A large butterfly puppet from StoneLion Puppet Theatre takes flight.
Tina Gipson works among giants.
And not just the titans of expertise at BKD CPAs & Advisors’ Kansas City office. We’re talking mammoth butterflies. A humongous whale. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes supersized to 15 feet.
“These are literally giant puppets. Literally,” Tina says of her massive, eye-catching cohorts at Kansas City’s StoneLion Puppet Theatre.
The Office Services Specialist’s heart for volunteer work also is huge, whether she’s a “child wrangler” for youths participating in StoneLion shows or a “rapid responder” for the two-week Kansas City Fringe Festival, quickly filling in when a venue needs help.
“It gives me a life aside from just going home with the kids,” Tina says of her passion for volunteerism. “You learn so much about different people.”
StoneLion reaches audiences in the U.S. and abroad
With a wide range of colorful characters, StoneLion does more than enthrall children as young as 2. The theatre company teaches environmental lessons in hundreds of shows throughout the year, whether performers are visiting area schools and community centers or livening the grounds of Kansas City’s Theis Park.
“We teach children about the environment through puppets. Littering and what happens to trash. Recycling and all the stuff we didn’t learn as kids but probably should have,” says Tina, who has spent 10 years on StoneLion’s board of directors and is a past president.
The not-for-profit’s influence extends well beyond Kansas City. Heather Nisbett-Loewenstein, StoneLion’s artistic director, devised puppets that could work underwater for the “Plastic Free Red Sea” campaign filmed in Israel through a collaboration with National Geographic.
“She can build whatever she wants to build,” Tina says.
StoneLion usually constructs a new puppet show each year, she says. Tina’s favorite puppets include Dead Betty, a towering, skeletal princess seen at Kansas City’s Day of the Dead celebration. “She makes me laugh.”
Heather describes Tina as an unsung hero for her work in the community.
“For many years, Tina has been part of the backbone that makes StoneLion Puppet Theatre strong. We specialize in providing free family programming and events to our community, and Tina helps make this happen,” Heather says.
“Her real strength is in connecting community and volunteering at our events such as Illuminated Waters. This free festival typically has more than 50 kids from the age of 2 to 12 in the giant puppet show, and Tina herds this crazy kids cast into creating amazing art for thousands of spectators annually.”
Fringe attracts volunteers from “all different walks of life”
Tina (right) works the ticket booth at the Westport Coffee House during the Kansas City Fringe Festival in 2018.
Tina’s involvement with the arts started by supervising teenagers in Experimental Group Young People’s Theatre (E.G.Y.P.T.) at Don Bosco in Kansas City. The youths moved on to adulthood, but Tina continued to assist performers by volunteering at Fringe. This will be her 16th year with the festival.
Fringe provides platforms for a variety of performers, including actors, musicians, dancers and painters, at myriad Kansas City locations during two weeks in July. Tina aids whichever show needs assistance, whether she’s filling in as house manager, taking tickets or greeting attendees as an usher.
Aside from the entertainment, Fringe volunteers enjoy camaraderie. “It’s fun getting together every year. It’s all different walks of life. We have retirees. We have people who just do Fringe,” Tina says.
Unlike StoneLion, Fringe shows are uncensored and not always family-friendly. Performances come with descriptions and ratings. If a show says it has full nudity, parents should believe it, Tina says.
“Whatever you put on, you put on,” she says.
The freedom to perform without restraint is part of the event’s appeal. “It’s a way for people to put on plays. Some people are testing out their works,” Tina says.
She encourages those interested in Fringe to check out two nights of “teasers” on July 16 and 17 before the festival. Performers will give a two-minute preview skit of their show that will help patrons decide whether to attend.
Meghan Godsy, a BKD tax processing specialist in Kansas City, says Fringe couldn’t function without volunteers such as Tina.
“I do know that if Tina has committed volunteer time to something, it’s very important to her and she gives her all to those items that mean a lot to her in her life,” Meghan says.
Grandchildren enjoy imaginative sights at StoneLion performances
One of those items for Tina is family, who also attends StoneLion events. Her 3-year-old grandson and 2-year-old granddaughter were starfish in a puppet show last year. Tina’s 11-year-old granddaughter also was a starfish and may be old enough to operate a puppet this year.
The veteran volunteer is eager for StoneLion’s Illuminated Waters festival, tentatively scheduled for August 16 at Theis Park, where more people can experience the joy of seeing children stand next to amusingly large creations such as a 10-foot bee.
“Grownups act like kids with these puppets,” Tina says. “It’s hard not to smile.”
Responding to COVID-19: Social Media Campaign & Necessary Precautions
A freeze in grant funding due to COVID-19 caused StoneLion Puppet Theatre to cancel a spring activity, an interactive walk-through May event at Theis Park in Kansas City that would have allowed attendees to see glowing puppets and performers while socially distancing themselves.
StoneLion plans to launch a social media fundraising campaign to help finance future projects. The organization is conducting virtual workshops and shows and may host “socially distant pop-up puppet parades” in various neighborhoods.
The Kansas City Fringe Festival announced on its website that it still plans to conduct the festival in July but encouraged participants to take necessary precautions as they plan activities.