The Blue Man Group (BMG) is one of my favorite musical groups, if not my all-time favorite, but sometimes I have a difficult time explaining why. It’s more than the music, which is incredibly catchy. It’s more than the skill they exhibit; as a percussionist myself, the Blue Men’s speed, accuracy, and endurance are staggering. It’s more than the comedy, too; the audience at a BMG show spends as much time laughing as they do clapping. There’s something else going on at a BMG concert that turns it into an experience you can’t get while listening to their albums or watching clips of their shows on YouTube.

While attending a BMG concert at Universal Studios recently, I think I finally have a way of explaining what that something else is. A BMG show, in addition to entertaining the audience with music, comedy, and displays of skill, breaks down barriers.

The Barriers Between The Audience And the Performers

There’s a pretty fundamental standard to a concert: the performer is onstage, and the audience is not. But at one point in the BMG concert at Universal, one of the Blue Men stepped down off of the stage and began to walk across the audience’s chairs, making his way over our heads, taking people’s hands for balance if they reached up towards him. A cameraman emerged to follow the Blue Man around, the footage of his camera – including many audience members – displayed live on a screen on the stage. Stage and audience had merged into one space; the performer was in the audience, and the audience was also on the stage.

There are two BMG sketches that have been a part of every BMG concert I’ve seen so far. In one, the Blue Men pull a woman out of the audience to have dinner with them (composing of fancy restaurant music, nice table settings, and Twinkies). In the other, the Blue Men pull a man out of the audience, ostensibly to use him as a human paint stamp (I swear it makes sense in context). At the end of the show, as the Blue Men, musicians, and stage crew come out for curtain call, the audience-members-turned-performers are recognized as well, their faces shown on the stage’s screens, indicating that they were just as much an integral part of creating the show as anyone, even though they only just walked in that day.

The Barriers Between Audience Members

At the beginning of a BMG concert, scrolling text on LED screens above the stage instruct the audience to shout and say certain things as a group, such as congratulating other audience members for various awards (such as Olympic medals), reciting the “Happy Birthday” song to a specific audience member (“no singing please,” say the screens), and apologizing to someone in the audience who has a headache (“all this shouting probably doesn’t help”). These group recitations have a strange effect on the mood of the room. At a concert, the social expectation is that one should sit quietly in order to not disturb the people around them. A BMG show breaks that barrier right away, encouraging everyone to make noise – not for noisiness’s sake, and not in order to bother the people around you, but to make noise together.

The Barriers Between Audience Expectations And Other Possibilities

The BMG messes with audience expectations in more ways than the two points above. Though some of their instruments are conventional percussion pieces used in a conventional way, others are far from expected. They pour paint onto drums and shine light through the ensuing spray, they open up pianos and whack the chords with a mallet, and they have an entire family of musical instruments formed from PVC pipe. In some sketches, the BMG present a concept that the audience thinks they understand, but in the end reveal that they were discussing something else entirely – a network that connects people across the world and that millions of people interact with each day, for example, is revealed to be not the internet, but “modern plumbing.” My experience with these concerts is that eventually I stop trying to guess what’s going to happen next, and my mind opens wide to the possibility of anything, stretching far beyond the expectations that often get in the way of that kind of thinking.

The Barriers Between Yourself And The World

Over the course of a BMG concert, the audience ends up doing a lot of odd, childish things that they might not normally do in public: speaking the “Happy Birthday” song, clapping and shouting for a marshmallow, throwing their hands in the air with a yell, and jumping up to dance and “shake their booty” (again, it makes sense in context, I swear). And this might be the point of the entire thing – the BMG wants their audience to let go of that most basic barrier between yourself and the world: your inhibitions.

In junior high I did a research paper on the BMG. Unfortunately I cannot find this paper, nor can I now find the source to one of the most interesting things I found while researching that paper. What I remember finding is one of the creators of the BMG saying that the blue paint is not a mask. It is the opposite of a mask. The Blue Man has no inhibitions. He is free to be and to explore without worrying about what the world thinks. The BMG instills this state of lack of inhibitions in its audience. Sometimes, if you get close enough to a Blue Man (they often pose for pictures after shows), they will leave a blue paint mark on your hand or face. I can’t help but think of it as a sign of that uninhibited state, one that stays with you until gradually, with washing, it fades.

Or perhaps, like the blue mark they left on my purse when I stood with them for a photo after the Universal Studios concert that did not come out in the wash, it lingers.