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July 31, 2014

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LAS VEGAS AT LARGE:

Who will be the next Blue Man?

The Venetian hosts 157, who want to wear paint, drum and not speak a word

Image

Leila Navidi

Richie Elliott, left, of Las Vegas and Robert Morshead of Snohomish, Wash., wait outside the drum auditions during open auditions for the Blue Man Group inside the Venetian.

The Quest to Become a Blue Man

Performing as a Blue Man is a coveted profession. After all, who doesn't want to drum on PVC pipes and catch marshmallows in their mouth for a living? An open casting call Monday at the Venetian's Blue Man Theater brought 157 people with high hopes. Only 20 got callbacks. The Sun follows one Las Vegas-born hopeful through every (non-restricted) step of his audition.

Blue Man Group Open Auditions

Aaron Barker, left, of Las Vegas auditions with Blue Man Scott Kinworthy during the drumming section of open auditions for the Blue Man Group on Monday inside the Venetian. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Richie Elliott sat on the floor at the Venetian for more than three hours, nervously tapping a familiar beat against his thighs. Name after name was called as color-changing lights shifted the mood of the theater lobby. The room was pink, green, purple, then finally blue — the color Elliott hopes to become. He was waiting his turn at Monday’s casting call to become the Blue Man Group’s next Blue Man, along with 156 others.

“It’s the coolest thing on the Strip right now,” Elliott said. “It’s so different.”

Different is a good way to describe the show. Three alienlike bald men in blue makeup lead the audience through oddball acts involving everyday objects. Dozens of marshmallows are thrown across stage into a Blue Man’s mouth, becoming a piece of art when regurgitated. PVC pipes and Cap’n Crunch cereal morph into instruments. Yellow goop spews from the Blue Men’s chest plates and is packed in a doggy bag for an audience member. It’s all wordless, set to a live rock band’s performance and some creative drumming by the Blue Men themselves.

Tim Aumiller, director of casting and training for Blue Man Productions, said Las Vegas, Chicago and New York have proven the most successful when looking for new performers.

“The Las Vegas show is the most challenging musically,” Aumiller said. “So we’re looking for a really excellent musician, and you guys have a tremendous amount of those here.”

They’re not just looking to hire for the Las Vegas show, however. Performers could join the 65 Blue Men employed at shows in New York; Boston; Chicago; Orlando, Fla.; Las Vegas and internationally in Berlin, Tokyo, Zurich and on Norwegian Cruise Line ships. In September, they will launch an American tour.

Elliott, born and raised in Las Vegas, was in the audience opening weekend in 2000 for Blue Man’s first Vegas show at the Luxor, before it moved to the Venetian in 2005. He’s seen it many times since and has dreamed of joining the show for years.

“When you can hear yourself over a large mass of people, it does something to you,” Elliott said of his singing and playing bass. “My band broke up and ever since then, I’ve wanted that back.”

Not everyone auditioning had a musical background. There were actors, artists, 18-year-old students with their mothers, a now-unemployed pipe fitter, even a 64-year-old retired school principal.

In fact, Aumiller said, successful Blue Men tend to have acting backgrounds rather than musical. “It’s about instinct when you get to this point in your life, whether you can communicate nonverbally or not,” he said. “You can teach almost anyone how to drum if they’re committed. But the other stuff, you either kind of have it or you kind of don’t.”

You also have to look the part. Scott Kinworthy, a current Blue Man in the Las Vegas show, explained that to qualify, “You’ve got to be 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-1, athletic build and weight somewhat proportionate to height.”

But Monday’s hopefuls were fat and skinny, black and white, tall and short.

Two applicants stood out: Sierra Snyder and Anisa Buttar. Blue women? Why not. “We’d love to have another female Blue Man,” Kinworthy said, noting that they’ve had women in the past, but have none currently.

Buttar, 23, said she hopes her gender comes second to her drumming skills during the audition. “The first time I saw the show, I actually cried. I thought it was so beautiful, the musicians are so talented,” Buttar said. “Bottom line is, you’ve got to be a good drummer to get into the show.”

And what about becoming bald? “If I need to shave my head, I would do it.”

Elliott, 30, arrived an hour before the Venetian’s Blue Man Theater opened for the casting call at 10 a.m. Monday. Twelve others were already in line. He waited his turn until 11 a.m., practicing with the drumsticks and pad he brought. “I’m feeling a little anxiety,” Elliott said. “There’s a lot of people here and the competition looks really stiff.”

The crowd of applicants meant audio engineer Justin Centeno, 27, had to wait more than four hours. When his turn did come, it was cut off early because of time constraints. “They told me they would need to call me another day for the acting portion because they didn’t expect such a high turnout,” Centeno said.

The unexpectedly packed casting call came the same week that the state Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation reported that the unemployment rate in Nevada has hit another high of 14.2% and the number of jobless in Nevada continues to climb. In June, there were an estimated 141,500 persons out of work in the Las Vegas area, compared to 138,000 in May.

Elliott hasn’t had a steady paycheck in nine years, although he does some work screen-printing clothing. He speculated that Blue Men may make $100,000 a year. “This would be steady work, on the strip, in a crazy pop show, just perfect.”

Click to enlarge photo

People wait outside the Blue Man Theater during open auditions for the Blue Man Group inside the Venetian.

Finally, a woman wearing a headset yelled “No. 13, Richie Elliott!” He was ushered into a back room for the first phase of the audition: a brief interview to eliminate those who didn’t match the basic requirements, such as Las Vegan Ben Mullen, 49, who is unemployed. He shaved his goatee and wore blue for the occasion. At 6-2 with a stocky build, Mullen was told he was too tall, and his audition ended there. “It broke my heart,” he said. “I’m about ready to go make a blue Godzilla show to compete. I’m mad. I texted my kids, ‘So much for my lifetime dream.’ ”

At just over 6 feet and 179 pounds, Elliott’s size is ideal. He was escorted upstairs and sat in a row of chairs until going into a small, dark room for the drumming phase of his audition. They were looking for more than just keeping rhythm. Kinworthy explained, “Musicwise, it’s very raw, very bombastic, very primal. And even though you need drumming requirements, it abandons traditional drumming technique.”

Another Las Vegas Blue Man, out of character, stood at one of two drum pads and beckoned Elliott to copy his beat. After an encouraging “Wicked, awesome man,” from the Blue Man, Elliott broke out into the signature Blue Man show “drum bone pattern” he’d been practicing all week.

Next, Elliott went to another room for the final phase of Monday’s auditions: acting. He was asked to act out different scenarios, each jampacked with emotion, using nothing but his eyes.

“It’s all about the eyes, absolutely,” Aumiller said. “It’s about what you are able to communicate with your eyes and nothing else.”

The Blue Men don skull caps and every inch of their heads and faces are covered with wet, sticky, blue paint. They wear identical black outfits, and even their hands are covered in blue. The only discernible feature is their eyes. And they don’t utter a word.

Monday’s was the first Blue Man casting call in Las Vegas in more than two years, drawing locals and outsiders alike. People came from Arizona and Oregon; one man flew in from Florida to audition again after failing to get a callback in the Chicago tryouts in June.

Elliott said that being a Las Vegan might give him an advantage. “The culture of Las Vegas is the culture of everywhere kind of coming together, and maybe I can emulate that.”

Click to enlarge photo

Lorenzo Haidl of Las Vegas waits during open auditions for the Blue Man Group inside the Venetian.

This goes along well with Blue Man’s theme of getting away from the individual. Kinworthy said Blue Men need a willingness “to transcend their own character traits as a person and really take on the character traits of Blue Man, which is hero, scientist, childlike, shamanlike.”

After the audition, Elliott sat in a circle of his closest friends at his home on Russell Road, staring at his cell phone. Callbacks were scheduled from 6 to 7 p.m. By 6:55, Elliott said he “was so bummed out.”

At 7:30, the call came.

“I’m electric right now. I’m going to fall over,” Elliott said moments after the call. Only 20 of the 157 people made it to the second round of auditions, and he was one of them.

On Tuesday, Elliott headed to the Venetian for his second audition — a short acting segment that he described as “intense.”

This time, the call never came.

“It sucks, but life goes on,” he said. “I’m really happy I got a callback at all.”

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