Paul Mesner will begin his 25th season as artistic director of Paul Mesner Puppets this September and nothing beats the chance to revisit some old friends and put a few newer friends on to the stage. And if the 10 shows planned over the next year aren’t enough, just remember that Mesner travels all over the city, performing at libraries and school events, plus all over the nation. That doesn’t even touch the frequent flyer miles he adds up as he jets around the country as a sought-after performer. He adds thousands of miles annually.
“Of course, I was really going to be a dancer,” he says. “I attended Creighton University where a dance teacher told me that I would have to choose between dance and puppetry. I picked puppets. However, dance still influences my work today. It is much more about movement than many realize. It is the ability to exploit movement for comedic results. There are patterns and rhythms set forth.
Inspiration comes in many ways for Mesner, even in ways that surprise him. “About four or five years ago, I was burning out. However, I received a grant through the Lighton International Artists’ Exchange Program in 2008. Usually these grants are given to visual artists. It was a joy to study with two current masters of Pulcinella at Le Institute International de la Marionnette. They rescued this wonderful and hilarious art form. It is a form that dates back 500 years at least and is the brother of commedia.” Mesner says the trip reawakened his energy as well as allowed him opportunities to perform and study even more abroad.
As Mesner approaches the start of the 25th season, he knows there are several ingredients that make up the organization and each show. “It’s a lot about writing, writing and writing. Then it is about listening carefully. We have to respond to what the audience likes and what they don’t. As a playwright, I make the adjustments. It’s a skill that I have developed over time. I think these many years have also allowed me to learn quicker. Perhaps that may give me an edge as I have learned to really listen to the audience.”
Puppetry may be one of the oldest art forms and an art form found all over the world. In the hands of a seasoned puppeteer, puppetry and its art should look effortless, Mesner says. “The underlying messages in the show are in plain view as an audience gets to watch how the characters act and how they treat each other. These messages may be the act of being civil, learning to listen and responding in an appropriate communication. The comedic element comes in mishearing. Our language allows for playfulness. When a young child grasps word play, there is joy.”
Mesner continues to see himself as much a storyteller who just happens to bring many books to life in that three-dimensional way. “With our focus on books that kids are currently reading and hopefully we chose correctly, we give our young audiences a chance to explore as we elaborate and embroider the story and bring it to life. Sometimes a book is perfect in its book form, but there are books that allow for this focus.”
He has received three citations from UNIMA-USA for Excellence in Puppetry for Sleeping Beauty, Wiley & the Hairy Man and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf. All three shows will be part of the 25th season. According to the official website, UNIMA-USA, founded in 1966, is the North American Center of Union Internationale de la Marionnette, the oldest international theater organization in the world, founded in 1929. The organization’s mission is to promote international understanding and friendship through the art of puppetry. Jim Henson served as UNIMA-USA’s first chairman.
“I built the puppets for Sleeping Beauty 22 years ago. It is a hard show to do and I have probably performed it at least 1,000 times and that might be a conservative guess,” he says. “It is a show that I still love to do. The show is one that I have toured with and filled puppetry spaces in Atlanta and Seattle.”
Like others in town, Mesner strives to create those moments of magic and merriment with his art. “As much as I treasure the kids in the audience, I enjoy watching adults laugh whether it’s a teacher, grandmother, or mother. For me, I want to reach everyone in the audience and that audience member may be 2 or 92.”
The 25th season also features lots of dogs. First up is Bark, George and then Officer Buckle and Gloria. There is The Comical Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard & Her Dog, Martha Speaks and Go, Dog. Go! A faithful hound is one of the characters in Sleeping Beauty. “I am a dog lover and I think dog behavior is so comical. There’s also an incredible faithfulness with dogs,” he says.
Mesner founded Paul Mesner Puppets in 1987. He maintains his role as artistic director. “I still perform. I love it and performing is still such a good use of my time,” he says. “When I started, it was just me. Then I hired some staff. They have helped me freshen up shows. There are lines grandparents get and lines for grandchildren. I hear all the time that a parent brought his or her children and now they are bringing grandchildren. It is all about longevity and tenacity.”
Success comes with honesty to and with the audience. “While we use puppets, their voices and words must ring true true. Kids will not put up with nonsense. They are a brutally honest.”
As far as the season, Mesner expects a good turn-out as he presents some favorites from years past mixed with a couple new shows.
And the future may be just as bright. There is a possible larger space for Paul Mesner Puppets in the near future. “If not, we are happy with where we are. No matter what, I am proud of my vision and I look forward to stepping aside some and letting others explore what they do best. We have other stories that we want to tell.”
“Sure I have made many mistakes,” Mesner says. “When people call locally and nationally for advice, I tell that they will make their own gaffes. However, they may be able to learn from mine. It’s important to be honest and give generously. I have been fortunate that Kansas City has embraced me. I credit the Kansas City community for being the open and friendly environment that allows artists to make their art and make a living too.”