Paul Mesner has Rapunzel on a string. But this Rapunzel
gets her prince by taking the witch’s scooter—an
inverted hair dryer that has curlers for handle bars.
"I like to create zany, quirky
versions of familiar stories," says Paul. For
inspiration, he turns to classic fairytales and fables and
then adds the unexpected. "It’s quite engaging for
kids to hear old stories told in a new way," he says.
Paul, like many in his trade, writes his
own scripts and creates his own puppets. He primarily
creates shadow puppets and rod puppets. A shadow puppet is
a figure, sometimes cut out of cardboard, wood, or
leather, that casts a shadow onto a screen. The audience
watches the shadow of each puppet, rather than watching
the figure itself. A rod puppet has a stick attached to
its head and hands, along with strings that let the
puppeteer move its arms, legs, and mouth.
"There are scads of puppets,"
says Paul. "Whenever you manipulate an object to
bring it to life, that’s puppetry."
Paul and his puppets—a cast that
includes Rapunzel, The Big Bad Wolf, and others—perform
for kids and adults at schools, libraries, theaters,
museums, and other venues in Kansas City, Missouri, and
throughout the country. Paul also occasionally
collaborates with other artists, as he did with the Civic
Opera Theater of Kansas City for a recent performance of
the opera "The Mikado."
When performing, Paul is hidden from his
audience. He sits on a short scooter underneath a 4-foot
platform, and a screen blocks him from the audience’s
view. Holding his hands over his head, Paul moves and
controls the puppets, which rest atop the platform.
A typical show lasts about 45 to 50
minutes, so Paul needs patience, stamina, and good
eye-hand coordination. Strength is also important because
he must load and unload all of his equipment—which
includes a sound system, scenery, and other props—for
Although physical agility may be important
for puppeteers, a need for attention is not. "Many
puppeteers are shy," says Paul. Speaking through
puppets and behind a curtain or screen allows people who
are more reserved to share their talents.
Among the many talents puppeteers share is
their sense of humor. Paul uses all types of humor to keep
his audience entertained. "I love to hear an audience
laugh," he says. "It’s very satisfying to hear
a group of 350 kids roaring, and it’s often at the
simplest things." After a performance, Paul explains
to the audience how he does what he does, and then he
Puppetry, says Paul, is an art form with a
lot of potential. "Therapists, educators, librarians,
and all of the theater arts use puppets," he says.
Puppets are used in television and movies, from the
Muppets on "Sesame Street" to the aliens in
"Men in Black." Often, people don’t even
realize that they are seeing puppeteering, but it is
gaining recognition. "It’s definitely a movement
that’s achieving new growth," Paul says of his
Hollywood, theme parks, and puppetry
centers all offer employment opportunities, although many
puppeteers work for themselves. Some puppeteers work
part-time; others make puppeteering a full-time career.
Paul often works more than 50 hours a week, in part
because he travels all over the country to put on shows.
Puppeteers learn their skills in a number
of ways. Some attend formal puppetry programs at colleges
and universities, including the University of Connecticut
and West Virginia University. Others take courses at local
theaters; still others work with an experienced puppeteer
to learn the trade.
Paul has done a little of each. He began
by taking a class at a local theater, then moved on to
work as a puppeteer’s apprentice. Later, after
performing for several years, he attended a formal
puppetry program abroad.
Preparation alone doesn’t lead to
success, however, especially in the beginning.
"Starting out is tough," says Paul. "Word
of mouth is always the best friend of any artist." To
promote his work, Paul performs at festivals, creates
brochures, and makes "cold calls," visiting or
telephoning potential customers to generate new business.
Puppeteers need good communication skills to set up these
performances and to talk with an audience.
Organizational skills are also important
because whether puppeteers get paid depends on their
diligence in billing customers and keeping track of
schedules. Paul has an assistant to help with these tasks,
but many puppeteers manage every aspect of the business
themselves. That might not be a problem for most
puppeteers. "You have to control so many elements of
the art," Paul says, "that often, out of
necessity, you become a bit of a control freak."
Like many careers, success in puppetry
also requires passion and dedication. "You must love
it to excel at it," says Paul of puppeteering.
Although most people don’t enter puppetry to get rich,
he says, puppeteers can make a decent living. The U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data on
puppeteers. Paul estimates that experienced puppeteers who
put in the hours can make at least $40,000 a year.
But when measuring his wealth, Paul factors in more
than earnings. "I think I’m rich in many ways," he says.
"I work long hours, but I love my work. It’s very joyful."