Paul Mesner has never been bored.
"I was a pretty shy kid, but I also was and still am very content to be by myself,"' he says. "There's tons I can do to entertain myself."
In that sense, Kansas City's master puppeteer was his own first audience.
It started with a teddy bear.
"At about 5 or 6 years old, I took my teddy bear and tied strings to it. At the time, we were renting a house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and it had a big grand staircase coming up from the foyer. I could lean over and it felt theatrical to me," he recalls.
He essentially used the staircase as a set design, and dangled the bear from above, for theatrical purposes.
"At first my mother thought I was trying to hang the teddy bear," he says.
Next came a Pancho Villa marionette, a vacation souvenir from his grandparents.
"This puppet would play whatever character or story was going on in my mind," Mesner says. "It was an early expression of that desire to create little worlds and animate them."
He still believes that puppetry is one of the best outlets for kids, especially the trouble-makers.
"You can lose yourself," he says. "Not lose yourself like you don't know who you are, but drop the baggage of who you've been to that point. You can go behind the curtain, put on a sock or something, and for a moment, that sock is your representation in the world and you can be something else entirely. That's very liberating for kids."
A day in the life
That's what Mesner does to this day.
His workspace, on Linwood Boulevard, contains an electrical shop, a wood shop, a sewing room, a cozy reference library, puppet displays, a birthday party room a children's theater and a musty basement filled with the oddest assortment of objects you've ever seen.
Pool noodles, reams of fake fur, fiberglass rods (because they're bouncy), bouncy balls, umbrellas, magnets so powerful they could be outlawed, tiny chairs for puppets, hot wheels for Snow White's seven dwarves (because we all know that's how they travel), plastic plumbing pipes and trick or-treat baskets. And of course, puppets. Everywhere. In every shape, size, color and species.
It's a magical place, even though to Mesner, it's still the office.
Cutting his teeth
Mesner hooked up with a puppet troupe when he was still in high school.
"I got paid, I don't know, maybe 20 bucks. That was a huge amount of money to me at the time. Also," he says, "they bought me lunch. It was the first time I'd had mustard ... I had a hamburger with mustard on it, and it was revelatory."
A family tragedy
When Mesner was a young man whose puppetry career was "limping along" as he puts it, he was out on the road performing in schools. This was before cell phones and long-distance calls were expensive. He didn't call home much because of that.
One snowy winter, he arrived at a school in Minnesota and the janitor told him his family had phoned and he needed to call home immediately. That's how he found out that his cousin had been murdered. Not only that, but the suspect was another cousin. He drove from Minnesota to Nebraska alone and crying.
He struggled to cope with the loss and confusion. But confronting the fragility of life also brought a sense of urgency and focus to his work.
"That was the year I put on one of my first shows," he says. "It was an entirely new kind of work for me. It had a new feel. It was joyful. It was purposefully very upbeat and happy. It didn't reflect the tragedy at all, but yet, it did reflect the tragedy."
The scenic route to Kansas City
At the time, there were people who worked at arts councils whose job was to advise young artists. You could just make an appointment to talk with them and they'd give you advice about what to do next to further your career, Mesner says. He went to see one of these counselors, and the advice was to get some formal training.
He got it at the International Institute of Puppetry in France.
Not knowing the language and being so far from home, Mesner was forced to draw on his inner reserves. And he honed and explored his own vision more profoundly.
After returning to the United States, Mesner's partner was offered a job at FedEx. They had four cities to choose from.
"Minneapolis already had a big puppet company, and Des Moines was too small. Denver is not a theater town. I came to Kansas City and looked around and no one was doing the kind of storytelling I was doing with puppets," he says.
Now, Mesner employs an entire staff in his midtown studio. And he's the Missouri Arts Council's Individual Artist of the Year for 2015.
It's perhaps safe to say, they all lived happily ever after.