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Asbury Puppet Ministry takes production internationally

January 20, 2019
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In this Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, photo Jan Meilner, director of the puppet ministry at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Okla., puts on a puppet used to portray Jesus. The ministry uses colorful puppets and music to appeal to young churchgoers. (Matt Barnard/Tulsa World/Tulsa World via AP)

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Jan and Dave Meilner simply volunteered to help out at Children’s Church on Sundays at Asbury United Methodist Church.

They taught a kindergarten Sunday School class and used a puppet to help illustrate some Bible stories.

“The rest is history,” Jan Meilner said to the Tulsa World . “That got us involved. It has changed a lot since then.”

The Meilners have been the directors of the Asbury Puppet Ministry for 33 years, producing and participating in puppet productions around the world and in dozens of local appearances each year.

“Being a puppeteer is actually kind of simple,” Meilner said. “The music starts and you start moving your hand. Pretty easy.”

The Asbury Puppet Ministry is one of the oldest and most successful puppet ministries in this part of the country. At least three puppet ministries have been given birth through a connection to the Asbury puppeteers.

It was started 45 years ago and has grown into a major production for the south Tulsa church throughout the decades.

“We now have about 100 puppets,” Meilner said. “We replace them on occasion. The puppets are even more colorful and more advanced. Puppeteers have learned that very bright colors helps to hold the attention of the children.

“The puppets are so much more advanced now. It is still the same in many ways. But there is so much more available to us to tell our stories.”

Most of the scripts are based on the Bible, and Asbury’s puppeteers have entertained children in various points around the globe.

They go on many of the Asbury mission trips to entertain children. They have been going to some locations for so many years that they now have puppets that remain in some locations. That includes a mission in Monterrey, Mexico, where Asbury will send a group later.

“It is just easier to leave the puppets at the location, and we pick them up when we are there to do the shows,” Meilner said. “Needless to say, that is easier than having security go through your bags and see all of these puppets.”

The “puppet closet” at Asbury is home to about 100 puppets, some of them dating back to the 1970s.

They use a three-tier puppet stage that can be altered to a two-tier stage when needed.

It takes seven to nine people to do a performance.

“Some of the scripts are more complicated than others,” Meilner said. “And it can be physically demanding. You often have to keep the puppet raised above your head for long periods of time. So if you have shoulder issues, it can impact you.”

Many of the scripts are short, often as short as three or four minutes. However, one of the scripts the Asbury puppeteers do is 23 minutes long.

Most of the performances are musicals.

“A lot of these are recorded Christian lyrics to familiar tunes,” Meilner said. “You’ll have music with some talking in between the songs.

“We do recruit. If I hear an interesting accent, I’ll ask them if they are interested in joining our puppet group. Right now, we have a guy with a great Australian accent and another guy with a great Brooklyn accent. And we have one of our pastors here at Asbury who loves to do voices and he helps us.”

Many of the shows are prerecorded. For instance, the shows for the mission trip to Mexico are translated and recorded in Spanish. They have some shows that are pre-recorded in Russian and Estonian languages.

“So many of our puppets these days are very colorful,” Meilner said. “As a result, they are nonethnic and multicultural. You can take these puppets into any culture that allows puppets.”

Meilner said there are a few cultures where puppets are not allowed. However, “children everywhere we go seem to love the puppets and the more colorful the better.”

In addition to mission trips, the Meilners and their band of puppeteers perform dozens of shows around the Tulsa area. They just finished about 15 scheduled shows leading up to Christmas. They have about a dozen lined up for Easter.

“We’re always looking for new volunteers,” Meilner said. “When we first started doing this ministry in the 1980s, almost all of our puppeteers were teenagers. Now, all but one of our puppeteers are adults. We do have a seventh-grader.

“It is an easy skill to teach. People that learn it seem to enjoy it.”

Certainly, the Meilners, who have been married for 52 years, love it. They were high school sweethearts in New Jersey. They’ve moved to Tulsa three different times in their lives, the final move occurring in 1984.

She had a background in theater arts. He had a technical background.

“So he handles most of the lighting and sound,” Jan Meilner said. “I handle a lot of the writing and painting. It is a fun thing to do. Everyone is always coming up with new ideas. And it is especially a great thing for children. Kids are so strong, creative and smart. It is a perfect way to tell a story.”

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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