'Birthday Bash': Local students get involved in puppet show to celebrate Missouri's bicentennial

By Mike Genet
The Examiner
Puppeteers, from left, Danyell Rucker, Kraig Kensinger and Ava Brown are shown in a preview of Puppetry Arts Institute’s “Missouri Birthday Bash” show that will be presented the next two weekends at the National Frontier Trails Museum.

Kraig Kensinger, artistic director at Puppetry Arts Institute, took some of the time afforded by pandemic closures and wrote a puppet show for Missouri’s upcoming bicentennial, celebrating the spirit of the state. 

Usually, Kensinger is a solo performer for the Puppetry Arts shows. For the upcoming “Missouri Birthday Bash” show though, he’ll have some help from a couple Independence students who proved to be quick studies. 

Ava Brown, who will be a seventh grader at Bingham Middle School, and Danyell Rucker, a junior-to-be at William Chrisman High School, join Kensinger and Puppetry Arts board president Kathy Vest for the roughly 20-minute show, which technically debuted at the most recent Englewood Third Friday Art Walk but will be presented in earnest next month at the National Frontier Trails Museum. 

Show times at museum, 318 W. Pacific Ave., Independence, are slated for 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. both Aug. 7 and 14, as well as 7 p.m. Aug. 13. All shows are free. 

“Super excited,” Brown said about looking forward to the show. She said she was encouraged to sign up from her private art teacher. 

Some of the puppets used in Puppetry Arts Institute’s “Missouri Birthday Bash” show that will be presented the next two weekends at the National Frontier Trails Museum, including one of President Harry S. Truman, center.

“It’s been a dream to do something like this; I’m a theater kid,” said Rucker, whose interest piqued after she took a theater class during the annual Bingham Arts Academy this summer and Puppetry Arts made a presentation. 

“There were quite a few students interested but not many available because of vacations,” Kensinger said. “We had a week-long thing where I taught them how to use the marionettes.  

“They were very interested and willing to learn, and we need to start reaching out to younger people so I can pass along these skills. They did in three-and-a-half days what some professionals take a month to do.” 

Both girls say they had never worked with marionettes before, and any experience with hand puppets had been either making them or watching a ventriloquist comedian. They also say they hope to keep doing puppetry in some form in the future. 

“The marionettes, they were harder to control,” Brown said. “The hand puppets were easier. The whole experience was fun, and they were all great to work with.” 

“Really cool. It’s really inventive, in a way,” Rucker said. “Everyone loved the skating mules.” 

Kensinger said the “Missouri Birthday Bash” is less about the state’s history than a cultural revue – how the state name came to be, its agricultural and music, etc. – and draws from the vast library of puppets the organization has on hand at its Winner Road location. Besides the aforementioned skating mules, there’s juggling roosters and singing cows, Kensinger said, and of course the Harry Truman marionette.  

Puppetry Arts Institute also will have an exhibition of did-you-know Missouri informational tidbits – like a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,” Kensinger said – on display into the spring of 2022. 

While ice cream socials will be a popular way to mark the Aug. 10 bicentennial, Kensinger said this show is something unique in the state, and he even learned plenty while researching for it. 

“We’re one of the few doing something theatrical,” he said. “It’s not a historical thing, but still gives some bits and pieces. 

“It’s fun, plus it’s educational.”