For over three decades, performer Frank Meschkuleit has made a career out of performing with puppets. Starting as a member of The Jim Henson Company, Frank has since worked both as a puppeteer and a voice actor on a plethora of children’s shows, as well as working on props and puppets on big-budget films.
In recent years, Frank has become a Fringe Festival sensation for his clever stage shows where he takes the art of puppetry to a new level of performance. On Thursday, September 22nd, Frank is coming to Peterborough for the first time to perform a double bill of his two award-winning adult puppet shows — The Left Hand of Frank and My Big Fat German Puppet Show — at Showplace Performance Centre.
Winner of Just For Laughs’ “Best of the Fringe for 2014”, My Big Fat German Puppet Show was also a hit at Toronto’s Fringe Festival in 2015.
In the role of obese German ringmaster Frank Puppetshpeil, Frank dominates the stage in a giant body suit.
I won’t spoil what happens next, but Frank uses the suit to create a magical world of characters including Toppy the mouse, Stephen Hawking, Tom Waits, and puppet zombies.
“I’ve always shied away from the word magic,” Frank says. “But when you invest yourself into the manipulation of a character and it became alive, first for yourself and then for an audience, there is something quite magical. It has to do with the suspension of disbelief. When puppetry is done well, it can be magic.”
Frank began his career as a puppeteer in the 1980s after spending a period of time toiling at a number of miscellaneous jobs. From selling appliances to admittedly being a terrible waiter, Frank changed gears and took a two-year physical theatre course, when he found his way into the niche world of puppetry and prop manipulation.
“Between first and second year I bumbled into an audition for The Muppets,” Frank recalls. “All I wanted was the opportunity to write on my then-empty resume ‘Auditioned for Muppets.’ But to my surprise my audition was so weird that they gave me a job. When I showed up on the set of Follow that Bird, I saw adults playing for a living and I was hooked.”
Frank would continue to work with The Jim Henson Company filming various productions in Toronto, as well as working on Fraggle Rock where he eventually took over the role of Junior Gorg when the original puppeteer became ill and had to leave the series.
Frank would also work on props and puppeteering on a number of big-budget cult films including Bride of Chucky, The Santa Clause, Alien vs. Predator, The Love Guru and the 2011 remake of The Thing. However, his most famous role these days is entertaining preschoolers as the voice of Toopy the Mouse in the popular Canadian kids’ show Toppy and Binou.
Yet despite his busy schedule working in film and television, it has been his puppet shows that have made Frank a favorite at Fringe festivals. Frank’s first puppet show, The Left Hand of Frank, gained favorable reviews and a strong following when he toured it through Canada and the U.S. a number of years ago. The success of the show led to the creation of the wildly popular My Big Fat German Puppet Show.
“The Left Hand of Frank was pretty popular, but I was in a puppet booth and I had funny ideas and little thought experiments that I would play out,” Frank explains. “After I was finished with that show, someone offered to book me to do a new show. I said ‘I don’t really have a new show ready.’ But they said ‘Whatever you have, we’ll book it.’ I said ‘How can you do that and still be a responsible human being?’ They said ‘We loved your old show, so we’re sure we’ll love your new one.'”
The unique aspect in My Big Fat German Puppet Show — which you’ll see when you go to the show — is a groundbreaking idea.
“It gives me an opportunity to perform on stage where you see my face,” Franks says, “which for decades has been out of my comfort zone.”
“I’m a very good puppeteer, but I’m shy in a very strange way,” Frank admits. “But the thing with the suit is that it’s enough of an abstraction that I feel like I’m performing in a big weird body suit.”
“It’s a joy for me to go on stage and drink in those delicious silent bits where I know everyone is looking at me and I’m looking at them. I really enjoy that opportunity to break that fourth wall down and clear the rubble away and really walk to the edge of the stage and look at people.”
With his curly moustache, top hat, and outrageous German accent, Frank’s character Frank Puppetshpeil is based on Frank’s father, who emigrated from Germany to Canada.
“In a loving tribute to my father, the character is somewhat based on him,” Frank says. “The notion is that the character does not really want to do the show, but he’ll do it anyway. Half of him needs to be loved, but half of him is quite content to be despised. So when his humour is really bad, he’ll just stop and look shocked.”
“My father was of that generation of Canadian immigrant who put his nose to the grindstone and worked hard and got the house and raised the kids and got the car,” Frank adds. “He never got rich, but we always had enough. But he came with this sort of geography warp where you grow up in one place, but you work in another place. It has to mess with your head. My father had some old world ideals. He was stretched between two continents.”
Although Frank says the humour in the show is accessible to all audiences, he advertises his performances as “adult puppet shows” to battle against the continuing stigma that puppet shows are strictly children’s entertainment.
“Most adults hear that it’s a puppet show and think they don’t want to go because it’s for kids, but it doesn’t need to be,” Frank explains. “In Europe, it isn’t a hard sell. There is so much that can be done because the medium is playful. The message can be as sophisticated as you like.”
“The show is extremely visual, and it’s a treat for me to become the ring master of the show. When the puppet portion happens, it’s a different world entirely. Any time you get caught up in a story, you’re caught up in somebody’s world — the whole show is that.”
Frank describes the joy of puppetry as the connection created between the puppet, the puppeteer, and the audience.
“The crux of the evening is sporadic laughter and a real spontaneous feel,” Frank says. “Although both shows are scripted, I panic every night because I’m absolutely sure I’ve forgotten everything and I have no idea what goes in what order. Then I step onto the stage and it feels fresh. On stage it’s one long take, so I refuse to panic about that. I step out and say hello and look at everyone and they look at me, and we know we’re going to go on this ride together and anything can happen.”
Join Frank and his world of puppets in My Big Fat German Puppet Show and The Left Hand of Frank on September 22nd at Showplace Performance Centre. Tickets are $25 and are available at the Showplace box office.
My Big Fat German Puppet Show
The Left Hand of Frank