"Puppetry often lives at the bottom of the hierarchy of the performing arts"

                              Paul Mesner and puppets from Little Red Riding Hood
Many scholars believe that puppet theatre originated in India and it is from here that this art, which embraces epic themes, travelled to other Asian countries.  Puppet theatres of India were awakened to the immense possibility of puppetry being used as a powerful means of dramatic expression. Of late, new blood and talent has brought new life to the old and dry bones of puppetry. Puppets have by now made welcome incursions into such spheres of activity as education, therapeutics, rehabilitation of handicapped children, propaganda, advertisement, cinema and television. Recently, Paul Mesner and Max Adrian performed at the Newtown School, Kolkata as a part of the 14th Ishara International Puppet Festival. Paul Mesner is a puppeteer and founder of the Paul Mesner Puppets based in Kansas City, U.S.A. Mesner regularly collaborates with local and national artists, musicians, fashion designers and craftspeople to create puppetry that showcases his unique brand of humour. He presents performances using many different types of puppets, from simple finger puppets to rod and stick puppets, marionettes, shadow puppets, and even bigger than life-sized puppets worn by performers. Abhijit Ganguly spoke to Paul Mesner during his short trip to Kolkata.

Gabby Bacculi, Paul Mesner, and
Mike Horner with puppets from the Nativity
How do you see the present scenario of puppetry?

I think Puppetry is challenged in many ways, especially in countries like India where there is a long tradition of puppetry. It’s a traditional art and many people are turning away from this traditional form here in India. We see some of the same problems in the United States of America, but we are still at a point where puppetry is still new and in some way doesn’t have the problem of being as bound by tradition, and so anyone can become a puppeteer. Here in India, its mostly a family business, hard at first to start adapting and changing.

How does Puppetry compare to other art forms?

Puppery is highly malleable as an art form, and it is open to many levels of users.Puppetry often lives at the bottom of the hierarchy of the performing arts. It’s only been in last 100 years or so that the visual arts have taken interest in puppetry. (Traditionally the visual arts entered in the puppetry. Later on, many Modernists discovered puppetry and did a little bit of something with puppetry) I’m not sure what I was trying to say during the previous two sentences). In the United States puppetry has been relegated to children, whereas in Europe it is an accepted art form for adults. There, puppetry is honoured and adults go to puppetry shows. It’s only in the last 20/30 years that adults have been coming to puppet theatre. At this moment a lot of young people are taking interest in puppetry.
Paul Mesner and
puppets from the Dinosaur Show

What is the most fascinating part of being a puppeteer?

The fact that you can entrance an audience with something as simple as a bit of cloth and wood on your hands! It truly at times feels almost magical. To me it is something simple.because I have done this for so many years. But for the audience, it’s something else! They see this transformation. I try to be very respectful and sometimes I say I was channeling puppet gods and they are working through me.

How was your experience performing here? What differences did you notice?

There are more similarities I believe than differences. I had to slow down. My accent is very American and there is a lovely British form of English spoken in India. There are a few things which do not translate. Part of it is that I am using a different vernacular, so words needs to be changed. Another way of saying things, like saying pluck instead of pick a flower. I didn’t get a chance to interact with the children one on one after the show. They did say they liked the yoga exercises done by the puppets!

How can puppetry be used as an educational tool or to highlight social issues?

It’s used in many different ways, not only education. It’s used in therapy. There are many marvelous studies done where puppets are used to teach empathy. They had a red, blue and yellow pupp . One of these three puppets was helpful, one was unhelpful and the remaining one was unhelpful. Little tiny children of six months old wanted to touch the helpful puppet. I think the power is immense. I think that’s the responsibility we bear: to use these puppets responsibly. Sometimes puppets are abused in the classroom. The casual practitioners are not appreciating the full power of the puppets. Puppets are so malleable. They can take so many different forms. They can be used for political protest. Or they could be used for political coercion or for health education. You can have a puppetteer trying on a condom and talk about safe sex and AIDS.  No one would be afraid to talk to the actorpuppet. The stigma won’t be there because it’s just a puppet.  Puppets are so changeable and can be used in different forms—a big puppet in a parade making a statement, or a small puppet in a clinic talking intimately about safe sex. Puppets are like chameleons!

Mike Horner performing Old Mother Hubbard
In this age of gadgets, how challenging is it to encourage children to watch puppetry shows?

The main problem is the parents. If they could unplug these devices and bring them to puppet shows to get a live theatre experience.  These gadgets have hypnotic effect and that’s a concern. But we do something different and once a child is in a theater they forget about the electronic device.

How important are puppet festivals?

They are one of the most valuable things for the puppeteers.  They raise the profile of puppetry for the general public. Secondarily, they provide a moment when puppeteers can talk to each other. We get to see each other’s works, get ideas and also you gain a wonderful sense of camaraderie.

What is your word of advice for aspiring puppeteers?

Work hard. Perform a lot. Be good enough to practice a lot. Listen to your audience.

Pic courtesy - The Newtown School, Kolkata

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