‘Adapt or Die’

How Mesner Puppets is Charting a Future in Changing Times

Meghann Henry, Mesner Puppets’ new producing artistic director, realized in mid-March that her pre-pandemic plans to retool the venerable puppet theater might not be enough to save it from the unanticipated peril of COVID-19.

With the virus-related cancellation of the company’s integral touring schedule, education programs and mainstage shows, the best chance for Mesner Puppets to survive was to fearlessly reimagine itself. Or as Henry put it: “Adapt or die.”

“We did a quick pivot and said, ‘What can we do to still engage our audience at this time?’” Henry said. “So we did a ‘Puppets at 2 p.m.’ Facebook video for two to three minutes every weekday in April. It was a way for parents to get inspired with their kids to do puppetry activities at home, and every other day we included a puppet performance. Those were really popular and got shared on social media.

“So we’ve been looking at how to make lemonade out of these lemons that we’ve got right now,” she said. “A lot of the changes that we’re going to make are going to feel very different. But, to me, the most important thing is that puppetry remains a vibrant part of the Kansas City scene.”

Paul Mesner (photo by Jim Barcus)

Building a Better Puppet Future

In January, Henry — a veteran performing artist, arts educator and arts administrator formerly with the Coterie Theatre for young audiences — was brought in to build a sustainable future for the struggling Mesner Puppets three years after the theater’s legendary founder and master puppeteer, Paul Mesner, retired and handed over the helm to his longtime associate artistic director, Mike Horner.

Since then, even as thousands of children have continued to laugh and learn at Mesner Puppets performances and puppet-making workshops, the theater has struggled with cultivating funders and sponsors.

“Mesner Puppets over the last three years has had some financial difficulties,” Henry said. “That was part of what we were pulling ourselves out of and why I came on board. Mike is now our director of puppetry arts, so he can focus almost entirely on the making of puppets, the performing and the development of new pieces. And my role is to handle both the long-term artistic strategy and the business part of it.”

Henry’s fresh mix of ideas for Mesner Puppets for moving forward as best it can during the pandemic include creating progressively polished online puppet videos and possibly live-streaming events; writing and producing an original puppet show for first-graders that features social and emotional learning themes gleaned from observing the interactions of first-graders in a classroom setting; attracting developing talents to share their skills in a long-term Mesner Puppets residency program; encouraging more diverse and experimental styles of puppetry; and achieving greater community engagement through new public partnerships.

“One of the big things I want to look at is how well we’re ingrained in the community,” Henry said. “For example, our whole mainstage season next year was going to be presented — and maybe, still is — with partnerships. We identified cultural institutions and school district partners that were going to allow us to use their spaces to present our work all over the community. They’d be helping us to market ourselves, while we’d be bringing in more people to their institution.

“So, let’s say, instead of doing a four-week run of a show in our home theater space, we do a four-week run of a show at the zoo or at the Rabbit Hole (immersive children’s literature museum) to meet kids and parents where they are. We had great responses from a lot of the people we talked to, and they were about to sign (agreements) with us. But then the COVID happened, and so now everyone’s paused.”

The Founder’s Take

There was rarely a chance to rest for Paul Mesner when he indefatigably ran the Paul Mesner Puppets from its ambitious start in 1988 until the founder’s well-deserved retirement in 2017.

“I toured 20,000 to 30,000 miles a year for 30 years,” Mesner said. “So, basically, I was a part-time truck driver. I was a roadie. And, in between all of that, I got to perform some. I was a madman. I spent my first year off just basically sleeping in and marveling that you could get up at 8 a.m. and work in the garden.”

Mesner’s current take on the puppet theater that still bears his name is a blend of ongoing concern and respectful detachment.

“They’ve been scrambling, and, in some ways, I feel like, ‘Whew, I don’t have to face this,’” he said. “But I want them to survive. And that’s one reason why I’ve tried to stay away, because founders of organizations are often hard to live with. And because what I know — or what I would always respond to reflexively when people said, ‘What should we do?’ — was the old knowledge I had, the stuff I had accrued. Well, all that landscape has changed in the last 30 years. What they have to do now is very different.”

Still, the fundamental needs of children haven’t changed over the years, Mesner said. And puppets haven’t lost their unique power to effectively entertain and educate the most impressionable minds among us, especially during uncertain times.

“You need to feed kids, of course, and that comes first,” Mesner said. “But you have to feed their souls, too, by keeping them engaged and making them laugh. You have to keep giving them joy — joy and hope, that’s what kids live on.

“And it’s great to tell kids and parents that it’s okay to be confused. We don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s an odd message to tell kids. But we don’t know. We just have to experience this and keep learning. Even if we thought we were done learning, there’s not room for that now. To survive, we all have to learn.”

Above: Meghann Henry, Mesner Puppet Theater’s producing artistic director (center) with Alex Espy, education director (left) and Mike Horner, director of puppetry arts, are working to ensure puppetry remains a vibrant part of the Kansas City scene. (photo by Travis, AW Studios)

About The Author: Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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