A Positive Message for All Ages

StoneLion Puppet Theatre director and puppeteers embrace storytelling.

About a decade ago, the StoneLion Puppet Theatre Company made a decision to expand programming to “at-risk” populations. The company also has a strong environmental message and has successfully combined the two efforts.

Heather Nisbett-Loewenstein and the company recently received a grant from the Stormwater Education Committee of Johnson County. Through this grant, StoneLion Puppet Theatre can take the show Spelunk! Saving Our Springs into the first 50 public or private schools in Johnson County. She is working on a grant from Missouri to make the show available to area Missouri schools. “The chance to reach children … to change their thoughts early about their carbon footprint. We present a show and share a message. These kids then take the message back to their families. Then of course, families often come to shows.

The show looks at a young Indiana Jones type character named Nathan Ready. He drags his friend, Felicia Flash, to search for the ancient Aztec treasure rumored to have the power to solve all the earth’s problems…. along the way they go spelunking into an amazing underground world full of shadow puppets, light up puppets and original music. The 45-minute show explores several educational components including geography, wildlife and stormwater management.

Another show, Down the Drain, has a similar message. It’s also one of Loewenstein’s favorites. “I was driving down Troost and saw someone toss a coffee cup out of the window of a city bus. That act inspired me to explore the adventures of a rat and that rat looks at what we throw into the sewers or floats there.” Her environmental efforts have also been rewarded.

The troupe also receives support from the Kansas City Parks & Recreation Department. Loewenstein says many of the green programs are a way to get art into the parks and in front of many families. Kansas City Young Audiences helps schedule tours and StoneLion is also part of the Missouri Arts Council roster.

Depending on the month, Loewenstein and her puppeteers can stage half a dozen shows or more, write new scripts based on school curricula, repair or make new puppets for their own shows or for other companies around the United States and explore other opportunities that inspire creativity such as visiting with other puppeteers.

“I see a lot of what I do like the hat peddler in ‘Caps for Sale.’ He has 20 hats that he’s balancing. I wear those 20 hats. That’s my job description. Yes, we create in collaboration and I have a great team. However, the buck stops with me and I take up the slack. After all, this is my dream that a lot of people bought into fortunately. I suppose I am a little like the dreamcatcher. I filter out the bad and catch the good.”

Oddly, the road to StoneLion Puppet Theatre was not typical. Loewenstein started as an actress. She had her first paying gig as a sixth-grader. Then she started concentrating on Shakespeare. During her college years, she took up sewing in the college costume shop. “There was a show in college that required a puppet and I ended up repairing the puppet.” With that, Loewenstein fell in love with the art form that gives her incredible license to create. “I build, write, help compose music, paint, sew … I am not pigeonholed in the arts. Rather we get to explore all the facets and expand the arts and this specific art form.”

She also attributes DoLores Hadley, the creator of the marionette troupe, “La Famille,” which entertained thousands at Worlds of Fun for more than 20 years, for her marionette skills. “I pay homage to her and her methods,” Loewenstein says.

However, the puppets aren’t all marionettes. There are shadow, hand and rod, direct manipulation and more. In Kachina Drums, Philip Blue Owl Hooser and Loewenstein worked on translating the tales of the Southwest Native Americans about creation and the art of listening. Tim Cormack teamed with Loewenstein for the play, offering his skills as the First Boy, Bear and Raven, some of the first animals. He has been with the troupe for eight years. “It’s about the kids,” he says. Cormack, a professional actor, is also the author of The Emperor Penguin’s New Clothes. “One big benefit to me is how much my vocal experiences have expanded through our shows.”

“It’s about reaching kids and not necessarily the numbers,” she says. One of their biggest ventures, literally, is the giant puppet production, Mother’s Day for Mother Earth for Earth Day. Thousands have seen the show. “I like to make people laugh and think. I see the audience as another member of the troupe. Theater is collaborative and puppets are even more so. Puppets are meant to be used for performances. We also talk to the kids before the show if we can. We want to give a face to the puppeteers.”

Loewenstein has a core company of nine puppeteers, but adds more depending on the season and the size of the show. Laura Burkhart serves as her scenic designer and puppet builder. Glenn Lewis is the residential technical director and Jack Sharman is a composer. Taylor Gass is the office manager and company puppeteer. The performing troupe includes Diane Bulan, Cormack, Dalene DePriest, Taylor Gass, Dan Hillaker, Todd Lanker, Marisa MacKay and Steph Suetos.

“I look forward to beginning the school tours and the events in the fall … the Irish Fest, the American Royal, the Overland Park and Plaza Art Fairs, Kids Jazzoo and Crown Center,” she says. “There is so much joy in connecting with the youth in our metropolitan community.”

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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