Mummenschanz brings wordless theater to life on stage
Now in its 46th year, the silent theater troupe, Mummenschanz, captivates audiences with performances that combine movement, masks, color and puppetry. The group pioneered a daring new form of visual theater, using abstract masks and everyday objects to create a surreal and playful experience.
The name Mummenschanz is German for “mummery,” or a play involving mummers. Mummer is an early English term for a mime artist. Mummenschanz emphasizes whimsy, child-like exploration and innocent satire.
“Mummenschanz: you & me” is at 7 p.m. March 28, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.
“I never thought I would manage to make two violins into a mask and have them have a love dispute. And that they would be comprehensible, funny and poetic,” said Mummenschanz co-founder Floriana Frassetto in a phone interview during a tour stop in Saginaw, Mich.
“You & me” consists of 70 percent new material and 30 percent classic Mummenschanz, such as the Giant Hands and Slinky Man.
Frassetto says her inspiration is an accumulation of experiences “that the emotionality of very different characters could convey and be understood.” Her ideas come from nature, museums, art galleries, theater and books.
“Mummeschanz has a simple way of bringing you into a fantasy world, a child-like playfulness.
“[Yet] when you want to have an idea, it won’t come,” she adds with a laugh.
When it does, there are many hours of preparation involved.
“When you try to work [an idea] into a meaningful sketch, the hard work starts. The masks, the costumes, hours on end of improvising and trying to marry the movement and the ability of expression to the theme you want to convey.
“The creative process is a long one,” says Frasetto. “Then you go onstage and think, OK, we are not finished. That’s exactly when the work continues.”
Skits are polished and the movements enhanced or edited so that the audience gets full understanding of the theme.
Mummenschanz expresses universal topics such as misunderstanding, love, hurt and giving.
“In a non-verbal theater. It’s very difficult to become political so our politics are very plain,” says Frassetto. “They’re about everyday life that we all experience.”
Frassetto does not refer to what the performers wear as costumes, but rather facial and whole-body masks. “We put the whole body into service of the expression.”
Frassetto doesn’t consider the troupe to be mimes. Nor are they puppeteers. They wordlessly present their entire selves in the performances.
Mummenschanz is a technique not easily defined. “We transform the masks and then we underline them with our gestures. We’ve created a new language.
“[The fact that] we don’t have music gives a very important connection,” says Frassetto. “The instruments become the laughter, the sighs and the oohs and aahs of the audience. It allows an enormous freedom, an enormous beauty.”
Mummenschanz appeals to many age groups and cultures. Frassetto believes that is because everyone has a hidden child inside of his or herself that wishes to play.
“It’s important to have freedom, playfulness and imagination, especially in a world in which we have electronic communication and everything is flat with no emotion. People are ready for emotion more and more.”
The audience participates in some of the amusing skits. “They enjoy it,” says Frassetto. “People want to play. [We] give them that possibility.”
The Mummenshanz Foundation is based in Switzerland, where Frassetto lives, in the Rhine Valley near Zurich. Her home houses the Mummenschanz offices where construction and rehearsals take place.
The Mummenschanz Mask Theater was founded in 1972 in Switzerland by Frassetto, Bernie Schürch, and Andres Bossard. In 1973, the troupe toured the United States, Canada and South America, and had a three-year run on Broadway 1977-’80.
“I live alone, so all I can talk to are foam rubber faces that just do what I want them to do. I’m married to them.”
Frassetto holds workshops in various cities throughout the world, “I love to do workshops. It’s a playful moment in which I guide people to be creative.”
“I’m very proud that the show works for four generations. I can’t wait to share the intimate, poetic and playful values with the audience.”
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715