Mike Horner tells a story about inspiration and how it can come from the unlikeliest of sources.
Horner, the associate artistic director for Paul Mesner Puppets, once went to Atlanta to perform at the Center for Puppetry Arts. And while he was there, a friend invited him to a puppet slam. Horner said he had no fresh material for a slam, but his friend insisted, basically telling him: “Just come up with something.”
“So I looked around the hotel room and I said, ‘OK, I’ve got a box of Cheez-Its,’ ” he recalled recently. “So I said, ‘OK, Cheez-Its of Nazareth.’ ”
Thus a puppet routine was born. “The alternative title is ‘The Grocery Gospel,’ ” Horner said. “So basically I tell the story of Jesus with grocery products. The Virgin Mary is virgin olive oil. The Three Wise Men are Snap, Crackle and Pop on the Rice Krispies box. Little gags like that.
“Every trip to the grocery store I get new ideas. People make suggestions I never would have thought of. It’s an ever-expanding piece that came about because of desperation. In my opinion, that’s what puppet slam should be.”
Anyone willing to make a not-insignificant contribution to Paul Mesner Puppets can watch Horner’s wacky biblical parable Saturday night at the Madrid Theatre. The occasion is “Puppets After Dark,” the annual fundraiser for the nonprofit puppet theater, which this year will include a puppet slam. What, you may ask, is a puppet slam? Well, it’s like a poetry slam. Only with puppets. And without poetry.
This style of performance isn’t new. Some trace it to the 1970s, before anyone had heard of slams. What it amounts to is puppeteers taking turns performing short pieces often aimed at adult audiences, sometimes in a competitive format, sometimes not. There’s even a Puppet Slam Network, whose blog offers a complex definition: “Puppet Slams exist at the nexus of vaudeville, burlesque, and performance art through the intersection of experimental theater, art, music, and dance as a viable alternative to the culturally homogenous digital mass media.”
That’s a mouthful. And perhaps a bit heady for a form of theater that relies on manipulated handmade dolls. But the point is clear. In an age of digitally designed entertainment, puppetry offers a tactile alternative: Live performance derived from an ancient tradition.
“A puppet slam is basically like a variety show,” Horner said. “It’s short puppetry pieces, one right after the other, anywhere from a couple of minutes to five minutes. They all feature a wide variety of puppeteers, and generally they are for adult audiences.”
Mesner, the company’s founder, said puppeteers like slams because “it lets us stretch our adult performing muscles some. We always have adults in the audience, but they aren’t the primary target of our scripts.”
Indeed, Mesner has been performing for kids in Kansas City since late 1987. As his company has grown, so have his audiences. He now performs for more than 100,000 children and adults each year.
At one point he began doing occasional late-night adult shows. And in the last few years he has hosted periodic slams at his puppet studio. “Some of the puppet slams around the country are pretty wild and wooly,” Mesner said. “But since our name is on it, Paul Mesner Puppets, we decided we should curate it.”
The idea, he said, was quality control — put some limits on how far into R-rated territory performers could go, while at the same time making sure the performances weren’t too “oatmeal.”
“It’s an interesting thing to learn how prudish I can be,” he said. “But on the other hand, I can go way too far on the other side.”
Anyone who has watched Mesner shows knows they exist on two levels: a straightforward narrative for kids with built-in jokes for the parents. The jokes are frequently zany and off-the-wall.
Mesner and Horner are slated to perform Saturday night. So is Gabby Baculi, a costume designer and puppeteer who is an important part of the Mesner puppet family. Debbie and Peter Allen, founders of Parasol Puppets in Jamesport, Mo., will perform as well. Mesner has prepared some of his own creations for the Saturday night fete.
“I do a little piece I invented many years ago called ‘Pigs in Love,’ which is very simple, with two pig puppets and using the last five minutes of ‘Bolero.’ That’s one that always works.”
Mesner will also offer two new pieces: “Yo Yo Mama,” featuring a puppet of the famous cellist telling mother jokes, and “The Improbable Yoga Instructor,” featuring a character known as Sunshine Appleblossom. “The trick is how to market it, about how not to pollute the Paul Mesner family,” he said.
The goal of this year’s fundraiser is $25,000. The previous gala drew about 125 contributors. Last year’s event was family-friendly and featured Phillip Huber, a highly regarded marionette puppeteer who performs internationally and whose work has appeared in films.
Horner, a native of Nebraska who has worked with Mesner since 2006, plans to perform another of his pieces Saturday, a shadow-puppet retelling of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” with a special appearance by Julie Andrews, filled with puns and snippets of melodies from “The Sound of Music.”
Horner began performing with puppets when he was 3 years old. He has never considered doing another style of theater. “I think part of it is one person getting to create this whole world and then making the puppets and performing with them,” he said. “It’s opening up this new creative world to other people and letting them experience that.
“Some puppeteers do very serious puppetry, but for me it’s creating a world but also getting people to laugh at a little reality I’ve created. For me, it’s a form of escape, I guess.”
Mesner shows are often performed with hand-and-rod puppets, but Mesner and his collaborators will incorporate almost any style of puppetry when it’s appropriate, Horner said.
“We kind of do a bit of everything,” he said. “Before I started working with Paul, I did a lot with Muppet-type puppets, and I started doing simpler kinds of hand puppets.”
Horner has created a “Dr. Who” parody with puppets, but he won’t perform that Saturday. And a friend in Lincoln, Neb., has written a musical “Star Wars” parody that he wants to adapt as a puppet show.
But the Mesner company does more than fairy tales and strictly-for-laughs send-ups. “We’ve tackled some serious topics for our children’s shows,” Horner said. “Probably one of the most difficult ones Paul took on was an adaptation of ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ about the Underground Railroad.
“Because it was a children’s show, we wanted to find some humor in it, and we provided some lighter moments. But it was a very serious subject to tackle and definitely a challenge to engage people with an art form like puppetry when they think you’re just doing amusing, silly schtick.”
The Allens normally perform shows for kids, too. “We don’t usually do adult-audience stuff,” Debbie Allen said. “So it’s kind of a treat for puppeteers to get together and do these slams because then we get to feel a little naughty.”
All professional puppeteers start basically the same way — barnstorming across swaths of the country on no-frills tours. For Mesner that meant driving a small pickup loaded with his puppets and equipment across the frozen tundra of the upper Midwest. For Debbie and husband Peter, it meant island-hopping in Hawaii. “You’d get in these tiny planes and fly to the islands and then a rent a car and load all your equipment. I can remember driving around the islands talking to the puppets because I didn’t have anyone else to talk to,” said Debbie, who performed solo before she married Peter.
After 10 years of working together in Hawaii, the Allens decided they’d had enough of flying to the mainland and decided to relocate to the Midwest. They wanted a central location that would provide reasonable access to all parts of the lower 48. They settled on Jamesport. They even called Mesner to let him know. They didn’t want him to think they were invading his turf. They chose Jamesport because they found a place big enough to accommodate most of their equipment.
“We just fell in love with a particular house,” she said. “It’s a house just outside of town, a huge mansion, falling apart. We didn’t realize it would be a lifelong task to fix up the place.”
Peter Allen was born in Birmingham, England, and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. He and Debbie met at a puppet festival in Dresden, Germany.
His approach to puppetry is to imagine the show from the audience’s point of view. He wants to lose himself in the performance thanks to the quality of the illusion.
“What I like is watching shows where you actually believe that nobody is doing the show except the puppets,” he said.
“All of the people I like are so good that they make it look easy. That’s what I like. You don’t want to go to a puppet show and say, ‘Wow, that guy’s working hard.’ ”
“Puppets After Dark” will begin with a VIP reception at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Madrid Theatre, 3810 Main St. The puppet slam begins at 8:30. A limited number of tickets for the show only are available for $50. For more information, call 816-756-3500 or go to MesnerPuppets.org.