The ancient art of puppetry is undergoing a revival in America right now with Jim Henson's magic Muppets, puppetry courses in graduate schools, and a bumper crop of professional and semiprofessional troupes springing up everywhere.
The professional organization of all these manipulators--the Puppeteers of America, headquartered in Alexandria, Va.--is growing from the boom. Here, professional troupers join in league with Bible-school teachers, birthday party entertainers, and children interested in the art to exchange hard-won, much-sought information.
Like where to get basswood in large enough chunks for carving puppet heads. Or what to watch out for in the new glues (''It dries cloudy and does not wash out of clothes''). Or the best way to mount the shoulder bar on a marionette.
All these hints and more come out in the association's bimonthly journal, one of the privileges of membership. The association also sponsors an annual festival, a bookstore, an audio-visual library, a resource center, and something Judy Barry Brown, its president, calls ''one of our neatest services--free consultants.''
Members send in scripts, ideas on puppets that aren't working, questions about specialized puppets, and so on, she says, ''to these busy, important people who take their time to answer the questions.''
Mrs. Brown formerly served as Puppeteers of America script consultant, a position that taught her ''when people want honest criticism--and when they don't,'' she says. She also serves as scriptwriter to her husband, Bob Brown, whose puppets have appeared on ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' and elsewhere.
She can quickly disillusion anyone who sees puppeteering as a magical life. ''People always talk to you in baby talk,'' she says plainly. ''They find out you work puppets, and within minutes they're saying, 'Awwwww, I just wuv puppets , they're so cute!' ''
The Browns combine puppetry with parenting--an experience that looks idyllic for the children but turns out to be less than enchanting. ''The kids have been taught since almost the moment they were born not to make any noise at rehearsals, and I have to admit that they're really good about it,'' Mrs. Brown says.
''But now, if we can't find a sitter and need to take them along, they all say, 'Oh, Mom!' Every once in a while, Bob will let them do one of the minor puppets in a show, but for them it's no big deal,'' she says.
Gail Cummins, a PofA member and artistic director of the small Vagabond Puppet People in nearby Arlington, Va., also incorporates her children into shows ''where feasible,'' she says. Her youngest, Laura, 8, has done children's voices on the tapes of shows the Vagabond produces and, according to her calculations, has made ''about 100'' puppets with her mother.
Teaching children is Mrs. Cummins's real love, and her own children were the first of many who learned from the director how to turn a little felt and glue into animated beings, just by wiggling their fingers. The Vagabond group gives lessons each month on the making and manipulation of different kinds of puppets. Here are three of their favorites:
* The Flowerpot. Start with an old white glove. Using cloth or a magic marker , make a round face in the palm. The fingers become the flower's petals, which can fold, curl, and wave in the wind.
Then, using a simple cone of construction paper, make an open-bottomed flower pot. The child, wearing his ''flower,'' can stick his arm through the pot, and watch his flower ''grow.''
* The Big-Mac Attacker. Using a styrofoam hamburger container from a fast-food restaurant, cover the front and side panels of each side with glue. Cover each side with a piece of flesh-colored felt (you may want your attacker to have green flesh). Leave the back, top, and bottom open for your fingers.
Glue ''hair'' made of yarn, synthetic fur, or fringed felt on top. On the front, glue ''eyes'' of construction paper, layers of felt, styrofoam pieces (cut out of grocery store meat trays), or purchased ''wiggle eyes.'' Put a red tongue inside the container, and construction paper teeth around the sides and front. You can also attach a beard, horns, ''fire,'' earrings, or any other material you think appropriate to your attacker.
* The Quick-Change Artist. For this puppet, you need two or three styrofoam balls (21/2 inches in diameter for a small child, or 5 inches for a school-age youngster), the tube from a roll of toilet paper, some old scrap cloth, paint, yarn, a little felt, and a lot of glue.
First, have the child gouge a hole in each of his balls, using an unopened pen or felt-tipped marker. The hole should be large enough to hold his index finger, if he has a small ball; or his index and ring fingers, if his ball is large. The fingers should be able to go in up to his knuckles.
If the balls are large, you need to reinforce the holes with a cardboard tube. Cut the tube in half and then slit it up the side, folding and taping it to the width of the hole. This goes inside the hole, adhering with a little glue.
Now the balls must be painted a flesh color (orange and white paint for Caucasian; red, brown, and white paint for black). The easiest method is to make up a bowl of paint and, while you hold the bowl steady, let the child dip the ''heads'' inside until they are completely covered. Otherwise a thick paintbrush will do.
While the heads dry, outline a body on a double layer of material. Have the child lay his hand in puppet position on the cloth--a cross between the Girl Scout Salute and Mr. Spock's ''live long and prosper'' signal. Index and ring fingers go straight up, and the other fingers stick off to the sides, while you draw a loose pattern around them.
The pattern is pinned, cut out (this may be hard for kids), and stitched up the sides, wrong sides out, on a sewing machine. When it is turned right side out, the child can decorate the dress with extra cloth, old fringe, pom-poms, glitter, or beads.
The heads, meanwhile, need attention. All of them should have roughly the same sort of face--the same color hair and eyes, the same shape nose, and so on--but the expression on each face should be different. You might want a happy face, a sad face, and a surprised face. See the description under Big-Mac Attacker for some ideas on materials to use.
Once the heads are ready, the child can make a story about his puppet, and the things that make him happy or mad, tearful or surprised--changing heads with each change of mood.
For more ideas on simple puppets for children, Mrs. Cummins recommends these books, available in many bookstores and from the Puppeteers of America Bookstore , 14316 Sturtevant Road, Silver Spring, Md. 20904:
* ''Puppetry and the Art of Story Creation,'' by Nancy Renfro. $9.95. This gives puppet directions, ideas on stories, a list of sources of material and information, and a section on puppetry for the special child. Mrs. Cummins calls the author ''the writer on puppetry.''
* ''The Funcraft Book of Puppets,'' by Violet Philpott and Mary Jean McNeil. along with tips for staging, scenery and sound effects.