Rural Missouri Magazine

Puppetry college
PuppetFest MidWest in Trenton,
where puppeteers of all ages learn the ropes

by Heather Berry
Students practice maneuvering marionettes during PuppetFest Midwest, a week-long crash course on the art of puppeteering held on the campus of North Central Missouri College in June.

The room would be silent if not for a rhythmic tap-tap of tiny feet on the tile floor. Bette Midler, Liza Minelli and a goggle-eyed Swiss Miss girl look on from the rack where they quietly hang, waiting their turn to practice.

“Watch their posture,” says instructor and professional marionette performer Phillip Huber. “Excellent personality,” he says as a student parades his puppet past a mirror-lined wall. “Good manipulation,” Huber says to another.

The occasion is PuppetFest MidWest, an annual gathering in Trenton of puppet enthusiasts who want to become masters of puppetry. Students have descended upon the north-central Missouri town to excel in the performance art. While nearly a dozen students learn advanced marionette techniques in Huber’s class, 50 other puppeteers are hard at work in other workshops.

Years ago, after performing at the Grundy County Jewett-Norris Library’s Hoover Theatre near the North Central Missouri College campus, professional puppeteers Peter Allen and Debbie Lutzky-Allen thought the small campus was the perfect site for a week-long puppet workshop. After sharing that dream with the Rumpelstiltskin Society, a close-knit group of puppetry friends, they decided to help inspire and instruct future master puppeteers so the art wouldn’t die. So they created PuppetFest MidWest, a training institute for both long-time and aspiring puppeteers.

Myrna Peterjohn from Los Alamitos, Calif., practices manipulating a shadow puppet during during a workshop led by nationally-recognized puppeteer Jim Napolitano.

“The art of live puppet theater, as opposed to television, movies or computer animation, is very important to us,” says Peter Allen. “Most of us have been performing for 20 or 30 years and we’re starting to realize that if we want to see good puppet theater after we retire, we’d better start teaching the next generation now. We dinosaurs in the art are starting to die off.”

While there are numerous puppet festivals held around the world, few offer the intense study that PuppetFest MidWest offers attendees.

“There are many festivals where 600 people can choose from a buffet-style selection of classes,” says instructor Jim Napolitano. “But you get maybe an hour and a half in a session and you come away with only a feel for that type of puppetry. It’s difficult to come away with that ‘Oh, I can do this at home’ confidence.

“Here you get at least 20 hours of instruction in small groups and you can go home with a puppet recipe and create puppets over and over again,” says Napolitano, who teaches a technique called shadow puppetry at the school.

During this year’s July 10-15 institute, attendees can choose such classes as developing puppet character, rod puppet design and performance, advanced marionette manipulation or ventriloquism technique to name only a few.

Even when working with a hand puppet, students learn to convey their own personalities through their art.

“There really aren’t any other options like what we’re doing here,” says Debbie Lutzky-Allen. “You could take long university courses or expensive short courses or you can come here for an intensive, affordable, fun week of school.”

PuppetFest MidWest evidently meets a need, as attendance has grown every year since its beginning in 2003. Last year more than 60 puppeteers from all across the United States, Canada and Japan attended the school. To the layman, the instructors might not be well known, but in the world of puppetry they’re recognized masters.

“Most of these guys make big money doing this, but they’re willing to come here for a small honorarium, a dorm room and cafeteria food. That’s definitely commitment to the art,” Debbie says.

The school costs $570 per person, which includes one workshop of your choice, room, meals and tickets to evening performances. Scholarships are also available to PuppetFest students.

For aspiring puppeteers, the experience is well worth the cost. Bruno Descaves, a Brazilian marionette puppeteer who resides in Japan, has attended two of the workshops and plans to come back again.

Students attending the workshop make their own puppets.

“It’s a 12-hour flight here from Brazil,” Descaves says, “but good marionette classes are so hard to find. And Phillip Huber is so generous with his knowledge.”

First-time student Lisa Hager of Kansas says she hopes to make puppets for use with vacation Bible school as well as Renaissance festivals she attends.

“The fact that I can sit in this small class and pick the brain of a master puppeteer amazes me,” says Hager. “They don’t know me from Adam, but they’ll talk to a novice like they would a world-class puppeteer. It’s priceless.”

For the public, evening performances are offered for $5 at the Hoover Theater. After watching the performances, one can see that puppetry isn’t only for kids. Even adults sit still with rapt attention.

“This is good, family entertainment,” says Peter. “Our goal is to help continue to produce good puppet theater and help train up-and-coming puppeteers.”

For more details, go to You may contact the Allens at or by calling (660) 684-6825.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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