By Lisa Occhino
If you’ve read any of our past alumni profiles, you know that many of them tend to feature successful performers. But when The Groove was invited to attend the Blue Man Group College Media Night, we were shocked to find out just how many Blue Men – both musicians and employees – were Berklee alumni. We were fortunate enough to score an interview with Jonathan Screnci, Blue Man Group’s general manager (and former drummer/band captain), in between his insanely busy schedule. Below, Jonathan tells us about the journey that led him to where he is today, what it takes to be hired in the entertainment industry, and gives us an inside look at what his day-to-day as a manager of a bunch of blue people is like (which, as it turns out, is anything but routine).
Berklee Groove: How did your time at Berklee impact the direction your career path took?
Jonathan Screnci: I did my undergraduate work at a state university in their music business program and enjoyed it, but at that point in my career, I really wanted to expand my capabilities as a performer – specifically jazz…. Berklee to me, at that point in time, was the obvious place I needed to be. I attended for a couple of semesters and really enjoyed my time there. I ended up leaving prematurely before completing my program, drawn away by an opportunity to pursue life as a recording/touring musician in a rock band. Sometimes you evaluate the opportunities presented to you and make the best decisions you can at the time. I am glad that I pursued an opportunity and simultaneously regretful of not being able to spend more time becoming a jazz musician. Life’s all about choices.
BG: How did you get involved with the Blue Man Group?
JS: I was playing drums with a band at a local club and one of the members of the Blue Man Group band was in the audience. After the show, he came up to me and mentioned that Blue Man Group was holding auditions the next day and that I should come down and give it a go…. I think it was part random opportunity, part reputation and part people/musical associations that got me to the audition. Having not seen the show, I went into the audition cold because it was such short notice. Some pretty challenging and unorthodox drum parts were presented to me, which I gamely tried to replicate. That evening, I saw the show and was completely blown away by the entire experience – particularly, the drumming…. At that point, I realized I had to be a part of it! I played drums in the show for several years, was band captain for a while, moved into the role of Company Manager, and then General Manager. I became very interested in understanding the operations and found the people and the whole company and culture really fascinating and fun. My background in music and business was a good match for the challenge…. After 800 or so shows performing as a drummer… I feel it was a real asset [to carry] forward that experience and perspective as a performer into a wider role.
“I am inspired every day by the passion, creativity, discipline, and commitment of my colleagues.”
BG: What is a typical workday like for you as General Manager?
JS: The best thing about my typical workday is the sheer variety. There is, of course, the primary responsibility of ensuring that each show goes up as scheduled and that the performance and the overall quality of the experience for the audience is the absolute best it can be. But as the GM, I oversee and collaborate with an amazing team of artists, technicians, business people, and customer service representatives. This team does an incredible amount of work ensuring that each performance is a blissful experience – artistically, experientially, and financially. This includes rehearsals, maintenance work , finance and accounting , sales and marketing initiatives, community relations, and PR. My job is to be a facilitator in each of these areas and ensure that individuals and teams have the appropriate amount of support to achieve their objectives and help ensure that their efforts are aligned with the strategic goals of the organization. This could involve participating in a 2 PM meeting with the local direction team to discuss the creative for an outside appearance, followed by a 3 PM marketing team meeting to develop our annual plan, followed by a 4 PM production meeting with our stage managers and crew supervisors to review tech notes and project planning. Variety is the spice of my day, but that variety is also grounded in the daily rhythm of putting up a show successfully each evening. [It’s] the constant, underlying ostinato, as it were!
BG: What do you find to be the most rewarding about your job?
JS: The people. I am inspired every day by the passion, creativity, discipline, and commitment of my colleagues. It’s very rewarding being involved in helping shape an environment; sometimes leading, sometimes gently guiding (and sometimes getting out of the way, honestly!), that encourages passionate engagement, allows creativity and inspiration to flourish, enables great ideas, and implements them successfully. Watching that output and energy connect with an audience who is moved by the experience is the final payoff – and knowing that we have done it well enough after 500 shows to do it all again next year!
BG: Any fun facts you can tell us about the Blue Man Group that people would not expect?
JS: As successful as the show is, there remains a powerful artistic impulse to create and evolve and connect with audiences in fresh ways. Blue Men actually speak in real life and have hair (most of them anyway). And the band members, although they appear as such, are not really shaman like apparitions that hover over the stage. Lastly, a willingness, if not an insatiable passion to dance is required to get the into the band.
BG: The Blue Man Group has obviously proved to be extremely successful. What do you think it is about the show that keeps people coming back for more?
JS: That’s a great question. Amidst the eclecticism of the show’s elements and throughout its many iterations, there is a through line that’s grounded in the Blue Man character, and that’s connectivity – realized through play, curiosity, discovery, and humor, which are some of the great joys of being human! The show, for kids, is an embracing of these qualities that are very prescient for them, and for some adults, maybe a reawakening or reminder, and always an invitation to engage those sensibilities with the performers and fellow audience members. The fact that this very human exchange or connectivity takes place makes each show experienced feel unique, fresh, and special in its own way.
“If you have an unshakeable desire to be involved in music or the arts, pursue it with passion and purpose.”
BG: The live music is such an integral aspect of the performance, and the band is always incredible. What does it take to earn a spot in the band?
JS: I think what distinguishes musicians who excel in this show is an openness to embrace the Blue Man Group musical approach, coupled with prowess as true ensemble players. The instruments are unorthodox, the way they are played is unorthodox; it’s a highly stylized, idiosyncratic music. The music is not written down, but there are specific parts. You’ll need to learn it through demonstration and listening. Improvisation is part of it, but developing a vocabulary of appropriate choices, or more a mindset or musical vernacular that enables you to make choices that fit within the style, is necessary. These improvisational choices will often be precipitated by the action that is taking place on stage and in the audience, which can vary performance to performance. You will be required to play instruments… in unique ways. You’ll need to sometimes suspend your sense of what role your instrument plays in the musical hierarchy, and embrace moments of stretching beyond what you might normally be called on to play. Technical ability is important to a certain degree, but more important is overall musicianship and a passion for embracing all of the above and owning it!
BG: Any advice for our readers who are looking to break into the music/entertainment industry?
JS: I am not sure if this is entertainment-specific, but building a career in the arts is challenging. There are often no obvious ladders to climb or linear ways to pursue your aim. I am not big on giving advice, but happy to share some inspiration and a personal insight or two. There’s a great quote from Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.” If you have an unshakeable desire to be involved in music or the arts, and that’s what you love doing, pursue it with passion and purpose. The path you start down might not always be the one you end up on or intended, but that’s all part of the journey. The more keenly in touch you are with what motivates you and makes your work NOT feel like work, but something essential or part of your life’s purpose, (and that may change and evolve over the course of your career), you will be fortified with the ability to evaluate each opportunity and choice through that lens, and be more likely to place yourself in situations where you are best positioned to succeed and find rewarding.
BG: Where can people find out more about the Blue Man Group?
JS: Come see the show at the Charles Playhouse – no better way than experiencing it. You can also visit blueman.com.