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Blue and Happy
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85
A teacher once told Jeffrey Doornbos, "You have to be ready when your moment comes."
For Doornbos that moment came when he was most unsuspectingly bald and blue.
"You could say it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and a strong work ethic," said Doornbos. "I've been really tenacious about going out and trying to get something."
Doornbos earned a coveted role with the Blue Man Group, currently one of the hottest theater groups in the country performing at venues in New York, Boston, Las Vegas and Chicago.
But in 1994, when Doornbos auditioned for the part, he had never seen the group perform.
"I hadn't seen the show (which was only in New York at the time), but it sounded like something I could do," he said. "They had me go see the show and then got me bald and blue to see how I would look in character. They gave me a couple of musical pieces to learn and helped me get immersed in the atmosphere of it. After a month-long audition they told me they'd like to hire me."
Doornbos, a 1989 Calvin graduate, was hired on just as the Blue Man Group was starting to develop a following.
"The show had been running for three years in New York, which was definitely unheard of especially because at the time it was considered to be incredibly experimental," he said. "So it was already a big hit before I joined."
But Doornbos had no idea just how huge the Blue Man Group would become. Now a production company of just under 500 people, Blue Man Group has most recently become a household name because of their appearance on Intel's Pentium III commercials (which Doornbos helped produce) in which the performance-art trio in blue face paint attempts to recreate the product's logo of three green stripes.
The silent, bald guys also recently appeared on the Grammy Awards, have frequently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and now are starring in Intel's newest Pentium 4 commercials.
Originally, Doornbos was hired to give the show's founders, Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, a break from their eight-shows-a-week routine.
"They wanted time to work on other material," said Doornbos, "so they hired me and two other guys to learn it. They weren't sure how it was going to go because these characters come from a very organic place inside the minds of the creators. They wanted to see if others could pick it up."
Doornbos performed the show full time for 2½ years at New York's Astor Place Theatre. "I probably did about 1,200 shows during that time," he said.
In 1995, a second show opened in Boston at the Charles Playhouse and more recently shows were added at Chicago's Briar Street Theatre and Luxor Theater in Las Vegas.
With these came the addition of more blue guys and Doornbos' promotion to performing director. He now is heavily involved in casting and directing.
The appeal of the show is easy to imagine, but hard to explain. The show is made up of sketches about ordinary things-Twinkies, Cap'n Crunch cereal, clap-on lights--that three silent blue guys encounter and find totally different ways of using. They even have released a CD featuring the music they play on tubes, plastic pipes and canister-type drums.
In a recent Chicago appearance in which Doornbos filled in as one of the performers, he caught small paint balls in his mouth tossed to him across stage from fellow performer Andrew Burlinson. He then spewed the paint in various colors on a canvas to create a work of art. Burlinson then repeated the trick with Martin Marion this time using marshmallows-the outcome was not nearly as dramatic. And none of the participants seemed to know exactly why not.
"The whole idea for the Blue Man Group came up as a reaction to the '80s consumerism and the 'me generation.' The creators were disgruntled with what was happening in music and art," said Doornbos. "Things were being over-publicized. We were just flooded with all this stuff. What Blue Man Group seeks to do is invigorate community through engaging the audience-not to teach them anything, but to get them thinking. Most people leave and they're not sure what they just saw, but they had a really good time. When their friends ask, 'What was it about?' they can't really say."
One person who has tried to describe the Blue Man Group's significance is Calvin art professor Frank Speyers.
"It's no exaggeration to say that Blue Man Group is unlike anything on Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway," he said. "Perhaps because it originated in the streets before it settled into the theater.
"Blue Man Group is really about worship at its deepest impulses," he continued. "That it is a threesome is reflective of the Trinity as found in scripture. Also the exact (Goethe) blue, representing the highest spiritual truth, is used. But the Blue Man Group 'trinity' is silent. Blue Man Group consists of mimes. In other words if God is here, he is silent."
Last spring, Speyers and colleague Henry Luttikhuizen, professor of art history at Calvin, organized a bus trip for the Calvin community to participate in a Blue Man Group experience. The attendees created a listserv, which they kept up for 30 days following the performance.
"It was good to hear what people perceived and what effect it had on them," said Luttikhuizen. "Blue Man Group are three mimes who mimic our cultural milieu, and intentionally leave themselves open for multiple interpretations. We've come through the 'linguistic turn' of the 80s which Blue Man addresses by engaging the audience to read three versions of textual explanation simultaneously. It is as if they were saying, 'Truth in text depends upon which narrative you choose to read.' As for the visual surprises, they seem to heighten the ambiguity that one finds in the deluge that engulfs us each day."
And Bob Meyering, Calvin's coordinator of life long education, had his own take: "We saw no individuals. Any attempt to act on one's own was quickly stifled. From the beginning we were encouraged to abandon all sense of individuality and become part of the mass, get on the bandwagon. And we did. But of course, all of us together had a lot of fun. It was great with all of the music, the strobes, the crepe paper, the tubes. There was for sure a child-like quality to it."
Ultimately, what Speyers and others end up with are questions: "Is Blue Man Group art? Or is it reflecting something deeper about the darkest impulses of our culture?" questioned Speyers. "Is it mere entertainment? Or is it suggesting reality is a Sisyphean effort interminably toiling upward to find truth beginning from implicit philosophical vantage points which can only end by jesting the inevitable conclusions of modernity? It transcends race and sex, yet lives off the borrowed capital of Judeo-Christian suppositions."
And creating questions, provoking thought is what Blue Man tries to do.
"We're intrigued with what Blue Man Group does to people," said Doornbos. "There are reasons for the art references to be there, but we don't want to tell people what to think about that. The three act as one and the whole is bigger than the parts, That's in there too, but it speaks to a lot of different people in different ways. People see what they want to see and it offers everyone that chance."
That's the mystique of the Blue Man Group and what keeps people coming back.
And it's one of the reasons that Doornbos has stayed around for the past seven years.
"The reason I stay with it is because it's an inspiring place to be," said Doornbos. "It's a really creative environment and they encourage you in your other pursuits."
For Doornbos that includes work in film and other areas of theater as well.
In fact, he got his start in more traditional theater work as a youngster and continued pursing that interest at Calvin, where he majored in communications. He performed in several theater productions while at Calvin and then studied theater for a year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From there he went to Chicago, where he performed in local theater, and ended up in New York, where he attended Circle in the Square Theatre School.
"Both of my parents [Clarence Doornbos '62 and Jan Jouwstra Doornbos '62] are very supportive of my acting career," he said. "They are both performing artists themselves, but they went the route of education. I did have several people question me about an acting career. They would say, 'Okay, that's what you like, but what are you really going to do?' I think one of my defining moments was when somebody asked me, 'What are you going to fall back on?' and I realized I didn't want anything to fall back on because this is what I wanted to do."
Doornbos said his work with Blue Man Group gives him the creative energy to pursue his other interests.
He has written, produced and directed three short filmsJesus Factor, Fear of Flying and Buzzkilland has ideas for another. Fear of Flying was recently selected, along with two other short films, for the Slamdance Online Film competition, a leading American film festival and originally started as an alternative to the more well-known Sundance Film Festival.
Doornbos is also working with three other Blue Man Group colleagues on a feature-length film project that he hopes to begin filming in about a year.
"I enjoy the story process," said Doornbos. "I don't want to teach anybody anything. I feel compelled to tell a story and see how it affects people. I like to see who connects with it and who doesn't. It's a difficult process though. It's about having the energy and the courage to think that other people want to hear and listen to my story.
"This concept is a primary element that I absorbed from Blue Man Group," he continued. "I saw these three guys who created something that they thought was interesting, and they thought other people might think so too. It's all about the idea that someone's personal story might have relevance and interest to someone else. You have to do it and trust that other people will find it interesting as well."
Once a short film is out in circulation, the goal is to get someone interested enough to pursue other projects with you, possibly even a feature film, he said.
"I love everything about the film making process," he said. "I like the story process and I like casting it. Once I find the right actors, shooting it is a blast and editing it is another creative process. I love everything creative and technical about it."
The ability to express his ideas is something he thanks Calvin for, he said. "When I was at Calvin, I was introduced to the fact that there were other ways of thinking," Doornbos said. "Calvin encouraged me to explore different opinions and ideas. Clearly it (going to Calvin) did open the pathway for that. I don't feel that I can go out and change the world's mind, but I can interpret a part of the world I'm in and I don't have to accept everything I see."
Being in a creative environment has been good for Doornbos, he said.
"What [Blue Man Group founders] Chris, Matt and Phil do so well is build a community of artists that work together," he said. "There's like this central energy point with everything else spinning off-like a tornado. A lot of us who are in Blue Man have other projects too. This is a place where you can launch out into other creative pursuits."
Exactly where that will lead Doornbos is unclear at this point.
"The biggest thing for me is constantly staying prepared for the next thing that comes along," he said. "I just want to be sure that when additional opportunities come along I don't blow it."
For now though, Doonbos is quite happy being Blue.
Want to contact Jeffrey Doornbos? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org