Paul Mesner holds a puppet in his studio in Kansas City, Mo., Dec. 16, 2004. Mesner, 48, produces puppet shows in Kansas City and across the country. He also is new president of Puppeteers of America, an organization that promotes puppetry in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
KANSAS CITY, Mo. Paul Mesner romps around his studio in shorts and tennis shoes, pointing out the special mouth hinges and weighted eye balls that go into making the perfect puppet.
His specialty is traditional rod puppets, but he also works with hand puppets and marionettes.
Mesner is founder of Paul Mesner Puppets and is the new president of Puppeteers of America, an organization that promotes puppetry in the United States, Mexico and Canada. He is taking the helm of the 2,000 or so member organization at a time when puppets rule.
It's not just Bert and Ernie or Miss Piggy and Kermit anymore. Puppets have become major players on Broadway, starring in such productions as ''Avenue Q,'' ''The Lion King'' and ''Little Shop of Horrors,'' and are featured in such movies as ''Team America: World Police.''
College students have also taken note. The University of Hawaii and West Virginia University offer courses in puppetry, and students at the University of Connecticut-Storrs can get bachelor's and master's degrees in puppet theater.
''The whole puppetry thing is incredibly vital right now,'' Mesner says. ''And I can think of four or five universities that are turning out five to six graduate students a year and 10 to 20 undergraduates a year. Then there's Disney, which is training about 500 people to be puppeteers at their theme parks.''
John Bell, who teaches a puppetry workshop at Emerson College in Boston and has been a POA member since the 1980s, said Mesner would be good at bridging the gap between the older puppeteers and the younger ones.
''He's part of that generation that came up after Jim Henson and among the people who saw the possibilities with puppets and were part of this real flourishing of puppet theaters in combination with the avant-garde and the political art, and with the new possibilities of television and film,'' Bell said.
Bell, who also runs Great Small Works, a puppet theater in New York, said it's an important time for puppetry because people no longer only associate it with children's theater.
''Now, when people find out you work with puppets, they don't say, 'Do you know the Muppets?' They say, 'Oh, there's some avant-garde puppet show in a water tank in New York.' It's just part of the consciousness of people now.''
While puppetry has been on the move lately, it has been a constant in Mesner's life. Now 48, he made his first puppet as a child by adding strings to the back of his teddy bear. He went on to apprentice with a puppeteer in Nebraska during junior high and high school. And he learned early that puppetry would not be an easy career choice.
''You have to be tenacious to make it in theater,'' Mesner says. ''You get no respect and no glory in puppetry. ... But what matters the most is when kids come up and tell me they loved my show.''
Mesner produces puppet shows throughout the United States. His past productions include a two-hour opera collaboration of ''The Mikado,'' ''Strega Nona'' and a ''Cinderella,'' in which the heroine heads off to the ball on a Vespa. Shows often are sold out but some of his more ambitious productions, such as last spring's opera collaboration of ''The Mikado,'' didn't draw as many people as Mesner had hoped.
''We generally count on 2,000 people seeing a show. But every time I'm setting the bar a little higher,'' Mesner said. ''We got 4,000 to 'The Mikado,' but we wanted 5,000.''
Robert Trussell, theater critic for The Kansas City Star, credits Mesner with adding to the local theater scene.
''For Kansas City, it's unusual because most children's theater has a tendency to be extremely earnest,'' Trussell said. ''They shy away from anything that could conceivably be misinterpreted. But Paul never worried about that. ... He always had this quirky sense of humor that made his shows entertaining.''
Mesner says he never speaks down to children. ''So much of what kids get to watch has either been dumbed down or grossed down,'' he says. ''I don't do that. I try to write everything for all ages.''
As new president of POA, Mesner plans to reach out to people interested in moving into puppetry as a career.
''Puppeteers of America needs to make itself a little more relevant, especially to the young people entering the field,'' he says.
He would tell students entering puppetry to consider starting their own company. Kansas City, which has about 1.5 million residents in the metro area, supports at least four puppet theaters, he says.
''There's been an explosion in the number of puppet companies on the East Coast,'' he says. ''And there are tons of cities in America without their own (puppetry) company.
''I would tell young puppeteers to make a five to 10-year commitment to a city. It's just an underserved market, and think of all those unemployed actors in those cities.''
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