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What If Puppets?

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“Cirque du Wiener Dog” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “Cirque du Soleil,” but the dog show itself still enchants audiences. Kansas City’s What If Puppets knows how to wow a crowd.

Think you haven’t heard of What If Puppets? You have. But it’s still better known by its founding name: Paul Mesner Puppet Theater. The organization adopted the new name in Summer 2022 while keeping its mission – and aesthetic – pretty much intact, zany wiener dog antics and all.

The continuity was largely due to who took the torch from Mesner when he retired in 2016 after 39 years putting Kansas City on the national puppet map. Mike Horner, creator of the wiener dog circus, had been the lead puppeteer with the company since 2006.

Horner says, “I became artistic director, but we didn’t have an executive director. And I know how to make puppets and put on puppet shows, but I don’t know how to run a business.”

He says he and education director Alex Espy did a little “muddling through,” though business stayed strong. In December 2019, Meghann Henry came on board as the executive artistic director, just in time for the pandemic.

Henry’s area of expertise is theater for young audiences. She spent years at the Coterie Theatre, bringing the arts to the NorthEast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library as a youth services librarian and building a social-emotional learning theater program in Denver called Mirror Image Arts.

“I learned about the needs here for Mesner Puppet Theater and was like, you know, that sounds like a really cool next challenge,” Henry says.

And it was lucky that she had the background she did in light of the upheaval their core audience faced shortly after she took the position. COVID-19 robbed children of the stability of daily in-person interactions with teachers and peers and predictable schedules. So, the What If team asked educators, librarians, and youth social workers to help determine what would benefit young audiences in the current climate.

According to the website, what they found was a “need for learning through play and arts integration strategies to support the social-emotional development of 0-8 year olds coupled with a call for innovative ways for the very young and their parents to access professional arts as a form of family engagement.”

As was the case during Mesner’s tenure, What If still has touring shows, executed by Horner and Meredith Wolfe – about 140 per year. He’s touring with his wiener dogs right now.

But the education arm of the puppet biz has grown to 147 classroom sessions monthly, up from 19. School shows are interactive workshops facilitated by a five-person team that focus on helping teachers understand how they can use the arts in the classroom. The team visits the same classrooms for nine months each year.

Henry explains, “It’s a program that supports teacher professional development through the ways we’re working with kids to help them explore their emotions and understand themselves better through puppets.”

The current mission is nearly the same as Mesner’s original mission to inspire young audiences, just slightly more specific: To inspire play and cultivate connections through puppetry.

When the company decided to rebrand, they needed a name reflective of both their goals and their beefed up programming.

Henry says that they knew for sure they wanted to find a name that was inclusive of the multiple and diverse group of voices involved in their creative process. So, no longer the name of a single person.

Similarly, because the company has a national presence, which it will continue to grow, it didn’t want a place-rooted name.

Then one day, Henry and Horner were chatting.

“I was like, everything we do starts with ‘what if,’” Henry recalls.

Mean Mule Pomegranate Gin Fizz

Makes 1 cocktail

2 oz Mean Mule Agave Gin

1 ½ oz POM 100% pomegranate juice

½ oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice

¾ oz simple syrup

1 egg white

1 oz soda water

Garnish with rosemary sprig

Instructions: botanicals in about 100 combinations before they found a recipe. make persimmon jelly,” Meg says.

Combine gin, pomegranate juice, lemon juice, simple syrup, and an egg white in a cocktail shaker and shake like you mean it for 15 seconds (no ice). Then add ice and shake like you really, really mean it for 30 seconds until cold. Strain the drink into a glass and gently top with soda water as the egg white rises to the top. Then add the rosemary sprig garnish.

What they landed on does include juniper – for legal purposes – but also white peppercorn, cardamom, lemon zest, coriander, and, mostly strikingly, persimmon.

Moving forward, the Evanses plan to add another agricultural element to their business: growing their own agave. They’ve purchased 40 acres in Arizona and will plant this coming December, though, Jeff says, it’ll be nearly seven years before they’ll be able to harvest and distill their crop.

“We’re always like, ‘Oh, what if the puppet was created out of these materials?’ Or in Alex’s programs in education, we say to the kids, ‘Guys, what if we were all aliens moving in space? What would our bodies look like?’” concerned about entertainment value, is the dogs’ trainer. The dogs put on a magic show and perform some daring acrobatic feats. They even tame a wild beast – a large housecat puppet.

“We had an enormous persimmon tree on our property,” Meg says about her childhood home near Hermann, Missouri.

What If Puppets seemed just right.

She says they wanted to bring in elements from their farm and heritage and even experimented with cornhusks and other things that grew all around them.

Meg says the goal is to be a single-estate manufacturer. “Every part of the process of being single estate is important. So, single estate means from dirt to bottle, it is all on us.”

What if we took an old trope and made it new for a touring show, Horner might have asked at the start of his process. Yes, the old circus variety show trope, this time with wiener dogs. Horner, who often acts as a one-man-band and is quite

“Then the big finale is the tightrope of terror, which is the three wiener dogs riding a unicycle down the tightrope, which I then toss up into the air and catch them with one hand,” Horner says. “That’s the big ta-da.”

“Persimmon just really came out with something that we loved and have good memories around. Grandma used to

If it takes off, theirs will be the first large-scale agave farm in the United States, which sounds not only like great bragging rights for Mean Mule, but for Kansas City.

If anyone in Kansas City knows how to produce a big ta-da, it’s What If Puppets.

About The Author

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library. She's the author of Secret Kansas City and Kansas City Scavenger, and a freelance writer for various local and national publications. Visit her website: annekniggendorf.com.

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