Weisser Park Elementary School visual arts teacher Bryon Thompson spent his spring break vacation toiling with a 9-foot elephant and a spider 15 feet wide.
Luckily, he lived to tell the tale.
People are coming back all tan from their vacation, and I’m still pasty because I’ve been in my classroom working on puppets, he says.
Thompson has designed two large-scale puppets for Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s spring production of Anansi the Spider: Hero of West Africa. Based on African folktale stories, the cast of 38 performers will present five adventures of Anansi, a lovable, yet trickster spider. Thompson has built a 6-foot-long Anansi equipped with a leg span of 15 feet, and an elephant puppet that is nearly the size of an actual elephant from scratch.
I never built a life-size elephant before, he says. And you just can’t go to a fabric store and order an elephant pattern.
Leslie Hormann, Youtheatre executive director and Anansi director, says that it was important for the theatre to bring more diversity into its 78th season. As a former teacher, Hormann says Anansi folk tales was one of her personal favorites to share with her students. She thought the visual characters should bring something bold to the stage. Inspired by stage shows like the Lion King, Hormann decided to use stylized puppetry to tell the story. She recruited her former co-worker Thompson, a seasoned puppet maker, to make the book’s main character literally larger than life
Puppet-making is an art form itself, Hormann says. You get really creative when you have to make puppets on this scale.
Always interested in Jim Henson’s Muppet characters growing up, Thompson began making puppets for a class assignment at Ball State University. He has been designing his own puppets and stage shows for 35 years. Even though Thompson admits that he had never built puppets at this large of a scale, the challenge seemed exciting.
It was exciting because I hadn’t thought through the process yet, he says. It got scarier the further I worked on it.
Thompson has spent seven months building fully operational puppets that can be moved by children. Thompson researched the animals’ walk patterns to give the puppets realistic movement. He then used his research to build several different models before he began to work on the actual puppets.
Thompson says the final structures were all a result of experimentation.
I like the challenge of the coming up with solution to problems, he says.
Thompson also used his research to conduct a special class for fifth graders at Weisser Park about the study of spiders and spider folklore. Anansi folklore originated as stories to prepare a young man for his adult life in the West African country of Ghana.
The oral tradition represents Anansi as a spider with human qualities. Author Gerald McDermott received a 1972 Caldecott Honor award for his children’s book adaptation of Anansi: A Tale from the Ashanti.
African folk tales are so significant to literature because it’s the base for all folk tales, Hormann says.
Thompson selected students from his class who showed the most ability to complete projects and work well with others to operate the puppets on stage. Four students will work the spider’s head and legs, while six more students will be used to control the elephant’s body, legs and head.
While the puppets were being completed, Hormann says the performers used their imaginations and rehearsed as if the puppets were already in place on stage.
You have to kind of envision these big entities, she says. You have to be really focused and paying attention.
Besides the puppets, Hormann says audiences are invited to see some actual animals at the pre-show Supper on the Savannah party on opening night. Audience members will be able to see two smaller animals from the Fort Wayne Children Zoo’s African Journey and listen to traditional African music from the Three Rivers Jenbé Drum Ensemble to gear up for a production unlike any other in nearly 80 years of performances.
Youtheatre has never really done something like this before, Hormann says. We’re always looking for something new and innovative.