Matt Harvey can define the word “mummer.”
It’s a man or woman who makes merry in a mask or disguise. In England, mummers are costumed travelers who participate in short plays during holiday seasons.
Harvey, 29, a Schenectady native, wants to spread the word. The longtime actor has been living in New York City and performing with the avant-garde acting troupe By the Mummers since 2009.
“It’s a throwback to the theater companies of old,” he said. “We focus on the ensemble and creation, using all the voices and talent of the ensemble to create our shows.”
The 12-person company just finished a short run of “Blood (By the Mummers),” which Harvey described as the story of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” mixed with pop culture darlings “Twilight” from the movies and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from television. The play, set in a high school environment, just concluded a six-show engagement at the 47th Street Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
The gang scored a nice review from theater-themed Backstage.com, which praised the show’s “delirious ideas and jokes.”
Last Christmas, the Mummers’ project was “Winterland.”
“There were two story lines in that show,” Harvey said of that production. “One was the group rehearsing a Christmas show called ‘Winterland’ and during the show, one of our ensemble members ate a poinsettia plant and took a trip to Wonderland, as in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, where Christmas has been banned.”
The actors use scripts, but improvisation is a big part of the gig. “Most shows include music written by the ensemble,” Harvey said. “We do everything — writing, marketing, musical directing.”
The audience also makes contributions.
“We use interactive elements in our shows such as audience participation and interaction with the audience,” the actor said. “We are aware of the relationship between the players and the audience. It’s a bit avant-garde and given our roots as interactive character actors, we really enjoy that relationship.”
He has known about the connection from stage to seat since his school days. “My fifth-grade teacher, Georgianne Murray, she really got me hooked on the acting bug,” he said.
Harvey was a member of the Blue Roses Theater Company at Schenectady High School, and played Sir Toby Belch in the school’s production of “Twelfth Night” during his junior year. “That was kind of a big deal because we performed it at Proctors instead of in the high school,” he said.
During his senior year, he secured parts in both “Violet” and “Lost in Yonkers.” He said he also picked up inspiration from drama teachers Bill Ziskin and Tim Dugan.
Harvey, who graduated from Schenectady High School in 2000 and later studied performing arts and drama at Schenectady County Community College, thinks it’s important to say thanks.
“I really want all the teachers that influenced my life to know that there has been a positive impact,” he said. “And to let the kids still in school know that you really can make your dreams come true on your own terms.”
By the Mummers has another local connection. Brian Sheldon, who graduated from Schenectady High School in 2001 and appeared in Blue Roses productions of “The Music Man” and “The Crucible,” was the assistant stage manager for the “Blood” production.
“It’s an eclectic group,” Sheldon said of his mummers. “It has all these different likes and dislikes. Somebody might like Shakespeare, someone else likes slapstick.”
Original ideas, he believes, lead to original works. There are no big budgets, nor are there the pressures that come when big money is invested in big shows. “In my opinion, that’s real theater,” he said of the low-key and low-tech approach taken by his crew. “You don’t have to worry about producers getting in the way and the theater space giving you restrictions.”
Sheldon doesn’t see many improvisation groups. “I would think it’s because theater is more commercialized, making money,” he said. “Ask any director, and they’d rather have an actor that comes in with more ideas. With an improv actor, you get that.”
Both men work day jobs, Sheldon at the Century 21 department store and Harvey as a photographer and graphic design artist. Both would rather be working full time in the theater.
“That’s the goal,” Harvey said. “We’ve only been active for two years now and we’ve already gotten a pretty significant cult following. And we hope to expand our audience and to reach out to the community more and do workshops and various other things.”
He said the Mummers will present some kind of a holiday show. The merry man in disguise would love to see some of his former professors at a future By the Mummers show.
And someday, he would like to give a little bit back to the Capital Region.
“I personally would like to do some workshops with schools in the area,” he said. “Or even community theater at some point.”
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