London videos use puppets to 'pry open' difficult conversations with kids

Fanshawe College film students teamed up with some of Canada's best-known puppeteers to create a video series that tackles tough topics like mental health and LGBTQ issues.

Fanshawe students teamed up with industry pros to create a video series aimed at helping kids

Director Nicole Coenen and puppeteer Frank Meschkuleit go over the script prior to shooting a take. Coenen is a recent Fanshawe film student graduate while Meschkuleit has more than 30 years in the industry, with credits on the Muppets movie and Toopy and Binoo. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

If you want to get kids talking about tricky issues, Frank Meschkuleit is quick to put up his hand. 

And often on that hand, is a puppet. 

Whether the topic is anxiety, depression or gender identity issues, Meschkuleit said puppets are a perfect way to begin difficult conversations with kids. 

"Somehow puppets are able to gently pry open that door and allow communication to begin," said Meschkuleit, whose credits include Fraggle Rock, the Muppets and Toopy and Binoo. "Our hope is that enough kids and their families see this so that there can be dialogue and that's the beginning of all good change."

Meschkuleit made the comments on Tuesday while shooting a new series of videos in the downtown branch of London's public library. 

It's the second time he's worked with a group of Fanshawe College students on a series of videos that use puppets to tackle some tough topics. 

Last year under the banner M.I. Understanding, the group produced five YouTube videos to address kids' questions about issues such as separation anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. 

This year, the group has teamed up with Pride London and turned its lens to gender identity and LGBTQ issues. The project's new title is Pride Understanding and the videos will cover topics such as same-sex relationships.

Meschkuleit plays the role of Gulliver the Dog. Gulliver is earnest and curious, which allows him to ask questions that some humans might be inclined to shy away from. 

"Puppets are a great bridge for that because obviously they're already different," said Meschkuleit. "Using the puppet is a very effective way to get people to open their minds and listen." 

The video series also allows Fanshawe film students to work with and learn from industry professionals like Meschkuleit and puppeteer Terry Angus.

Nicole Coenen, a recent Fanshawe grad and member of the LGBT community, is the director of the videos. 

"I remember when I was in [grade] school. There wasn't much acknowledgement about the LGBTQ community and I know that causes a lot of problems," she said. "The videos give students that acknowledgement like 'we understand you, we know that you're there.' So you can feel more included and know that we belong.

"It starts a conversation [and] that's the main point. We want people to know that it's OK to ask questions about these things."

She said the practical project gives her essential experience. 

"I get to chose my crew and bring back some old friends. It's almost like a little reunion."

Organizer Paula Jesty said the Thames Valley District School Board plans to use the videos in the classroom. 

"Teachers can use them to support the start of a conversation in their classroom and they're a free resource for families," she said.

It's expected that the Pride Understanding videos will appear on the website in November. 

Puppeteer Frank Meschkuleit operating Gulliver the dog. 'Somehow puppets are able to gentry pry open that door and let communication to begin.' (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

About the Author

Andrew Lupton


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.