Shape shifters

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see Mummenschanz in action, you’ll have been mesmerised by their performances. Described as les musiciens du silence, Mummenschanz productions are quirky, humorous, bafflingly enchanting and kind of cute. Even more remarkable is that the shows are delivered without words: the clever use of body language creates tiny inter-connected stories, easily understood by audiences of all ages and nationalities. A concept that is astonishing given how modern society is inundated with language and noise.

Founded by Andres Bossard, Floriana Frassetto and Bernie Schürch, Mummenschanz has been shape-shifting on stage for 47 years. For new show You & Me, Frassetto collaborated for seven months with Tina Kronis and Richard Alger.

Over the telephone from California, Frassetto explains the method behind Mummenschanz’s trademark style: “It’s not the case that anybody can become a performer with Mummenschanz, it is not something you can grasp immediately. It takes time and a special feeling of interaction with the audience. It is really a different sort of performance because you must become one with your costume, your mask and your body. Mummenschanz is all about body language.

“A lot of the humour comes out accidentally in the improvisations. When we are in front of the audience, another dimension of the work comes out. We are always working on a show, it is never finished.

“In terms of making a show, I have four wonderful colleagues. I create the shapes and do the artisanal work of constructing the costumes, once that is done there are hours and hours of improvisation that follow. I have a basic theme that I marry with the personality of the person who is improvising, along with the character that we want to perform. The result is not dissimilar to commedia dell’arte.”

You & Me
You & Me

She adds that the work requires a special kind of performer: “Acting is involved in the embodiment of the personality of the object, animal or character you see on stage. What I look for in a performer is an immediate gut feeling. If you perform for Mummenschanz, even If you are sad, the moment you are on stage you need to create a bewildered state between the actor and the audience. It is like we interact on another planet to activate emotions.”

Multitalented Frassetto even performs in the show, her costars are Kevin Blaser, Christa Lee-Anne Barrett, Sara Francesca Hermann and Oliver Pfulg, aided by lighting and technical director Eric Sauge.

You & Me
You & Me

Right now the company is touring You & Me across the US. “You & Me is a series of abstract sketches and stories to be interpreted by the audience as they wish,” explains Frassetto. “In one scene there’s a love sequence between a viola and a violin who have a misunderstanding: the violin talks too much (in pizzicato), the viola listens but when it all becomes too much for him he gets upset – then the metronome comes in to give them the right rhythm.

“The emotional shift towards peace is shown by the violin and viola being turned upside down, so now they look like a mask. It was a difficult scene for the performers to interpret, but the audience loves it. Another sketch features a cymbal and a triangle: the cymbal is being a nuisance and drumming itself with a brush, until the triangle comes in to give him a note that shifts the mood.”

How does Frassetto come up with ideas for Mummenschanz? “Ideas come from a culmination of influences, sometimes through the objects themselves and sometimes through dreams. I came up with the idea for You & Me a few years ago. Within seven months, and with help from Tina and Richard, we gave emotional shape to the show.”