Diversity is Key: Meghann Henry’s tool for leading What If Puppets

What If Puppets

Meghann Henry. // Photo by Travis Young

Meghann Henry stepped into a man’s legacy and made it her own when she joined What If Puppets just a few years ago. What started as a team of three has grown to 11 members led by Henry. 

These days the group leans heavily into knocking down barriers. No longer male-dominated, they’re creating characters who depict a range of people facing unique challenges and coming from all walks of life. An effort has been made to hire women and non-binary folks—so there’s diverse representation in everything What If Puppets does.

We sat down with Henry to discuss what it’s like to be a woman in puppetry and the impact What If Puppets has on the community.

Tell us about yourself and how you got into puppetry.

Meghann Henry: I have a BFA in theatre from Emporia State University. After that, I was like, “What am I gonna do with my life?” I did a lot of thinking about what I love about theatre and when it is the most meaningful. I decided it was working with young people. What you can create for kids can be so otherworldly and magical, and that is such a fun, creative challenge. How do you do that really well? How do you get smart and specific with what you’re doing? I also had no idea how to enter the field, so I got my MFA from the University of Central Florida in theater for young audiences.

Then I came to Kansas City to do my residency, and I worked with the Coterie Theatre for five years when I decided I wanted to work in the community more deeply. I started working for public libraries as a youth services librarian, thinking about how I could take my knowledge of building programs for kids and my desire to connect more authentically with the community and what they want and need. I did that for three years, both here and in Denver—the library and work took me to Denver.

While I was in Denver, I got back into doing different stuff with art centers and eventually started working with a woman who was trying to revamp a nonprofit that had fallen by the wayside. She asked me to be on their board, and their mission was to use theatre as a tool for social-emotional learning.

I spent a few years on the board helping them to figure out what the programming should look like and how they could fundraise for it, and then eventually, I was on staff and helped them build out their programs. I did that with an organization called Mirror Image Arts for about five years, and then I was like, “I think I have to leave Denver.” It was just at that time that Alex Espy, who’s the education director at Messner Puppet Theater (now, What If Puppets), reached out to me. We’d been connected from our days as artists in Kansas City when we were younger and were like, “Hey, we’re looking for a new executive artistic director. Is that something you would be interested in?” I was like, “Maybe, I would be.” 

I wouldn’t call myself a puppeteer in the way I would call Mike, our director of puppetry, a puppeteer. But I was an artist and director who had experience with puppets—combine that with my theater for young audiences, directing background, and SEL arts education work, it became a wonderful place for me to be.

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What If Puppets production. // Photo by Travis Young

Puppetry seems to be a very male-dominated field. Has that been your experience? What’s it like being a woman in this industry?

Yeah, I think it is a male-dominated field from a commercial puppetry standpoint—the things we’ve seen on TV and the puppeteers that we’re familiar with. I think puppetry as a folk form has had a lot of women involved—especially when you think about teachers, librarianship, and ministry puppetry—in those forms, I think women have had a lot of places at the table. It’s the professionalization of it, where there have been gaps at times—which is not uncommon in the arts in general. I think we’re making a lot of great strides.

As far as being a woman in the puppetry field, I think it’s interesting because it’s looking at the stories we’ve been telling them and how we have been telling them. When we look at the way many folktales are written, we look at the way many puppetry pieces in the past have been—even our own company—through a male lens. What we’re doing now is talking about how we want this to be represented. Is that a story we should even be telling anymore? And I think right now, particularly, it’s about asking a lot of questions, and it’s not that we throw everything out. It’s how do we get critical about the things that we’re doing and ask ourselves questions so that we can make sure we’re centering a diversity of voices, a diversity of perspectives. For me, it’s been a really joyful, open process.

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What If Puppets. // Photo by Travis Young

Paul Messner is internationally recognized and established. What’s it like being a woman walking into a man’s legacy? And then leaving this legacy behind and kind of starting your own?

It goes back to the thing I was saying before: Looking at the canon of things that we’ve done, and how much of that was through a male lens and saying—what does that look like now? Our main puppeteer is still male. So how are we building that out? The first step we is to identify a female puppeteer. We’ve started working with Meredith Wolfe, who is a theatre artist in town and is now on staff part-time—we’re working to raise funds to bring her on full-time. So now we’ll have a male and a female touring artist, which will be awesome, and she’ll develop her own shows. 

That is what I’m very excited about right now—how do we even out those scales? How do you acknowledge and honor the gift we got from Paul—in the fact that he helped to make puppetry beloved in the community—but now, how do we make it more inclusive of what our community is and what it looks like? That’s gonna be a long journey.

We’ve got to do the hard work of cultivating the interest and providing the skills. From that standpoint, I think about it a lot as it’s my job to stand firm in the fact that we’ve got women artists in the community who just need opportunities, and how do we create those opportunities for people? I think previously in the world, it was sort of like, “Oh, I know this person, and now this person is going to come.” So part of what we’re doing is trying to formalize that, right? Rather than it’s just like, oh, Paul knew this guy, and this guy knew this guy. How are we opening the door and putting a call out for artists? How are we intentionally providing pipeline processes so that we can have more equitable ways to access something for someone?

It’s my job to stand firm in the fact that we’ve got women artists in the community who just need opportunities, and how do we create those opportunities for people?

There’s been a real effort made to hire women and non-binary individuals. Has it been challenging to keep this in mind when pitching and hiring contractors, actors, and other staff?

So much about the arts is creating an environment that’s welcoming to everybody. That’s why most of us get into it, right? In high school or middle school, often, the theater or the arts become a place where you feel the most accepted, and that has not always translated into professional work. Suddenly, it’s like this really inclusive environment drops off to a more competitive, maybe not as supportive sort of thing.

For me, as a leader, one of the things I think about is why we are all doing this. We’re doing it because, at some point, it created a sense of community. And community means inclusion, right? Everyone’s welcome at the table. So, I’m always thinking about how we are making our organization a place where everybody’s welcome at the table. A lot of it starts with each of us individually and thinking about, “How am I showing up? And how am I treating the people that I’m working with? And what would I need and want if I were in this situation? And what do I not know that I should be asking about?” 

Organizationally, I think because we work with young people, it also puts a finer point that we are not young people. Those young people have to be the experts in their own lives, and they have to teach us things about what it is to be a young person today. I think that infiltrates the whole thing, right? I’ve never been a 5-year-old in 2023 after a pandemic, so I’ve got to listen to those kids and understand what that’s like. I’ve never been a teaching artist who’s worked with kids or a puppeteer that’s worked with kids in this scenario, so it becomes this sort of thing when you know that you don’t know, then you look toward people and are open to being wrong and having them tell you you’re wrong. 

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What If Puppets. // Photo by Travis Young

The type of childhood programming you create has become more diverse over the years. For example, there is one puppet that is a young nonverbal neurodivergent girl. Why do you feel it’s important to have this representation?

Every kid deserves to be seen, right? We know that when we see someone on TV or in movies, or in a play who looks, sounds, acts, and behaves as we do, we feel validated whether we consciously know it or not. When we made the digital series, we talked a lot about how we could use it to represent different educational needs—different backgrounds of kids—so this idea of having a character who maybe was not verbal but could still communicate with people through her own ways and means were things that our education director had directly experienced with his work inside of preschool.

We took the real things he had experienced and applied them to this puppet, and I think puppetry is so beautiful for that because puppets show so much without speaking. With a tilt of their head or reach of their arm, our brains fill in a lot of information. It makes it this extra heightened engagement. 

When we’re looking at our materials, we’re always trying to think about how we are picking books that we’re getting feedback from our community about—what books they want to see us bring in to use inside of our creative drama sessions. We’re thinking about what stories we are not telling. What stories have we told too much?

The more diverse our organization becomes over the long arm of time, the more exciting and more authentic those things will become. We’ve got more people, organizationally, who are going to come with their own thoughts and ideas—even just in the hiring—we have neurodivergent staff, we have a person of color on our staff, we have a person who has a hearing problem, so we have people who have different perspectives. It’s exciting to see those little changes happen, and then it’s like, what will happen next? How much deeper can it get? How much more inclusive? It’s just the beginning. 

Article originally published by Catcall Magazine. Check out more work from Catcall Magazine at catcallmag.com

Categories: Culture