Painting the town blue

By Kaitlyn McAvoy

Last year, a 22-year-old Traverse City, Mich., native went from performing classic Shakespeare plays at Navy Pier to covering himself in blue paint and pounding on pipes and paint-covered drums at the Briar Street Theatre.

As Chicago’s youngest performer in the Blue Man Group, Nick Pilarski said he experiences unique performances filled with stimulating visuals and fist-pumping percussion, much like the audiences who come see his shows do. He doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon, either.

The radical jump from traditional theater to the innovative Blue Man Group isn’t something Pilarski ever would have expected, performing not only with the Chicago group, but also with the group in New York City.

Pilarski said he is drawn to the show’s three fearless and nonjudgmental characters.

“The Blue Man [Group] has the ability to open themselves up to the audience and each other and to new experiences,” Pilarski said.

Pilarski had never seen Blue Man Group perform before he was hired, he said he was inspired by the concept of the show and became interested in being a part of it.

“The idea of mixing nonverbal communication, music and art, I really found fascinating,” Pilarski said.

The 72-member Blue Man Group has shows in Europe, Asia and more than 300 cities in the United States, including New York, where it originated from the minds of three friends: Chris Wink, Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton. The Chicago Blue Man Group continues its 11-year run at the Briar Street Theatre, 3313 N. Halsted St.

Pilarski majored in theater during his two years of college-first at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and then at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University-but left to pursue a career with the Blue Man Group.

After auditioning in Chicago in 2007, he underwent two to three months of training to develop into a “Blue Man” and learn about his character that each Blue Man specializes in.

The characters are referred to by their starting stage directions-“Center,” “Right” and “Left.” Pilarski plays the “Center” character who is often caught off guard during the show, but gives off a calm and cool exterior. Pilarski said his personality is closely related to how he is in real life.

The “Center” Blue Man can be recognized as the one who beats on the center drum in the show’s opening scene while “Right” and “Left” continue to pour yellow and red paint on it, causing splashes of color with every beat.  During the show, “Center” also catches 30 or so marshmallows that are thrown into his mouth, mashes them all up and spits them back out to make a sculpture, making the audience cringe and then clap.

Pilarski first performed with the group for several months in New York City before coming to Chicago.  He said he would love to travel to perform shows in other cities, but he is content to be a Blue Man anywhere.

Laurie Viets, Chicago Blue Man Group company manager, said Pilarski has endless enthusiasm for performing.  He also invests a lot within the Blue Man Group company and takes pride in the character he plays.

“He is always really genuinely excited to be part of Blue Man Group,” Viets said.

The Blue Man Group shows are heavily based on improvisation and the performer’s relationship with the audience. There is a “skeleton” to every show, but the improvising is the “meat” of that skeleton, Pilarski said.

“It’s always fresh every night. That’s what makes the show really interesting to watch,” Pilarski said. “The dynamic between the characters changes every single night and the way the characters interact with the audience changes every single night. I would say the whole show changes, but it still has the roots of the Blue Man.”

Pilarski’s ability to improvise at any time sets him apart from many other Blue Men, said Colin Hurd, Chicago Blue Man Group captain and Pilarski’s fellow Blue Man.

A lot of new Blue Men just do what they were taught and aren’t flexible on stage, Hurd said, but Pilarski is never restricted and is always able to improvise with other Blue Men and the audience.