The longtime Swiss theatre troupe Mummenschanz brings its masks and props to Proctors in Schenectady tonight. WAMC’s Jesse King sat down with the co-founder and Artistic Director for a preview.
If you make your way to Proctors tonight, this is likely what you will hear: not the performers, but the crowd. In this performance from 1978, an audience watches in delight as a giant, blob-like figure struggles to shuffle atop a platform on stage. The group actually “recorded” this and other performances to release as an album at the time – a move Floriana Frassetto quickly points out as a gag, because “Mummenschanz” is German for “mummery:” a play involving “mummers,” or mimes.
The daughter of Italian immigrants to the U.S., Frassetto studied acting, mime, and dance in Rome throughout the 1960s, and started Mummenschanz in 1972 with Andres Bossard and Bernie Schürch, a couple of Swiss clowns going by the names “Before” and “Lost.”
“We were in our 20s, we had a baggage full of ideas and hopes and poetic values and criticism…We wanted to change the world – but we had no money," she explains. "So we took a lot of stuff that we found on the streets or in garage sales, and we constructed out of objects, everyday life objects…we gave them a personality, a character. We wore them as masks, as costumes, and off we went. And people went crazy because they had never seen this!”
In the five decades since, Mummenschanz has played around the world on stages ranging from The Muppet Show to a three-year stint on Broadway in the 1970s. They quickly expanded upon the masks, adding large costumes depicting jellyfish, swans, gloves, and even giant, harder-to-identify creatures to the mix. And in a series of unconnected skits, the troupe’s five actors tell stories and draw laughter with nothing but these props and their bodies. As “The Musicians of Silence,” Frassetto says it comes down to timing and body movement.
"We form our rhythms according to the type of audience that there is out there," she notes. "Sometimes they’re more children, sometimes they’re more elderly people that have another rhythm of reacting. So we have to tune our physical and mental instrument towards you — and that’s why I called the show ‘you & me.’”
Frassetto co-invented the entire Mummenschanz repertoire and has played in each performance. For characters sometimes made out of paper or plastic, the experiences they live can be surprisingly human. Frassetto says the group’s themes always come down to emotion: love, hate, jealousy, fear, etc. “you & me” is no different, often depicting scenarios from everyday life.
“There is one skit that is between a violin and a viola, worn as a mask – and she is like, expressing herself, and she’s a very talkative woman. And she’s all over him doing this pizzicato, and he can’t stand it no more, so he’s covering his ears. And everyone identifies to an everyday couple," she laughs.
Frassetto says these small but universal interactions are what have kept Mummenschanz going. The group has changed a bit since its start – Bossard died of AIDS in 1992, and Schürch last performed with the troupe in 2012 – but in a world made increasingly loud and hectic by technology, Mummenschanz continues to keep it simple and poignant. Frassetto encourages audiences to come with an open mind, saying people young and old can expect an opportunity to play.
"We can't see much through our masks, but we're dying to feel you and to hear your innocent, childlike laughter, and your let-go from this heavy-duty, everyday life," says Frassetto.
Mummenschanz takes the stage at Proctors in Schenectady tonight at 7:30.