He was supposed to major in chemistry. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Jason von Hinezmeyer was veering in that direction when he decided to take an elective class in puppetry. Heading down that “slippery slope” jolted him, personally and professionally, and left no ambiguity about his career path.
The resident puppet builder at the Center for Puppetry Arts, he’s designed several hundred puppets for the company. His face may not be familiar but his work certainly is to anyone who’s attended a center production the last 12 years, including the recent 1001 Nights. His current creations are far removed from his student ones, however.
After graduating from UNC Charlotte, he studied puppetry arts at the University of Connecticut. His first shows were “horrible,” he recalls, mostly Muppets knockoffs. When he looked through some of his early puppets not long ago, he couldn’t even remember what he was trying to do. Yet he got more comfortable with his designs and eventually went out on his own in 2000. Relocating to New York, he designed puppets for Pokemon Live! and for PBS’ Between the Lions, as well as “whatever low-rent theater” he and friends could find. He decided to leave the area a year later. “I was penniless for a while and a friend in Connecticut offered me space in her basement,” he says. “She was working in theater in Cape Cod — and we have been married for nine years now.”
A year later he received a call about the job in Atlanta. He had been referred by a classmate from UConn who had previously held the position. After flying down and interviewing, he realized it was a fit. “Atlanta has a real puppet-educated general populace; it’s not like that in other cities,” he says.
His wife, Kristin, wasn’t easily convinced — it took her a year but she eventually moved down.
The first puppet von Hinezmeyer built on staff was a marionette of Dr. Faustus for the Center’s Live Faust, Die Young. “Marionettes are tricky to build, so right out of the gate it was challenge,” he says. Since then, he’s been responsible for five to six productions a year, sometimes more. One of his favorites was The Ghastly Dreadfuls, a Halloween production that ran for seven years that he cocreated with Jon Ludwig, the center’s artistic director. A cabaret with lots of short sketches, it allowed the designer to flex his creativity with a variety of puppets.
All the productions he designs face specific challenges, the first of which is determining what form of puppetry he and his department will be working with. “What kind of puppet is this going to be — what is the most appropriate for the story?” he says. He utilizes a combination of marionettes, hand puppets, glove puppets, rod puppets, body puppets and shadow puppets. “We tend not to be purists here; we will mix everything,” he says.
Designing for an adaptation of the book Ruth and the Green Book two years ago took him slightly out of his normal realm. “We looked at doing stylizations and caricature, but essentially the story had to be about real people,” he says. “The puppets were more naturalistic than anything we’ve ever done.”
In terms of sheer numbers and scale, though, his most daunting challenge was Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which has become a holiday favorite at the Center. Around 70 puppets compose that production, all differently shaped, from humans to elves to reindeers to the Abominable Snow Monster. It took about seven months to pull it all together. “We really tried to capture the look, because that is what everyone wants and expects, but they also have to be functioning puppets,” he says. “It was also one of the first times we ever took someone’s look that literally. There is leeway when you are designing something else. We couldn’t do that with Rudolph. We really tried to stick to the original, which was quirky — tiny feet, big hands.” He had to watch the 1964 original repeatedly, doing screen captures. Figuring out what the characters would look like three-dimensionally was tricky.
His deadline to have puppets ready is the first day of a production’s rehearsal, so the performers can get used to them. “Hopefully, we have been in communication with the director enough that he will have a good idea of how it works,” he says. Yet every so often von Hinezmeyer has to recalibrate. For one production, he recalls, his early planning was off. “One actor in a costume was going to interact with a marionette. That was how it was planned. Five minutes into the rehearsal, [it was clear] this was not going to work.” The director needed it all redone — by the following day. It’s all part of the planning, though. “Puppetry is a very physical medium,” he says. “You can write a script and do designs and drawings, but figuring out how it’s going to work is a big part of getting a production up and running.”
Every so often, von Hinezmeyer performs in his shows. He’s also directed, including a number of productions at Dad’s Garage such as Scarlett’s Web, and participated in puppet slams. He enjoys performing and finds it valuable, but his primary focus is getting puppets ready for each new gig.
Mainstream puppet-themed productions have enhanced the perception of the craft, he believes. “It comes and goes, but throughout the ages it gets rediscovered as not just for children,” he says. “More puppetry is happening now than there ever has been. It’s all over the place. Every once in a while you see an article about how it’s a dying art form, how it’s not getting the audience it used to. I think that is completely wrong. War Horse showed people what could be done. Avenue Q was a huge hit, and so was The Lion King. I think the popularity of puppetry is at an all-time high.”