5 lessons on creativity & community i learned from the blue man group
Let me begin with a confession: I am not an amusement park person. I hate roller coasters (which pretty much eliminates about 50% of the purpose of an amusement park), and in life I try to limit my interaction with crowds to dancing in the streets in Trinidad during Carnival season. Standing in a long, sweaty line for what amounts to 2 or 3 minutes of fun really has never appealed to me.* So needless to say, this Family Forward trip to Universal Orlando was really all about Alex, and to that end, it was a rousing success -- she enjoyed every minute of her very first visit to an amusement park. She rode tons of rides, and I even accompanied her on a few of them (and for the record, I admit the special effects in Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey and The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man are truly spectacular). But one of the highlights of the trip was The Blue Man Group.
Our conference packets came with free tickets to their show, and Alex was beside herself about seeing them live -- she had seen one of their performances on television once, and has been in love with them ever since. If you're not familiar with them, they're pretty hard to define, but the best description I've seen of them is that they're a performance art group of, well, blue men. The show features three silent men dressed in black, wearing bald caps and completely painted royal blue, sporting wild-eyed (and somewhat creepy) expressions. I knew that their show heavily features percussion and paint, but otherwise, I really didn't know what to expect. But I was game, because after all, this was Alex's trip, and she was so thrilled about the prospect of being in the same room with them.
The show was loud, energetic, funny, entertaining -- all the things that shows should be -- but what surprised me the most was how educated I felt after seeing it: it was like a two-hour, graduate-level class on creativity and community. I've been thinking about it ever since, and so, for posterity's sake, the following are the top 5 things I learned from the Blue Men that I hope will better inform my work going forward (WARNING - these lessons contain spoilers from the 2013 Orlando show, so please don't read on if you're planning a trip and don't want to know what happens!):
1. Don't be afraid to try everything. I kept wondering how the hell three men came up with the idea of turning themselves blue, and then creating a show that featured everything from spitting paint on canvases, beating on paint-filled drums, turning PVC pipes into instruments, and developing scenes created entirely around Twinkies, for heaven's sake -- all the while remaining completely silent. I mean, seriously, that sounds like a recipe for madness, and yet? It works. And I have to believe that their show is only a small representation of all of the things they've tried in the past, and they discarded even more acts that didn't work. It was such a great lesson that trying crazy sometimes results in some pretty spectacular awesome.
2. Hone your craft. I think that part of the reason the crazy worked so well was because these performers had truly honed their craft. It was true that they had a back-up band to help fill out their sounds, but each of the Blue Men is a really incredibly talented percussionist in his own right, and it showed throughout their performance. In addition, there was a shocking amount of technology, computer graphics, lighting and synchronicity that went into every minute of the show. And they were masters as communicating so much in each single, silent gesture.
In the end, the moral of their story is this: do crazy poorly, and it's just crazy. But do crazy well? It's creativity and innovation at its finest.
3. Speak your truth loudly and clearly. There were definite themes that ran throughout the show; in particular, the concept of information overload and the issue of over-dependence of technology and social media. As I watched the messages of the Blue Men flash past on three different screens, I couldn't help but think that they were risking alienating a significant percentage of their audience, since on this particular night, it was primarily made up of bloggers and their families.
But ultimately, it didn't matter. No one seemed offended, and their point was made: while technology can certainly provide an element of connection, the most meaningful connections usually happen in real life, face-to-face -- hardly an arguable point. I love the idea of unapologetically standing for something, especially when it's done without aggression or anger.
And for the record, the following information from their Wikipedia page describes what the founders, Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton stand for:
- Science and technology, especially the topics of plumbing, fractals, human sight, DNA, and the Internet.
- information pollution, such as when the audience is asked to choose one of three simultaneous streams of information to read.
- Innocence, as when the Blue Men appear to be surprised and perplexed by common artifacts of modern society or by audience reactions.
mitation of cultural norms, such as attempting to stage an elegant dinner for an audience member withTwinkies; or following the Rock Concert Instruction Manual with the expectation that following a series of instructions is all it takes to put on a rock concert.
- The Outsider. Blue Men always appear as a group of three. This is because not only are Blue Men viewed as outsiders to the rest of the world, but three is the smallest group possible wherein there can be a subgroup of more than one as well as a subgroup of one, the outsider. Many of the Blue Man skits involve one of the three Blue Men performing in a manner inconsistent with the other two.
- Rooftops, or otherwise climbing to the top. There are a number of references, both in visual pieces and in lyrics from the COMPLEX tour, that have a common theme of getting to the roof. This theme is a metaphor for the advice Stanton, Wink, and Goldman drew from Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers's PBS program The Power of Myth and represents "Following your bliss."
4. Irreverence is sometimes a good thing. The performance wasn't aggressive or angry by any stretch; quite the contrary, it was incredibly warm and inclusive and very family-friendly. However, they were irreverent. This was never more apparent than during their finale, entitled "Shake your Euphemism," where an electronic display and a booming disembodied voice chanted over percussive music, detailing what might possibly be the most comprehensive list of euphemisms for the word "buttocks" ever compiled: from the relatively benign "posterior" and "backside," to the slightly alarming "wiggle bags" and "jiggle twins," to the downright weird "sit-biscuit," "Ali versus Frasier" and "Minneapolis and St. Paul." The audience absolutely loved it. But maybe some of them didn't. Nonetheless, if life has taught me anything, it's that you can't please all of the people all of the time; and if you're irreverent in your day-to-day life, what's the harm in letting some of that irreverence show in your art?
(For the record, I'm considerably irreverent in my offline life, but I have always erred on the side of caution online. This show has me thinking that may it's worth it to show a little more of that irreverent side. You know, just a little bit more. So fair warning.)
5. When it comes to creating community, pull out all the stops. During that finale, the Blue Men invited the audience (through their illuminated signs -- remember, they remain silent throughout the show) to stand up and dance. We did so for a few minutes, and then -- suddenly, gloriously -- they released several gigantic illuminated balloons, ones that had been suspended from the ceiling for what we assumed was simply for decoration's sake. A spontaneous game of balloon keep-away broke out among the entire audience, while the music continued to pulsate.
This would have been enough, but the Blue Men weren't finished: to this, they added confetti. And they unrolled dozens of rolls of toilet paper in the air (which they were quick to assure us were 100% recycled). And there were giant puppets. Amazingly, it became apparent that the audience was having such a good time dancing and hitting the giant air balloons to the music and being showered in paper, they almost forgot that the Blue Men were there -- it was just hundreds of people having fun with each other.
And this was such a fabulous lesson in the creation of something that was purely for others -- the Blue Men weren't performing anymore, but simply creating the environment for everyone else to have fun. Since then, I've been wondering how I can do something similar here on Chookooloonks -- create an environment were people can just enjoy each other and make their own community and connection and art. I have absolutely no idea at this point how to make this happen, but it's something that I'm beginning to believe is wildly important, especially in this hyper-electronically-connected world, you know? I mean, why not?
More as I think about this more.
To that end, I would strongly recommend that if you happen to be in Orlando (or any of the other cities where the Blue Men routinely perform), you take in one of their shows (and even better, they also happen to be on tour right now, so if they're coming to your city, you should check them out). Many thanks to Jyl and her team at FamilyForward for giving us the opportunity to experience this -- I'm very, very grateful (and Alex is very, very, very grateful, seriously).
* With respect to the amusement park, a bit of advice: if you happen to be planning a visit to Universal Orlando yourself, please, for the love of God and all that is sweet and holy, spend the money on an Express Pass. Our Family Forward conference package included them, and let me tell you, that thing is worth its weight in gold: it allowed us to bypass lines of an hour or more, reducing our waits to a mere 5 minutes or so. It really saved the holiday for me.