Richardson — Mummenschanz is more than mime and more than theater. The group of artists are storytellers, capturing intimate and exhilarating moments that convey messages about our lives. As they celebrate 47 years, their experimental work is finding new life among newer audiences, while continue to push boundaries of visual theater.
Mummen, coming from the phrase to cover yourself, and shanz, from the French word de chance or luck, Mummenschanz explores the idea of what can be discovered when concealing yourself. Inspired by the work of Marcel Marceau, Floriana Frassetto, Bernie Schurch, and Andres Bossard set out to create a new way of approaching mime. It was a rebellion of sorts—they wanted to change how the world viewed the art form by reinterpreting the role of the mime and creating a unique form of visual theater. Using recycled ventilation tubes, toilet paper rolls, suitcases, masking tape, and wads of clay, they designed large forms that could animated on stage. Their first show, which was simply called “Mummenschanz,” toured Switzerland before coming to the United States for a trial tour. They ended up in New York where they performed two shows at the Lincoln Center to rave reviews. One of them even came from lauded and tough New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff, whose positive review opened the first of many doors for the artists.
“Bernie and I studied mime in the early ’70s and were fans of the great Marcel Marceau, but we knew that no one could overwhelm more than him, or be better than him, so we decided to look for our own way in and our language,” says Frassetto. What developed was a form of theatre that takes objects, large and small, and transforms them into forms of character masks that when manipulated create an entire narrative.
They went on to guest star opposite Kermit the Frog on the Muppet Show in 1976 and to tour the world. While members have come and gone—Bossard died of AIDS in 1992 and Schurch left six years ago to start a new life in Switzerland—and the troupe is pushing 50, Frassetto has often thought about what comes next. “When Bernie left, I was confronted whether to continue or not. I decided to continue,” she said, and maybe her motivation comes from the fact that she still has stories to tell. “How do new ideas come? They come from a dream, from a stroll in a museum, from an accumulation of everyday life information. You dream up the sequences, and then you seek out the material that is universal to all humans, and then you improvise.”
But how does one of the oldest form of non-verbal communication translate in the digital age? Frassetto does not seem as concerned as many other artists who are constantly battling the effects of social media technology. “You’d be surprised that even though we are in this digital world, who many people appreciate emotional language and how they like to interact and play with the simple and intimate ways in which we perform.”
Emotional language is the key to what makes their work universal, as does that fact that what Mummenschanz makes is not really mime. In fact, it has practically nothing to do with mime. In the tradition of the form, facial and bodily gestures are used to simulate an object that is not there. But Frassetto and her fellow artists are doing away with the abstract, instead, grounding the work in larger-than-life objects. They are musicians of silence, and the work is real, it’s tangible; it’s an encounter of the objective kind.
In a way, what Mummenschanz has created is a sculptural theatrical form that immediately envelopes the audiences leading them through a fantasy. “I hope very much that we will offer you two hours of fun and interactivity that stimulates your fantasies,” says Frassetto, “because I think nowadays it’s important to be able to let go and imagine.”
Mummenschanz will perform at the Eisemann Center on Friday, February 23. You and me consists of a myriad of sketches that explore a developing relationship. The focus is on love and the mutual joy the audience and performers experience together. “I hope we will tickle the child inside of you!”