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Openly gay puppeteer uses his art to bring understanding to his small hometown in Kansas


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Over the past month, Pride celebrations have been held in some of the nation's largest cities to recognize LGBTQ rights.

But smaller towns have also been marking the occasion.

Special correspondent Cat Wise traveled to rural Kansas, where an artist is trying to foster understanding in his community.

Her report is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Cat Wise: On a recent afternoon, a local crowd filled Hidden Trail Brewing in Garden City. They had come out for a special event with lively entertainment not often performed in Western Kansas.

The Lipstick & Lashes drag show was part of a family-friendly pride arts festival called Playchella, which also included rainbow-themed crafts for kids, resources from a local behavioral health organization, and a queer-themed puppet show written and performed by the event's organizer, Brett Crandall.

Brett Crandall, Artist/Puppeteer: He said you weren't handsome. Well, you are.

Cat Wise: He's a 30-year-old puppeteer, actor, writer, and LGBTQIA+ activist. He grew up in a small town called Deerfield about 15 miles from Garden City.

Brett Crandall: I can't see 2012 Deerfield, Garden City doing any of this. It just makes it all the more cool that it did.

Cat Wise: Coming of age in a close-knit, rural county, home to one of the country's largest beef processing plants, he says he felt different early on.

Brett Crandall: These are people that I have known a lot of times my whole life, conversations that I did not have with them because I did not at one point feel safe showing to come out, not that I thought anyone would physically harm me, but maybe that their love had conditions, or that it wouldn't be what would make them happy.

To actively pop those bubbles is healing for me.

Cat Wise: After high school, Crandall quickly made his way to New York City, where he lived for about 10 years, first attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then working as an actor and developing his talents as a puppeteer.

He moved back to Kansas in 2019, thinking it would be a brief stop before relocating to Los Angeles. Then his plans changed.

Brett Crandall: I really wanted to start putting out queer shows in the middle of the country.

Cat Wise: Over the last couple of years, he's done just that, working full-time traveling around the state to put on shows like "The Trials of David: A Queer, Biblical Puppet Play" and "Murder at The Wolf Hotel."

Person: I was flattered when thou called me handsome.

Brett Crandall: I love you, but I am Ondine.

Cat Wise: At Playchella, he premiered a new show called "Ondine: A Queer Fairy Tale."

It's an adaptation of an old French play with a female lead. In this version, a male water sprite, played by Crandall, falls in love with a handsome knight named Hans.

Brett Crandall: I thought this for us would end kindly.

Cat Wise: But they face some hurdles.

Brett Crandall: It's a whole different set of rules when you're in the theater or when you're sitting with an audience that you get to listen and pay attention and let something affect you.

And so then putting queer stories into that and allowing folks to feel sympathy for queer folks, instead of just the discontent or malice or fear, whatever it is that they have been working with or taught, that is -- was not their fault. That's not -- that wasn't their idea in the first place.

Cat Wise: Last year, he organized the first Kansas Playchella in his hometown, which included a small march through the streets. He proudly walked arm and arm with his partner, Marc Malone (ph).

Among Crandall's biggest supporters now and throughout his life, his parents, Doug and Cindy Crandall who helped out at the crafts table.

Doug Crandall, Father of Brett Crandall: Ten years ago, things were much different, especially in rural Kansas, I mean, there's just -- you didn't you didn't know of anybody at that point. But, today, it's everywhere. I mean, that's a good thing.

Cindy Crandall, Mother of Brett Crandall: The stigma is still there in rural America, for sure, but I think that the kids are more willing to come out at a younger age. It's such a relief they have events like this now.

Brett Crandall: Gerald Hall, who goes by the drag name Daphnie Moonwalker, grew up in a nearby town and says he was often bullied. Now he is trying to use his performance art to help others.

Gerald Hall, Drag Performer: We want to be the voice for anybody that needs a voice. If you don't feel safe, if you don't feel like you are being included in things, reach out to us. Us, as performers, we are here for anybody.

Cat Wise: Beyond on his activism, Crandall is also focused on arts education in his community and other rural towns. He wrote an opinion piece recently about young people fleeing the Plains when they lack opportunities to flourish in the arts.

Brett Crandall: The kids that grow up here, I hope, don't feel the impulse, like I did, that they have to leave, that they have to go away.

That way, that's the only way they will find peace for themselves or to be able to get to know themselves. We are just going to keep coming up with new ways, very old ways of giving that sense of value to yourself and to our community, that you don't have to go anywhere else. It's just -- it's all right here.

Cat Wise: At the end of the puppet show, Ondine and Hans are finally able to be together, a happy ending he hopes will inspire his audience to find its own.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Garden City, Kansas.

Judy Woodruff: It's heartwarming.

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