Westport Roanoke Community Center could become a full-fledged arts center aimed at all ages, including those “young at art.” For Heather Nisbett-Loewenstein, the founder of StoneLion Puppet Theatre, the steps are already being taken, especially on her part. As a Kansas City Parks and Recreation partner, StoneLion Puppets is already well and truly recreational as they have been performing in parks and centers all over the city. As a matter of fact, many in the city saw their work at the Big Picnic, celebrating The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s sculpture park.
The center, originally opened in 1963, recently underwent a $1.25 million face lift that included an updated pottery room, reception area, bathrooms, new heating and cooling, plus a security system. Now, StoneLion Puppets and Loewenstein are frequent performers at the community center for Sunday in the Park with StoneLion. The afternoon shows on the first Sunday of each month are designed to bring families together. StoneLion Puppet Theatre has the first Sundays scheduled through June of 2015. On Sept. 7, the show will be The Toy Box. The Oct. 5 show will be Stellaluna and the Nov. 2 show will be Kachina Drums in honor of Native American history month.
Loewenstein calls the process an “adventure.” “We are working to develop this community center into ‘the arts center’ for the Kansas City Parks and Recreation
Department. We really want to see people experiencing affordable arts in their own neighborhoods. The thrill is to educate our audiences that art can be found all over. Of course, there is joy in finding and shaping new audiences.”
The community center aspect makes sense to Loewenstein as well. “If Kansas City is going to be seen as the Artistic Crossroads, the idea has to permeate all over. Our city has blossomed with great art from the Kauffman to Starlight and all the many companies producing. Much of that art has a cost associated to it that is out of the realm of many families. Westport can be a springboard to develop new audiences.” However, Loewenstein and her crew do a stellar job in taking their creative arts out into the world. StoneLion will be the guest artists for the month of October at the Smithsonian. They are also in demand at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. She will perform 417 shows by the time 2014 ends.
“This is a slow process but we have started programming in the building,” she says. “I think it will take time for all of the different entities involved, governmental and community, to buy into the concept which was mandated by the Mayor’s task force. Right now Parks has invested some funds to upgrading the stage.” At the Parks Department, one of the biggest supporters for this initiative has been Deputy Director Terry Rynard.
With the various studies of the arts in Kansas City, the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department is amplifying its focus on the arts. Rynard says that as a department, staff has been reviewing opportunities for locations to house the needed programs. The Westport Roanoke Community Center seems like a natural fit, she says. “The stage is in decent shape and we know that performances were there in the past. We need to work on better lighting. The next trick is to figure out how to augment what is already at this center. We have always had a strong pottery program there. Our goal is to see how to integrate programming without hindering what is already there. We are giving people what they want and doing programming the community wants.”
The arts partnership with StoneLion is a win-win situation, Rynard says. “We are closely aligned in missions … Sunday in the Park with StoneLion is aimed at this community outreach. We are fortunate to have strong partner organizations that come along side and bring in the performing arts. The other win is that Heather and her crew has such a following. She can leverage her contacts and bring in more folks. We are fortunate to have StoneLion offer up shows focused on the environment, history and lots of fun.”
Loewenstein and her staff ran a few camps before school started. She’s also hoping to capitalize on the ceramics studio and the other gallery space. “I want folks to drive by the center and see art. It should be a place that has live performances, workshops, classes and more. I can see a couple of festivals being part of the line-up.”
As with such plans, StoneLion seeks funding through grants and sponsorship to expand this center beyond what the Parks department and StoneLion can now budget. “How far this center goes will depend on how much funding we can generate and sustain. My goal for the coming year is to find the funding to underwrite weekly classes, holiday break camps and to fund display cases for exhibits by artists outside of StoneLion,” Loewenstein says.
Rynard says many community members have spoken about the former Theatre Under the Stars program which put on significant shows. “In five years, it would be great to see some plays and musicals at Westport Roanoke for children and adults. It will take work and funding, but we have begun demonstrating that partnerships work. It’s a great community to begin with and can only get better.”
The move to expand the arts coincides with StoneLion’s 20th anniversary. Loewenstein started her work in 1994 and became a non-profit in 2001. “There is no greater joy than when a young adult tells me that I am remembered because I came to his school. The positive efforts are noticed. I am told that I made a difference. I made people laugh and think. I found my niche with puppetry in Kansas City. I have students from the Kansas City Art Institute who serve as my interns so I am helping shape the next generation. I want StoneLion to continue beyond me and with those who love this art of puppetry, I know it will keep going.”