Bowling Green State University, 1985. A fresh faced Theatre major tours a local school district, performing a puppet show. The rest is history.
We’re not talking about television comedian Jon Stewart, although he too started in 1985, with the New York version of this puppet show, telling New York Magazine in 1994, “I was a cerebral-palsy puppet, a blind puppet, a deaf puppet, a hyperactive puppet — and a puppet who couldn’t commit to a relationship.”
Created in 1977, “Kids On the Block”, a disability awareness puppet show, exposed a young Tracey Conner to puppetry and its ability to impact an audience in a profound way.
“It was all about creating a climate of inclusion, acceptance and friendship between disabled and able-bodied children,” remembers Conner. “It was the first time that I realized that theatre, particularly puppetry, could do more than entertain. It could be used to make lives better for kids.”
Realizing the importance of this message, Tracey brought the idea of impacting through puppetry with her, upon moving to Orlando. Convincing performing partner, Michael Prazniak to follow, they combined their middle names (Michelle and Lee) creating Orlando’s longest running not for profit puppet company: MicheLee Puppets.
Determined to continue the work of “Kids on the Block,” Tracey and Michael needed puppets, and found their first (and longest running) corporate partner in Florida Hospital. Equipped with borrowed puppets, they set out on the road, and by year’s end, 6500 children in Central Florida were introduced to MicheLee Puppets.
“The response was overwhelming,” beams Conner, “children and teachers were being changed by what we were doing. I knew we had to do more.”
“Kids on the Block” became a staple for MicheLee Puppets, performed for over 20 years. The puppets still reside in MicheLee Puppets’ Orlando offices, brought out on occasion to tell stories of students that they have impacted, but the company has evolved into creating original works (and puppets) that deal with with hot button topics such as bullying, domestic violence and sexual assault. Using puppetry as a way to introduce these sensitive topics, allows abstract ideas to become accessible. Through the puppets, students see their own stories and gain the confidence to reveal in order to heal.
Now in its 30th year, with multiple corporate partners and 2million children served, MicheLee Puppets continues to tour Central Florida, focusing on performances that impact Early Childhood Education through “Rhyme Time” a reading readiness puppet show; and Health and Wellness through bully prevention performances and “The EXTREME Health Challenge”, an obesity prevention live game show. MicheLee Puppets has evolved to include online components such as videos that educate and entertain on a number of topics including pedestrian safety, rhyming, bully prevention, and soon STEM! (coming 2016)
“Kids on the Block” sent Jon Stewart to empowering lives through the art of comedy, and Tracey Conner to empowering lives through the art of puppetry. Not bad for a puppet show.
Stay tuned for our “Stories of Impact” series where we highlight those who have been profoundly affected by the work of MicheLee Puppets through the faces and voices of the people who were there.
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