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Educational Entertainment Executive Turns Talent into Business

An entrepreneur in puppetry expands viewer base through theatrical and media production By Ankie Yip

Name: Mike Harding Company: Applefun Puppetry Title: Owner and Chief Puppeteer, Entrepreneur Year established: 1997 Locations: Southern Ontario, and now the world Website: www.applefun.ca

In this feature article of The Education Executive, I had the opportunity to interview a very inventive entrepreneur, Mike Harding, Owner and Chief Puppeteer of Applefun Puppetry.

Mike holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Brock University and qualifications in Television Arts and Science, Television Production, from Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. After graduating from university, through a co-worker at a toy store earlier in his career, Mike learned of an opportunity to perform at a bookstore. He credits this serendipitous occasion as the inspiration behind creating his own venture. Audience members who saw his performance started requesting puppet shows for their children's birthday parties, at libraries, amongst other occasions.

Today, Applefun Puppetry is an educational entertainment company that produces puppet shows across a multitude of platforms and owns of a line of specialty products that are interactive for market segments of various sizes including schools, museums, festivals, and parent groups. The company also produces puppet-making workshops and crafts. The newest addition to Mike’s expansion line is the Puppet Video Subscription through which Mike’s client members can receive access to a monthly puppet show.

As a young student, Mike had a creative vision for producing puppet shows. His earliest performance took place in grade four as part of his school’s science fair. With the encouragement of his teacher, whose plan was to ultimately make the science fair less dull, the very first puppet that Mike made was from a tennis ball that was coincidentally damaged by his dog. At the age of ten, Mike viewed The Art of the Muppets, a behind-the-scenes exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre.

From that point forward, Mike was inspired by the pictures of professionals working with puppets, a moment that changed his perspective. When Mike attended secondary school, he acknowledges his courageous art teacher who offered him the permission to make puppets for a visual art project, an endeavour rarely presented before. Although Mike was not fully confident that a career in the arts was appropriate for him, he eventually moved forward to attend university to pursue a degree in business. This education, however, proved valuable when he inevitably embarked on his own business journey.

Mike is currently a member of the Ontario Puppetry Association, Puppetry Guild of Peel, and Puppeteers of America. His company has appeared at corporate and in-store performances. After the show, audience members are often invited to participate in a meet and greet with Mike. Most recently, Mike has appeared in several venues and regions across Ontario, as well as Colleton County Memorial Library in South Carolina.

“Mostly, I like the freedom that comes with having your own business. Having no experience, at first, I was inspired by the love of puppets but then I became interested in working with kids. I love what an honest and spontaneous audience kids can be.”

Q&A with Mike Harding, Owner, Applefun Puppetry

The Ed Exec: Thank you, Mike, for this exclusive discussion on your company, Applefun Puppetry. Wearing many hats within your organization, as owner, chief puppeteer, performer, and executive producer, how did you navigate and position yourself in this market space?

Mike Harding: A family friend, when I told them that I wanted to be a puppeteer, said "Then start calling yourself a puppeteer and find somewhere to perform". The first challenge was to start, to give myself a title, and to put words into action. Once I did that, things started to happen. The first successes were each of my initial shows: at a bookstore, the first birthday party, the first library, and so on. Each performance provided me a little more confidence.

Along the way, I acquired training in puppetry, mostly through networking with established puppeteers and taking courses at the Toronto School of Puppetry, which is run by Toronto's beloved Puppetmongers. Studying improvisational comedy at Second City helped build my confidence as a performer.

TEE: Since the company’s beginnings as a start-up, and now, having increased your presence on several media platforms and major events, what were some challenges that you have had to overcome?

MH: I am still in the growth phase. The biggest challenge is being a one-person operation, coming up with new content and marketing the business all at the same time. It is hard to stay motivated sometimes. Being featured on well-known TV shows like Sue Warden's Craftscapes, This is Daniel Cook, and Employable Me as a featured employer has helped add validity to gain confidence.

Pictured above: Mike from Applefun Puppetry as a featured employer in an award-winning documentary series on TVO, based on the British series showcased on BBC

TEE: What are your most memorable milestones so far?

MH: The Puppet Advent Calendar. I started this idea in the midst of the pandemic. It was so rewarding to take a brand-new idea, develop it, and see it succeed all in the space of a month. As a result, I had the best December, fiscally, ever, even with fewer actual puppet shows.

TEE: As a society, we know that this pandemic has significantly impacted businesses across Ontario and Canada as a whole. How are you adapting to some of these challenges?

MH: No more live shows! So now I make forty phone calls per week! This is something that I certainly did not do before and never thought I could do. Thankfully, I have been able to gain many new customers and reconnect with past clients. I now have the mindset that what I do is important especially through these tough times. People need laughter and fun that I can provide through puppetry.

“I now have the mindset that what I do is important especially through these tough times. People need laughter and fun that I can provide through puppetry.”

TEE: In regards to professional development, what types of resources have you had to seek out in order to help keep your energy up and stay connected to your mission and purpose?

MH: I have hired a business coach who has been a huge help and without whom I would probably be doing far worse right now. I have learned it is okay to need help and to seek it out.

TEE: In terms of storylines and scripts in your videos, where do you get your creative inspiration from?

MH: I make a point of writing every day and take inspiration from what is going on in the world and what is immediately around me. Stories for me often come from topics that I am interested in. For example, I really love the Robin Hood story and I love the TV show, The Dukes of Hazard. So, one day, I decided to combine those two things and came up with the script for my show, Robin Hood and The Dragon. I love the idea of mashing together two seemingly unrelated things into a fun new story. The pandemic has allowed me time to visit old ideas that I did not have time for previously.

Pictured above: Applefun Puppetry set design

TEE: Can you tell us about some of the trends occurring in theatrical production for children and children’s media?

MH: People are looking for content for kids that is a safe alternative to YouTube. Families and kids are wary of too much screen time but also realize that it is necessary right now. People are navigating this new landscape and trying to find a balance right now. When kids watch my shows, they feel respected and listened to. Puppets are tactile which is appealing. But also, they can respond in real-time to kids. The experience is fun, social, brain exercise rather than passive watching. It is like a personal live TV show just for them!

TEE: What is the newest project that you are working on currently?

MH: The Puppet Video Subscription is so exciting. It is a 20-minute puppet video every month about a topic. January's topic was "Arctic" so there was a series of puppet activity around that theme: a puppet show, a puppet telling a story, a puppet making a painting, and a puppet craft.

TEE: What do you believe is the next phase in your company’s development?

MH: I would really like to become better at performing on television and would like to serve that industry. I might like to create a show with my pal, Elias, whom I had met on the TV show, Employable Me.

“I would really like to become better at performing on television and would like to serve that industry."

TEE: Would you like to share any final thoughts?

MH: What I have learned is that you really can do anything if you put your mind to it. You have to show up every day, even in the times when you aren't motivated or think that you are wasting your time. You cannot wait to be ready. Do your best to prepare, but then jump in and see what happens!

TEE: Thank you, Mike, and all the best!