Red and Black (and Blue)

Chris Wink ’83, readying for his 25th Reunion, still recalls the panic and pressure of his senior year, when he was wondering how he could peddle his American studies major, a four-year concentration in pop culture and art history—along with his passion for drumming—into a paycheck and, ultimately, a career.

In retrospect, Blue Man Group was the obvious choice. Unfortunately, he hadn’t created it yet.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Wink, Phil Stanton, and Matt Goldman first stepped on stage in identical shiny blue grease paint; and collaborated on a comedy routine that celebrated Everyman, the earnest but baffled souls trying to get along in the world and playing off each other in nimble-witted improv. It was live theater in the vaudevillian tradition of multiple acts, including slapstick in its stickiest form: partially chewed marshmallows spewed into the audience, a recurring phenomenon that has caused one section of seating to be dubbed “the poncho section.” From these three founding partners performing in the late ’80s, Blue Man Group now boasts 500 employees with shows housed in seven cities, as well as CDs and DVDs. Wink, still an artist, is the chief creative officer.

Along with his return to Wesleyan for Reunion—and the WESeminar he’ll offer—there’s another reason that education is much on Wink’s mind. The three original Blue Men, now fathers, have opened an alternative school for young children, which they hope to extend, eventually, through 12th grade. The Blue Man Creativity Center (awaiting accreditation before it can use the word “school”) opened last fall for 2- and 3-year-olds in New York City, and was noted by the New Yorker.

In talking about the Center’s program, he traced the effects of different educational models on his own upbringing.

“My parents were in a New York intellectual environment, so I was listening to them talk about lofty ideas while I was also watching Gilligan’s Island,” he says.

His elementary school was “a hippie experimental school where I learned I could be creative,” but it was followed by “a prep school, where I learned some valuable things like writing, and how to do well on tests, and history, but began to think that I wasn’t all that creative.”

Wesleyan was where it all came together. “All my interests were valued. Drumming wasn’t considered less important than anything else I enjoyed studying, and I was able to explore my interest in pop culture from a more academic place. I took art history, world music, and film classes. I spent a lot of time at the radio station, in the tunnels, and sitting around with people at Eclectic, trying to make each other laugh.”

It is this experience in its totality, deconstructed to a preschool level, that marks Blue Man Creativity Center, which Wink jokingly dubbed “a feeder school for Wesleyan.”

“We teach basic stuff, because everyone wants their kids to read, but we have all different kinds of rooms, a fiber optic garden, a room for spin art,” he explains. “We move easily from academic to creative paradigms, we expose our kids to diverse ways of thinking, and we ask them to work collaboratively. That’s going to be so important in our global environment. We’re allowing kids to use their entire brain, giving kids a versatile and transformative environment, just like Wesleyan.”

As a principal in Blue Man Group, he’s in a position to contribute to the national conversation on education, in support of liberal arts.

“You don’t go to Wesleyan to get an employment-track education,” he says. “You are there for some deeper, richer, counterintuitive journey. Blue Man is standing up for that stake in the ground. Kids need proponents for following their bliss. I think it’s important to have that voice front and center.

“I don’t love talking about myself, or the Blue Man Group, in a vacuum,” he admits, “but talking about it at Wesleyan is different: we have a shared context.”