Willie Winters Knows The Blues, Man!
By Matthew Keeshin
Troupe carpenter has to maintain banana shooters and drumbones
Many famous characters have walked between the skyscrapers and neighborhoods in the diverse communities that make up Chicago. Perhaps some of the most innovative are the spectacle that is Blue Man Group.
Performances around the world by Blue Man have captured audience attention with their specifically crafted instruments, such as the Drumbone, and original blend of music and comedy. Their artistry has also infiltrated popular culture from international productions to film and music projects.
Blue Man Group’s critically acclaimed show has been called “visually stunning,” “wildly inventive,” and “hysterically funny.” Although it is impossible to describe, people of all ages agree that Blue Man Group’s show is an intensely exciting and wildly outrageous experience that leaves the entire audience in a blissful, euphoric state.
Because there is no spoken language, only concepts expressed in the universality of the human experience, people of all ages, languages, and cultures flock to the Blue Man show, which is a unique theatrical experience like nothing else.
The Blue Man performances began in 1987 and feature a trio of humanoid characters called Blue Men, played by actor-musicians who wear bald caps and uniform blue makeup, and do all sorts of things centering around experimental music with an emphasis on percussion, comedy and multi-media in an evening of avant-garde performance art.
Blue Men always appear as a group of three, true to their theme of being outsiders. This is because not only are Blue Men viewed as outsiders to the rest of the world, but three is the smallest group possible wherein there can be a subgroup of more than one as well as a subgroup of one, the outsider. So, many of the Blue Man skits involve one of the three Blue guys performing in a manner inconsistent with the other two.
The Man Behind Blue Man
Calling the Briar Street Theatre their Chicago home, Chicago’s Blue Man Group continues to conjure up new and original combinations of technology and entertainment.
But behind all the neon splattered drums, Jell-O ripping surprises, banana spitting projectiles, and an unparalleled amount of PVC and plastic pipes that envelope the theater, is the equally talented team that maintains the custom contraptions and stage after the blue paint washes off.
Willie Winters, Jr. stands out among all the technicians and craftsmen as the carpenter for the show and his daily routine is expecting the unexpected.
The interactive performances of the Blue Man Group engage theater-goers by incorporating them into the show, whether that’s by sharing a Twinkie, one of the group’s favorite props, or helping to create a Blue Man original painting. The first few rows are even given ponchos to stay dry from the activities on stage.
“These guys beat this show up every night, so we’re here to keep the show up and running,” Winters explains. His training in theater and business has aptly prepared him for the onslaught of creativity that is required to work with the Blue Men.
Born in Gary, Indiana, Winters discovered a passion for theater in high school. Immersed in the cavalcade of acting, building scenery and directing, he chose to work behind the stage, managing performances, constructing scenery and everything in-between. While attending Indiana State University, Winters continued to study theater management, but his primary focus shifted to business.
Upon graduating in 2004, ready to enter the business world, even becoming fluent in Japanese, Winters still pursued his initial love of theater and found his way to Chicago. Like many creative professionals, a career in the arts is often pieced together and his training in building and lighting for the stage provided a steady work schedule upon his arrival here.
As the Blue Man show evolved, its performances demanded more maintenance and support to operate. After becoming very familiar with Blue Man through an internship with the Briar Street Theatre, Winters received an offer to become the carpenter for the production.
Although his family was at first hesitant that he was joining the theater, they quickly came to understand his passion and dedication to Blue Man Group as the troupe gained notoriety beyond the city.
“It took a while for my mom to understand it,” Willie says. “She knew I had been involved in the theater since high school, and once she recognized the Blue Men on television, she was really excited for me.”
Working for the Blue Man Group continues to be more satisfying than sitting at an office desk for Winters. “It just seemed business was so restricting and I didn’t want that lifestyle,” he says. It’s a job that fulfills Winters’ artistic needs and ultimately his efforts allow for the show’s continued success.
When asked about which Blue Man Group original instrument he most enjoys working with, Winters describes the Drumbone, one of the classic instruments featured in the show.
It appears to be made of simple PVC pipes, but upon closer inspection, the internal components are made up of cardboard and rubber, Winters reveals, adding that it’s surprisingly one of the things most often in need of repair.
The chest piece, a discretely hidden device underneath a performer’s black shirt that shoots bananas out towards the audience, is another device that a carpenter might not regularly be asked to fix, but Winters’ intuitive nature for solving problems and finding those solutions through building has made him an asset in the company.
And because of Willie Winters Jr., the show goes on – Jell-O, cannons, bananas and all.
Blue Man Group has run at the Briar Street Theater, 3133 North Halsted Street, forever and will continue its run there forever. For ticket information, visit its website at www.blueman.com.
(N’DIGO Editor David Smallwood contributed to this story.)