Three blue men stand perplexed by our presence. The moment is suspended by a repetitive beat in the background as they lean forward with eyes bulged. One takes initiative to step into the first row and climb his way up the armrests of the audience. The others follow his lead. It is an uncomfortable intrusion of space and yet a hilarious perspective on the act of performing. Their simple facial expressions exude a curiosity that sighs with comedic relief. It is rare that we are faced with such a passage of time to closely observe the peculiarities of another’s body language. Strangers are more accustomed to coexisting public spaces bent over glowing rectangles rather than looking into another’s eyes. The Blue Man Group of Briar Street Theater in Chicago challenged the boundaries of entertainment by presenting a series of awkward situations much like this one that tackles cultural norms while inviting their guests to participate in the live experience of explosive colors and percussive excitement.
As we waited for the show to begin with pulsing music building a mood of anticipation, a ticker placed off to the side of the stage with scrolling red text established general guidelines like “no photography or recording allowed” while also inserting additional commentary of their own such as “Your attention, please. Please yell if you’re paying attention. This is your last chance to pee, take a selfie, or do both at the same time.” Many people didn’t notice the subtle use of wordplay in the minutes before the show until the music grew louder and the lights dimmed to focus the crowd’s attention on the ticker. From the very beginning, the Blue Man Group was using technology to imply our obsession with technology by suggesting that we would revert to our personal devices in the minutes before the show instead of noticing the small details of humor in the ticker’s pre-show instructions. When all electronic devices were turned off for the opening scene, the Blue Men had our full attention with their awkward stares for us to study their nonverbal cues before the shock of poured paint splattered from their drums.
How often are we distracted by everything that clutters our visual and mental spaces? Our minds were put to the test with a game of three signs, each one held by a Blue Man. The instructions were to pick only one sign to focus on and read its message before it was flipped for the sign’s next message while ignoring the other two signs held by Blue Men. As the first few signs were flipped, I found myself easily reading all three signs but found it progressively difficult as the speed increased with some messages standing out more than others in varying font size. I defaulted to skim-reading as I would on a screen to consume the messages of all three signs while retaining none of their words individually. As the Blue Men transitioned to their next scene, a video portrayed mannequins texting on smartphones while crossing streets completely oblivious to the oncoming traffic. Who knows if the mannequins driving the cars were also tuned in to their phones? Do smart devices really make us smarter? Or are we simply browsing multiple tabs instead of taking the time to fully complete a task from start to finish? Would it be so hard to separate ourselves from our devices?
It seems as though these alien-like blue men have more to say without words than anyone else. The world is filled with voices of disputing opinions, breaking news, and social media feeds with an accepted level of visual pollution advertised to our brains that we ingest and gloss over. How meaningful does something have to be for us to really take notice? The irony of the Blue Man Group’s jabs at electronic dependence was that the show was able to use technology itself as an interactive tool to identify these truths and allow us to question our own usage. I worry about my eye strain from screen time, procrastination from completing tasks by browsing online, and my shortage of in-person conversations with tone and facial expressions instead of text and emojis. How can the culprits in our back pockets be overcome?
Perhaps the best way to tackle our dependence on personal devices is to create more opportunities for community interaction. The grand finale of the Blue Men led the audience through a sequence of moves most often demonstrated at the collective atmosphere of rock concerts. As we followed the motions of our fearless blue leaders, streamers suddenly filled the space and larger-than-lifesize beach balls dropped from the ceiling. The people laughed, danced, and cheered as the glowing orbs floated above our heads and reverberated back to the sky with each group push. The patterns of musical genius flourished as we embraced the live experience altered by the technology of black lights and intermittent strobe lighting. It was the utopian climax of a world where we break out of our own bubbles and look up at all of the beautiful colors around us with outstretched arms instead of down at the addictive light in our palms.
Is Technology our Friend or Foe? We’ll take a selfie and let you decide.