As Artistic Director of Mesner Puppet Theatre, His Job is to Make People Laugh
Since Mike Horner became artistic director of Mesner Puppet Theatre in 2016, he’s tried to build on the successful tradition of the company’s founder and former artistic director, Paul Mesner.
But no matter what Horner does, he keeps being mistaken for his now-retired mentor. To say that Horner resembles Mesner might be an understatement.
“People think I’m him all the time,” Horner says. “People don’t ask, they just say, ‘Oh, Paul!’ One time, I was shaking hands with someone at a local non-profit and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Mike Horner,’ and the person said, ‘You must be Paul Mesner!’”
Still, there’s no mistaking that Horner is his own master of puppets. Arriving at Mesner Puppet Theatre from his native Nebraska in 2006, Horner has devoted himself to showcasing a universe of imaginary characters that may well cover his hands but never his heart.
Horner recently took a seat with “KC Studio” to talk about his job and what it means to him.
KC Studio: What’s the most fun that you can have with a puppet?
Horner: When you’ve got this thing on your hand that’s just made out of fur and foam — it may look like a wolf or a cat or whatever — and you do something very simple with it, like a slow take to the audience, you’ve got kids and adults rolling on the floor with laughter for this absurd thing you’re doing. So it’s when you realize the audience is suspending its disbelief and buying into this thing. That’s the fun.
KCS: How do puppets cause such a profound suspension of disbelief?
MH: Humans are storytellers. That’s how we share our experiences with others. That’s how we share our history. Ultimately, maybe the first puppets were shadow puppets in the cave against the wall. Holding something up against the flame and acting something out that everyone can see. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel with puppetry.
KCS: Your greatest puppet power?
MH: I know what to do to get the laugh. But as far as why that works? Part of it might be when your show isn’t just action-action-action and talking-talking-talking, a puppet can stop and not do anything or do it very slow — and it gets a laugh. Like in our show, “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” there’s a troll who reacts by just being still — and it gets a laugh.
Another puppeteer told me, “Oh, yeah, when the troll just stood there, not reacting, not saying anything, I could just imagine his mind working and thinking about what another character just said.” So you’re allowing the audience to fill in a blank. That’s a big thing with puppetry. You can try as hard as you can to fill in all the blanks — make blinking eyes or moving mouths or elaborate scenery and all this stuff — but if you have a good story, you can make the audience do some of the work. But with puppetry in general, you’re asking them to fill in all of these blanks.
KCS: What makes a puppet show as good as it can be?
MH: The big thing is listening to the audience. I heard this from two German puppeteers: Once you get in front of an audience, it’s directing you for the first 30 performances. And then when I got here and started working with Paul Mesner, his thing was always: ‘Listen, listen, listen to the audience.’ Especially when you’re behind the curtain, you can’t see how the audience is reacting, but you can hear. They will tell you what’s working. If it’s not working, you throw it out.
KCS: Do you control the puppet or does the puppet control you?
MH: The puppet tells you what it can do well. So you make a puppet and you want it to do this sort of cha-cha dance. That’s how you build it, and then it doesn’t quite do that. It doesn’t do what you envisioned. But, oh, if I move it this way, it does this kind of crazy thing that’s really funny. OK, it’s not a cha-cha, it’s something else. So you make this physical object and learn what it can do well.
KCS: Biggest surprise from a puppet?
MH: We did a show called “Martha Speaks,” based on a children’s book about a little girl who feeds the family dog her alphabet soup, and once the dog swallows all the letters, it can talk. I played a burglar with cat ears on his mask who breaks in and says, “This was an easy target for the Cat Burglar! Meow-ha-ha!” We had little kids leaving the theater going, “Meow-ha-ha!” It was planned, but I didn’t know it would resonate the way it did.
KCS: How way out can you get at Mesner Puppet Theatre?
MH: We need to sell tickets. So we can’t just try some avant-garde story about the Magical Mailbox Fairy. It might be a fantastic show, but audiences don’t know what that means. That’s why with your title or your choice of story, you want the audience to be able to latch onto something and want to come. That’s why a lot of puppet theaters and children’s theaters fall back on Little Red Riding Hood and the like, although maybe with a totally new take. But the name gets them in.
KCS: What does the future of puppets look like to you?
MH: You always hear puppetry’s a dying art. Or juggling and magic are dying arts. Well, these things aren’t dying. They’ve never gone away. They’ve always been there. It’s just that they might be suddenly in the forefront again. People say, “Until Broadway’s ‘Lion King’ came along, puppets were a dying art.” Well, no, puppets were still there. You just forgot about them.
Photo of Mike Horner by Jim Barcus