Innovation takes time. For the popular Blue Man Group, it has taken over 25 years. Started in 1991 by Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton in New York, the trio have become a mainstay in Las Vegas and in many other cities.
Recently, I caught up with founder Stanton and his colleague Bill Swartz, the Creative Director for Technology and Effects, to talk about how they stay creative.
1. What are some of your most unusual innovations for the show?
Swartz: In theater there are many restrictions that help frame creative problems. Over the years we've often backed up into answers to particular sets of problems and surprised ourselves with what we've ended up with. The show is always changing to fit new impositions--or opportunities, depending on how you look at it--and so it ends up being essentially a collection of "unusual innovations" that all work together to convey something that couldn't be put any other way. We are constantly working on expressing this Blue Man feeling--through novel instruments and music or a dramatic framework that frees the character to articulate something sublime and quotidian at once...maybe while being funny, too, when possible. I'm not sure that's either unusual or innovative, but it's our way of doing things.
Stanton: The limitations we put on the design for musical instruments played by the character are fun. One of my favorites is what I would call a three-as-one constraint. Stated it would be something like: the instrument must be made up of three distinct hand-held components that connect in such a way that a new, unforeseen instrument is formed; one that takes the involvement of all three characters to produce a single tone. We actually don't have that constraint exactly, but it would be fun if we did.
2. What have you learned about innovation?
Stanton: Innovation almost always happens when conventional elements or influences are blended so well that they become unrecognizable. There is nothing really new about Blue Man. We just relentlessly tried to smash a lot of our own passions and interests together. We used to say "if it ends up looking familiar, toss it." Eventually that became second nature and a meme that permeates the company.
Swartz: You don't find it by Googling things.
3. When is "that's just weird" not the same as innovation and how do you draw that line?
Swartz: I couldn't be easier to draw the line, since they don't have anything to do with each other. I've never met creative person who finds things weird in an off-putting way, and you have to be curious to succeed in any business.
Stanton: "That's just weird" comes from ridged adherence to the "rules". Innocence leads to innovation. An innocent mind knows no "weird."
4. Your contraptions are innovative--what are some of the most unusual things they do?
Swartz: Move drums around on robotic arms so they'll be harder to play. Not a big market for that one. Sometimes the insight comes from using something in a new way. People have been blowing smoke rings for ages, but we put eight drums on stage and made music with them while they make rings, which is fun.
Stanton: We use air pressure to push what looks like chewed-up Twinkie through 30 feet of tubing eventually oozing out of an orifice in the Blue Man's chest.
5. What was the moment when you first realized BMG was going to be a hit?
Stanton: I never really thought of it in terms of being a "hit", but there is one particular moment in time when I realized we had given birth to (or either stumbled upon) something that somehow touched a common nerve. We have always come out after performances to meet the audience, and after very early performance at small lower east side venue when we were still experimenting and learning about the character, an audience member came up to me to comment on something one of us did onstage. I can't remember what it was--maybe a cartoon-ish expression, or a movement of some kind that was not quite authentic, but this person said "Something wasn't right about that--I don't really think the Blue Man would behave that way." I thought "wow, there is something that resonates here--people somehow know the Blue Man--they 'get' it". I didn't think of the project in terms of something that would pay the bills in those days, but I did think we'd found something bigger than ourselves.
6. What advice do you have for others wanting to think outside of the (blue) box?
Swartz: Take an interest in many things, and use your own excitement as an energy loop driven by the discovery of good ideas, no matter where they come from or what discipline they serve. It will occasionally seem as if you are spinning your wheels, but you've got to trust that it will use it all eventually. There's a concept familiar to musicians who play more than one instrument. You speak of your second- or third-axe. You spend the 10,000 hours on the trumpet, and when you pick up a guitar or whatever most of the knowledge is portable. After three or four, you really get the hang of it. Metaphorically there's something similar going on with problem solving of any kind. You solve enough of them, and they get easier. But mostly if you don't just stick to one thing. If you're troubleshooting code, try building a bench.
Stanton: "Follow your bliss." As corny as it may sound, this Joseph Cambell quote has taken us a long way. It's the "excitement as an energy loop" that Bill speaks of. It's what drove us to work hard and take it seriously without thought or promise of ever making a living from it.