Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Title

From the Avant-Garde to the Popular: A History of Blue Man Group, 1987-2001

Date of Award

2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Department

Theatre

First Advisor

Jonathan Chambers (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Marcus Sherrell (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Andrew M. Schocket (Other)

Abstract

Throughout the United States toward the end of the twentieth century, popular theatre proliferated on the nation's stages and in other entertainment venues: concert halls, comedy clubs, Broadway stages, and more. One of the notable offerings was (and still remains) Blue Man Group, a vaudevillesque performance troupe that plays music, performs scenes, and creates a sense of community amongst the attendees. Though now enjoying enormous mainstream success, Blue Man Group was once a fringe, avant-garde theatre, creating politically charged performances on the streets of New York City for free to those in close proximity.

This study examines Blue Man Group's history, from its beginnings through 2001, by looking at how it transitioned from its avant-garde roots into a popular theatre appearing on national television and in front of thousands of spectators each night. Following Mike Sell's assertion that the thorny term "avant-garde" art is "premised on the notion that the modern world--its institutions, its social relations, its art, its cuisines, its economies--is terminally out of joint" (2011, 7), this study seeks to demonstrate that Blue Man Group's first public performances, in the experimental theatre spaces and on the streets of New York City, emerged from a frustration with American culture. I argue that after opening a long-running production in New York, the organization took steps away from its avant-garde roots through questionable business practices and widespread expansion. In turn, I consider the group's recording and releasing an album, which in effect turned its live event into an unchanging experience. I contend that by 2001, Blue Man Group had turned its back on its avant-garde outlook, as is evidenced by its opening of a production in Las Vegas and its appearing in nationally televised commercials for a computer company. In so doing, Blue Man Group eschewed its avant-garde roots while expanding its brand, thereby becoming part of American popular culture. Though I argue throughout that popularity is not a transgression to avoid, I assert that in the case of Blue Man Group, the search for it led the troupe to abandon the avant-garde ideals from which it originally developed.

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