BETHLEHEM — When the internationally acclaimed mask-maker, performance artist and educator Larry Hunt passed away in 2016, he left a legacy of innovative nonverbal theater that was unique in its field. He also left hundreds of intricately designed and executed masks — the catalysts that for more than three decades sparked his metamorphosis into the countless characters, animal and human, that were beloved by audiences around the world.
Bethlehem resident Jen Hunt, an accomplished puppeteer, director and theater educator in her own right, has recently taken up her late husband’s masks, gathered a troupe of talented performance artists and created all-new storylines for a brand new entity she calls Masque Family Theater.
The seed for the new theater group was planted last year when Dick Marti, owner of 550 Gallery in Bethlehem, suggested Jen consider an exhibit of her husband’s masks.
“I had been thinking about having an exhibit,” said Jen, “maybe at the Mattatuck Museum. But I thought I’d really like to have some performance along with it.
“Masks aren’t meant to be hanging on a wall,” she said. “When you see them come to life, it’s magical!”
A month-long exhibit was arranged for last summer, and Jen, who has studied improv, began putting a few pieces together for an opening performance.
Since then, Masque Family Theater’s “Animal Ensemble,” a series of circus-themed vignettes, has entertained audiences at the Bethlehem Fair and at several local schools.
Having recently created a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Rev. Joseph Bellamy for a Bethlehem Land Trust event and co-directed the commedia dell’arte classic “The Servant of Two Masters” at the Woodhall School, Jen will direct Masque Family Theater in a brief piece at the Arts Alliance of Woodbury’s Quarterly “Meet and Greet,” a public event set for Wednesday evening, March 11, at 550 Gallery.
She is also in talks with two New York galleries to produce events that incorporate the Art of the Masque with performance.
Larry and Jen first met as students at Eastern Washington University. They started working together in the mid-1970s when Larry created the Earth-Life Theater Company.
Their first production was a USO show, which they performed in Germany.
According to Jen, Earth-Life Theatre Company was the root of Masque Theater, the company Larry would develop after working in puppetry in Oregon, moving back to Washington, then moving to Connecticut to work with another mask performer before eventually striking out on his own.
In addition to masks, Larry left volumes of scripts, the original stories he created and told through his unique performances.
“Larry was always really passionate about doing original work,” said Jen. “Anybody can do ‘Guys and Dolls.’ He felt it was your duty as an artist to use your skills in a responsible way.”
As Larry developed new material and toured with Masque Theater around the world, Jen, who holds a B.A. in theater education and an M.A. in gifted education, worked as a teacher in West Hartford, using many of the skills she developed while studying improv at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
“I incorporated my theatrical background into my teaching,” she said. “I did six performances a day in front of the classroom. I never would have been successful at teaching without that background.”
She remained involved with Masque Theater as well, directing much of Larry’s work, helping to develop new pieces and occasionally appearing in performances.
“He really helped me and I helped him,” she said. “We had a pretty good collaboration going on.”
Now, as creative director of Masque Family Theater, she is involved in a collaboration of a different sort. Working with Adelka Polak, artistic director of Sova Dance and Puppet Theater, and CCSU theater students Nick Carrano and Kendra Garnett, she has assembled a cast capable of bringing Larry’s masks to life once again — with all new stories that appeal to audiences of all ages.
At this stage of her life, Jen finds that she loves writing, loves storytelling.
“I’m surprising myself,” she said, thinking back on how she created the monologue for the Joseph Bellamy event. “I thought about it while I was out walking. When I sat down to write it, it came tumbling out.”
She would encourage anyone to not only appreciate the arts, but to try their hand as well.
“I like to encourage people to be creative,” she said. “People don’t think they’re artists, but everyone is an artist. It starts with recognizing and admiring art. ‘This is what was done, this is what you can do!’ It’s food for the creative soul in us all.”
What she enjoys most about her new endeavor is the accessibility of the medium.
“We can perform anywhere,” she said. “There are no language barriers, and it’s for all ages. Eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds love it in different ways. It’s up to the audience to interpret what they see.
“In the 21st century, there’s so much digital input,” she said. “This celebrates the creative ability of human beings. It’s magical!”
Masque Family Theater will perform at the Arts Alliance of Woodbury event, 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, at 550 Gallery and Studios, 550 Main St. South in Bethlehem.
The public is invited to attend. Admittance is free for AAW members; a modest guest fee is requested of non-members and will be applied to membership for those electing to join AAW that evening.
Those seeking additional information may message Jen Hunt through Masque Family Theater’s Facebook page or call 203-266-7479.