Kansas City puppet master Paul Mesner announced Tuesday that he has passed the reins as artistic director of Mesner Puppet Theater.
After 28 years as founder and leader, Mesner shifted to an advisory role last month when associate artistic director Mike Horner took over. Mesner plans to stay active in the company until July 1, 2017.
Mesner has been contemplating the leadership change for a couple of years. He said the new team — including artist/set designer/director Alex Espy as a new education director — was “almost chomping at the bit” to get started. He saw in Horner “an encyclopedic knowledge” of new styles of puppetry that Mesner admitted he himself couldn’t bring to the company.
“I didn’t want to be too close to burnout,” Mesner said. “I worked hard to get our organization to this point, and I don’t want to be in the way of its further growth. It’s going to have to grow without me.”
Mesner started his career as a teenager in Nebraska, eventually starting his own company in Omaha. He moved to Kansas City in 1988, where he created Mesner’s Puppet Theater to retell classic stories with a contemporary spin. The company performs a local season and tours nationally and internationally.
Horner, who has worked with the company for 10 years, was a puppet nerd from an early age. When he was in the second grade, he actually saw Mesner perform at his school with a Ronald Reagan puppet. Horner thought it was so cool that he went home and made his own.
He said he looks forward to exploring new options where puppet shows can appear, like a recent performance the company did at the Doughnut Lounge in Westport.
“It’s an honor that Paul trusts me to carry on this company,” Horner said. “Paul has a big reputation in this city and across the country, so there’s been a little bit of pressure … but it’s not like he’s handing me the keys and disappearing. It’s always a collaborative process.”
Mesner said he’s looking forward to a break from constant shows, and he’ll use the time to travel and explore other interests that have been put on the back burner. He wants to explore volunteer puppetry in a couple of different cities, but he’s always willing to come back to Kansas City.
“I’m going to let my brain wander for a while and play with some stuff,” he said. “I’ll always be glad to come back and do a show, but I don’t want to burden them with the legacy that they have to hire me. I want them to do what’s best for the company.”