Born in Texas and raised in Savannah, Phil Stanton has spent the last 28 years living in New York, but that’s not to say this co-founder of Blue Man Group isn’t intimately familiar with Boston. Our city was the second city for Stanton’s wildly popular theatrical production, and two decades later it remains so. On the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the Charles Playhouse, where Blue Man Group performs, we chatted with Stanton about Blue Man history and what he likes to do when he’s in town.
So, you’re a New Yorker?
I lived in a couple small Texas towns until I was eight years old, and I lived from 8 years until 26 in Savannah, Georgia. I always consider Savannah to be the place where I grew up, and now I’ve lived in New York longer than anywhere really, since 1986. So, I am a New Yorker. I carry my Cowboys fanship—don’t tell anybody—from the early days of living in Texas, and then I carry my Braves fanship from growing up in Georgia. But that’s the only remnants.
What's it like being a Blue Man?
I don’t get to perform a lot any more, but it’s a lot of fun. It can be an altered state for you. It’s definitely a frame of mind that’s not really like your normal, ordinary life. It’s more like being an animal or something. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Blue Man doesn’t have a family history to rely on. Blue Man lives either for the moment or for all of history; it’s unclear. He doesn’t have that 70 to 100 years that we all have on Earth. He doesn’t have parents and a high school he went to and all of that stuff. So it’s more like truly trying to be in the moment.
Why did you choose Boston as Blue Man Group's second permanent performance city?
We had had a lot of friends from Boston, and there was just a level of comfort in going to Boston first. At the time, we didn’t know anything about touring—we only learned about touring pretty recently, three or four years ago. But at that time, we only knew how to set up shop and make a place our home. It was close. I won’t deny that that was one factor. It’s not like going all the way across the country to open a theater. And at the Charles Playhouse, we got really excited about just being able to go there and make it home. And we have for these years. There’s also something about the youthful energy in Boston, and we just felt like the people would really vibe with the show.
Do Boston audiences vary from New York audiences?
Right from the get-go [in Boston] we were amazed at how people from all walks of life—people who never thought they would find themselves in a theater, people who were part of the theater community, people who were in the arts, people from everywhere, they all came to see the show. It really felt like a cross-section of the whole town was coming out. It was a little different than when we first opened in New York. New York it was like: theater people, art people. But in Boston it seemed like a cab driver might be just as likely to be in the audience. All I can say is that every time I go, Boston audiences are so enthusiastic. There’s just so much energy in the crowd. It seems like it’s always changing too, I don’t know if it’s because there’s such a turnaround in the college community, but it seems like there’s always a different audience to be found in Boston.
The Charles Playhouse celebrates its 175th anniversary in February. What's it like to perform on such a historic stage?
it’s just got a great energy to it. It felt great right from the start. [Plus,] it was really ideal. We prefer theaters where people are very aware that they are around other people. Some theaters, where you’re just facing front, you’re not aware of how many people are around and you can’t look at someone in the eye. [The Charles Playhouse] has got this kind of wraparound structure to it, and it’s just very conducive to feeling and being really aware that you are at a live event. It makes the whole audience feel like one group of people.
Do you ever still perform in character as a Blue Man?
I haven’t performed in a couple years now, and I think I probably saw my last show. It’s a lot of work to stay in that kind of shape, for one thing. It takes a lot of rehearsal and we don’t have the ability to do it, just because we have so many other things that we are trying to work on. I do still get involved in video projects sometimes. We create new materials for our stage shows. We had the latest round of new material added about 18 months ago, and we have a lot of stuff that we are working on now. That is just a continuous thing.
Favorite part of the current show?
My favorite part is the end where the entire theater and the entire audience is just turned into this great celebration. In some ways for no good reason, other than we are celebrating our humanity and our ability to celebrate. I think the end of the show will be my favorite part.
Funniest Boston show memory?
We used to have a little performing scene in the bar downstairs [at the Charles Playhouse], and we hope to renew that sometime in this next year too, [after current renovations are completed]. But, at the time, a lot of people would come and hang out. One of our musicians was playing in his own kind of combo and there was this guy who, I found out later, was not even from a musical background, and he was very conservative looking. But, for some reason he got up on stage and started singing and he sang, ‘give me a bouncing B,’ talking about what key to start it in. This guy just started improvising singing this ‘give me a bouncing B’ lyric over and over again, and it went on for like 30 minutes. Everybody had the best time, because this guy just had this ability to throw away his inhibitions and be silly for a few moments. It was one of these completely impromptu events that just ended up giving 70 to 80 people down there this joyous moment that we will all remember.
When did you personally first visit Boston?
My first visit was in 1973 or something like that. My parents took us on a road trip up the East Coast from Savannah, and we went to Boston and drove back to Savannah from Boston.
Did you enjoy your trip?
Oh yeah. For me to see the USS Constitution was like, just mind-blowing. When I was in Texas, at seven years old, I started drawing my first pictures of the USS Constitution, and I did that all through grade school. So, coming up to Boston and being able to see that and walk on the decks and everything just blew my mind. I guess I was 13 or 14 at the time. As a kid at that point, I was really interested in history as well as drawing and painting, but I really had a period where I was interested in history. There’s such a rich historical tradition in Boston.
Follow Phil Stanton's Perfect Day in Boston trip itinerary on your next visit.