Joco Diversions

Curtain rises on Paul Mesner Puppets in Johnson County

Bill Prenevost pauses mid-sentence as a fat rat scurries across the Glenwood Arts Theater stage in Overland Park.

He casually resumes conversation, unalarmed as the large gray rodent clutching a wooden pitchfork in its claws viciously attacks a miniature hay bale.

“Now, where was I?” Prenevost wondered aloud, sipping his coffee.

The scene unfolding on the movie theater’s stage Wednesday morning has nothing to do with a horror film or rats on the loose in Johnson County, but everything to do with one of Kansas City’s most beloved professional arts assets, Paul Mesner Puppets.

And veteran arts professional Prenevost, who was managing director of the Kansas Repertory Theatre for six years and is now interim executive director for Paul Mesner Puppets, is eager to cut to the chase.

“We are thrilled to bring our shows to a whole new audience here in Johnson County,” he said, watching four of Mesner’s employees go through the paces of a dress rehearsal on the Glenwood stage.

“It will be a great adventure for everyone.”

The furry rat, now emitting a high-pitched squeal, is actually a feisty character in the troupe’s production of Rumpelstiltskin.

Mesner’s associate artistic director Mike Horner scoots back and forth on a small, wheeled trolley behind the curtain of the show’s set, manipulating and giving voice to the puppet.

Mesner’s colorful adaptation of the classic German fairy tale runs through Nov. 2 at the Glenwood and marks the internationally recognized puppet company’s multi-venue debut outside Kansas City’s urban core.

Prenevost is visibly excited when explaining the reason behind bringing three of Mesner’s three shows across the state line for puppet patrons and their children in Johnson County satellite locations, including the Glenwood and White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center.

“Unlike many other live theater genres, our audiences grow up, so we are constantly doing marketing and exploring new ways of reaching people,” said Prenevost. “Parents usually bring their children until fourth or fifth grade, and then might go to a young adult theater like the Coterie. And we know, from studying our demographics, that Johnson County is primed for having Paul Mesner Puppets in their backyard.”

Mesner and Prenevost intend to expose Johnson County families to the magic of puppetry. That includes grandparents who once sat in a darkened theater watching Mesner’s puppets with their own kids and want to maintain a tradition by attending with their grandkids.

Mesner, an award-winning master puppeteer, author and performer whose lively imagination, sense of humor and dynamic presentations have captivated young and old audiences in Kansas City for 26 years, is known for presenting stories with clever messages for modern times that transcend age.

Following the regular Kansas City season, Mesner takes his show on the road to residencies, festivals and workshops around the country.

A nonprofit, 501(c)3, Mesner’s headquarters is in a rehabilitated 7,000-square-feet warehouse at 1006 Linwood Blvd. that provides ample space for production, administration, workshops and rehearsals.

The venture into Johnson County means Mesner and his employees — including Horner, resident lighting designer Paul Tilson, puppeteer Erika Baker, stagehand and puppeteer Marcus Mull and others — will pack up sets, equipment and other tools of the trade after shows end their run at the Linwood space, and prep stages in Johnson County.

Following a run at Mesner’s Linwood studio, Rumpelstiltskin opened at the Glenwood earlier this week. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins opens at the White Theatre Nov. 29. Following an engagement on Linwood in late January, Anansi the Spider, a Caribbean folk tale, plays to Johnson County audiences at the Glenwood beginning Feb. 19.

As Mesner’s employees wrap up a successful dry run on the Glenwood stage, Prenevost reflects on the state of the arts in Kansas City and Johnson County.

“This is a vibrant city, a wonderful place to live,” said Prenevost, who has worked in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and other cities.

Horner is still on the trolley, testing out puppets. Rumpelstiltskin, with wild green hair and a colorful jester’s costume, pops up from behind the velvet curtain.

“Hello,” an invisible Horner suddenly morphs his voice into that of a strange little man from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

And the Johnson County show goes on for Paul Mesner Puppets.