By Josette Keelor
On a recent summer day, taking time off between one North American tour and another one, Russell Rinker remembered when he tried to explain to his grandmother his role in the Blue Man Group.
"It was kind of a hard thing to explain to your grandmother about what the show is and what it's about," said Rinker, 36.
"And she's like 'You don't talk, you don't sing anything,' you know, she's like 'Do they know that you're a good singer?' It's like 'Well I think if you just told them, maybe they'd let you play the guitar and sing or something." Sitting in his parents' house in Fisher's Hill, Rinker laughed, thinking back to that moment 11 years ago when he joined the Las Vegas avant-garde show.
"And I was just like yeah, can you imagine? Like, we finish some big percussion number and then everyone's leaving and then some guy comes out with like a stool and a guitar and sets the stool, and then I'm like, 'Hey everybody, we're going to bring it down a minute. How's it going? I hope everyone's having a good night. I'm going to sing a little song, just in the blue.' It's so weird."
By now Rinker is used to the stage paint, but he understands how it's unsettling for fans when they get to talk with a Blue Man still in makeup after a show.
"They see you as this character, and then you're this normal guy in this surreal getup and you're talking," he said. "I just see my friend, I don't see the blue makeup."
In 2007, after five years performing full time with the Blue Man Group, Rinker left to pursue other opportunities. But he still filled in from time to time, and last year he joined the group's North American tour. On Monday he'll leave for a second 10-month tour that will take him around the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
"We open in Atlantic City at Caesar's Palace, and we end in San Juan, Puerto Rico," he said.
Nov. 14, the Blue Man Group will perform in Charlottesville. They will be in Baltimore Jan. 10-12, Newport News Jan. 30-Feb. 2 and at National Theater in Washington May 6-11.
It was easier signing up for the second tour than it was the first, Rinker said, now that he knows what to expect. Day after day, waking up someplace different from where he did the day before, pretty soon the whirlwind of theaters, dressing rooms and hotels all start to look the same.
"That becomes your reality," he said. "Wake up, and I literally have no idea where I am."
So he tries to focus on where he has to be that day and not worry about the next stop.
"You just kind of take it in small steps," he said, "because to keep track of it all is kind of overwhelming."
Since 2007, when not wearing the blue face and hand paint of a Blue Man, Rinker has played with bands, been in sword fights for the Los Angeles Opera, performed in commercials, independent films and an original musical, and spent a lot of time as a bartender. -- "Just keeping the bag of tricks full," he said. "Doing a little bit of everything. I wanted to do other things, and that part-time allowed that."
But the Blue Man Group keeps calling, and he keeps answering.
"The people are so great, so that's why I ended up doing it for so long and still doing it," he said. But in the beginning, it took time to understand the job.
"I had a hard time, it's not easy," he said. "Like a lot of actors, you're kind of playing the character, not being the character."
Each Blue Man wears blue stage paint for uniformity, but Rinker said each Blue Man is different because they're based on the people behind the paint.
At nearly 6-foot-3, Rinker is a little taller than the preferred height of a Blue Man -- between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-2 -- and Rinker remembered being told he looks too mean wearing face paint to stare down at audience members.
"You know, you can't speak and there's rules about the character," he said. "I struggled with it a lot for awhile."
Eventually, though, he fell into a groove. Over the years he has played all three roles, and performances stay fresh as the actors rotate to allow for off days.
Performances include lighting effects, narration to provoke reactions from the Blue Men and interaction with audience members through movement, rhythm and body language.
"A big theme of the show is getting connected," Rinker said, "getting people to connect with each other. You live in the city with millions of people but you don't know your neighbors," he said.
It's a concept Rinker understands all too well since moving away from Virginia, as he reconciles conflicting feelings of excitement to be in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, while longing for small town intimacy.
Living in Fisher's Hill since the age of 10, he sought out opportunities to perform with local theaters, earning roles in the Shenandoah Summer Music Theater's productions of "Oliver" and "The Music Man." At Strasburg High School he first played violin in the orchestra but then joined the marching band on drums. He could read music already, but it was in band that he first held a mallet.
Studying English and theater at the College of William and Mary, he worked summers at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival. Soon he had paid theater gigs at Wayside Theatre in Middletown, Shenandoah University and at theaters in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
He gained "all of these weird, random skills," which came in handy as a Blue Man. He said the performances reminded his mother of how as a boy he used to try to fit as many grapes as he could in his mouth.
"And now I'm a Blue Man where we catch marshmallows -- you catch like 30 marshmallows -- and drumming and making these weird faces. Yeah, now I'm getting paid to do it," he said. "So I feel pretty lucky about that."
Still, there's something to be said about being normal.
"You know the Blue Man character is great, and I don't take it for granted, ... but I would like to do other things. I would like to be known for myself."
"People are like, 'Hey you're famous.' No, I'm not famous. The character's famous. People have no idea who I am, which is cool, I'm not looking for that," Rinker said. "I'd just like to work and have new challenges."
But it'll be fun while it lasts. While in Vegas his mysterious onstage persona made him part of a unique club.
"Like I was the captain of the Blue Man bowling team," Rinker said, "and we bowled against Cirque du Soleil and musicals and showgirls and all kinds of stuff. We had, like, a midnight bowling league."
"It's very surreal, like 'how did I get here? How did I end up on the Las Vegas strip performing with all these crazy people?'"
For more information about the Blue Man Group, visit www.blueman.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or email@example.com>