard critique of "he has a weak left hand," the lanky and self-effacing percussionist had what Burton called "that 'it' factor." He was asked to return the next day at noon for the acting portion of the audition, which often involves telling stories from one's childhood.

To be a Blue Man, "you have to have a real emotional availability," Burton said. "Some auditions have made me cry. When they're able to do it, it's like they rip themselves open and you can see their soul."

Burton expected about four people to pass both the drumming and acting tests. Those potential Blue Men will fly to New York to work more intensively in the group's drumming and acting classes, where they will be pared down further. For Foidel, New York was something to think about later. After passing his first audition, he had more pressing issues before his noon callback the next day.

"I thought I'd go home and come back in a week or so. Now I've got to change my flight and find a hotel room," he said. "But I've got no problem doing that."

august.brown@latimes.com

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