Growing up in a military family, Katie Van Zile spent her early childhood in Germany, where there weren’t many options for children’s TV shows in English. However, she was able to watch “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street”.
It turns out that these shows left a big impression on Van Zile. She now works as a puppeteer for Kentucky Kids on the Block, an organization designed to provide educational programs to Commonwealth children through puppet shows.
Although Van Zile studied theater at Western Kentucky University, much of her passion and talents in the performing arts emerged while living in Hardin County.
Van Zile’s father retired from the military while stationed at Fort Knox. A 2011 graduate of John Hardin High School, Van Zile has appeared in several Hardin County Playhouse productions.
Van Zile’s first HCP production was “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 2014. From there, she also starred in “Legally Blonde the Musical”, “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Spring Awakening”.
â’Spring Awakening’ is my all time favorite musical,â said Van Zile. “I was the female swing, which meant I covered all the female roles, which was amazing because I wanted to play them all anyway.”
In addition to the experience she gained through HCP, Van Zile also attended the Governor’s School for the Arts in 2010 with a specialization in Creative Writing.
âIt was a life-changing experience that exposed me to so many new art forms,â she said. âIt was there that I started to get interested in musical theater, but I was quite introverted and I only started acting when I was 21 years old.
After high school, Van Zile spent a few years trying to find the right academic path. Before deciding to do theater, she went to art school on a fashion photography scholarship, attended music school, and studied speech therapy.
She holds an arts degree from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington and is expected to graduate from WKU with a major in theater and a minor in performing arts administration next year.
At WKU, she performed in productions such as “Aglaonike’s Tiger”, “Medea”, “The Most Massive Woman Wins” and “The Revolutionists”. In several productions, Van Zile had the opportunity to use his musical background by playing the clarinet and the flute on stage.
âI have learned so much from the younger students I have the opportunity to play with,â she said. “Being a non-traditional student can be isolating, but the faculty and students at WKU have been so kind to me.”
Van Zile has been working with Kentucky Kids on the Block since March of last year. The organization’s puppeteers use life-size puppets to educate children on a range of topics. The organization is currently addressing 18 different topics through its shows, such as accepting the differences of others, mental health, bicycle safety, first aid, prevention of child abuse and prevention of drug addiction.
âPuppets bring children to a learning moment. The kids really believe they are real, âsaid Van Zile. “They even invite the puppets to their birthdays.”
The first Kids on the Block program began in 1977 when Special Education teacher Barbara Aiello used a puppet to help students understand a classmate with cerebral palsy. When the kids started raising their hands and asking the puppet questions they were afraid to ask their classmate, the inspiration to form the first Kids on the Block puppet troupe emerged.
Kentucky Kids on the Block was formed in 1985 when co-founder Jamie Gaddie Higgins took his daughter, Heather, to a Spina Bifida Association Christmas party where the Nashville Kids on the Block troupe presented their “Accepting Differences” program. “. Heather, who had a spina bifada, responded positively to the show and Higgins contacted her friend, Alice Krummer, to form a puppet troupe in Bowling Green.
Through her role with Kentucky Kids on the Block, Van Zile travels statewide regularly. She said that so far this year she has performed for students in 45 different counties across the Commonwealth.
In a typical day, the troupe presents two to six programs, most of which are 20 to 45 minutes long. Van Zile also has to help set up and take down the stage setup and sound system for each performance.
âMy arms are pretty strong these days,â she said.
After learning the art of puppetry for his work, Van Zile said one of the hardest parts is mastering the intricacies of lip-syncing. She said her experience in speech therapy was helpful in learning this skill.
Van Zile said another challenge is dealing with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a condition that affects blood flow.
âStanding up and putting my arms above my head can cause me to pass out if I am lax with my medications and treatment,â she said. “So I have to make sure that I take care of myself so that I can continue doing the job that I love so much.”
In addition to working as a puppeteer, Van Zile is also a marketing professional and in-house script developer for Kentucky Kids on the Block. In these roles, she manages the organization’s social media accounts, handles graphic design, develops marketing plans and edits, and develops new puppet shows. She recently developed a new cyberbullying program for the organization.
âI love that my words can inspire children to be nicer in their everyday lives,â she said.
When Van Zile was first hired, she was tasked with expanding the organization’s child abuse program, which deals with physical and sexual abuse in an age-appropriate setting, allows children to say “no” to an abuser and allows them to report the abuse. She said that as a result of the program, several children disclosed abuse in their lives to teachers and got the help they needed.
âThere is a question and answer portion of our show where the kids can talk directly to the puppets and the questions and comments they always have with me,â Van Zile said. “I know what I’m doing is making a difference and helping kids get out of bad situations.”
Earlier this year, Van Zile had the opportunity to bring his writing skills and dialogue with children home through the Hardin County Playhouse. Van Zile wrote “The Sisters Grimm”, a children’s theater production staged in August.
Based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, the show takes place in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and follows two sisters as they tell each other popular fairy tales while stranded at home. The show was performed entirely by local children and was staged in the science auditorium of Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.
âI think the most rewarding part of the experience was seeing how she brought families together,â said Van Zile. âAfter the isolated year we had, it was so nice to see little kids playing with all their hearts with their friends and family in the supportive audience. When you produce a show that no one has ever heard of, you worry about people actually showing up. But âThe Sisters Grimmâ has been our most successful production in quite some time. “
Van Zile is also a member of the board of directors of HCP. She said that one day, when her arms aren’t too tired from the puppets, she hopes to run her own community theater.
Until then, Van Zile said she continued to find great rewards in engaging with children statewide while pursuing a long-standing passion.
âI have traveled through this beautiful state and have met so many lovely children,â she said. ââ¦ It’s very meaningful to connect with people through the puppet who might be uncomfortable talking to me otherwise. “