Anansi the spider will look a little different this weekend for youngsters who are used to seeing him on the pages of books for young readers.
Thanks to local puppet maker Byron Thompson, he'll stand about 6 feet tall and 15 feet wide in Fort Wayne Youtheatre's production of “Anansi the Spider: Hero of West Africa,” which opens Friday at the Arts United Center.
The show brings to life five folktales about the spider who uses smarts and trickery to get what he wants and to help others. The tales are how Anansi gets all of the tales from the Sky God; Anansi and his six sons; how the spider got a thin waist; how the spider got a bald head; and how the elephant got his trunk.
Thompson created the giant but friendly looking Anansi spider and a 10-foot-tall elephant puppet for the production.
“This is the first time I've built puppets on this scale,” said Thompson, who has taught art at Weisser Park Elementary School for 13 years.
He stuck his hand into puppetry in college, where he had a choice for an assignment of writing a research paper on teaching art or doing a project on the same topic. He chose to make puppets of various artists.
After he built the first ones, he wanted to build more and better ones, he said.
He now teaches three puppet classes per semester at Weisser Park, as well as art classes.
Thompson became involved in the Youtheatre production when the group's executive director, Leslie Hormann, called to ask him if he would want to make a puppet of Anansi. He and Hormann used to work together when she was a drama teacher at the former Ward Elementary School.
He later agreed to do a life-size elephant puppet for the story of how the elephant got his trunk.
Thompson started by making sketches and models. Actual puppet construction began about seven months ago using plastic tubing and cloth.
The puppets and building supplies filled at least a third of his art classroom on a recent day, just before he planned to move them early this week to the Arts United Center for final rehearsals and the actual shows.
It will take four young people to bring the Anansi puppet to life, Thompson said. One will wear the mask that is his face and work the front legs, another will wear the spider's body and work the back legs, and the two other youngsters will work the spider's other legs.
It also will take four youngsters to operate the elephant puppet, which will glide over the stage as the puppeteers move the legs to simulate walking.
A number of other cast members also will be dressed as animals, Hormann said. In addition, performances will feature African dancers and music from the Three Rivers Jenbé Ensemble from the local Three Rivers Institute of African Arts and Culture.
Hormann said she chose the Anansi stories for a Youtheatre production because she wants to make the group's plays connect to activities students are learning in the classroom. Students and teachers read Anansi tales in most elementary schools, she noted.
“It also is one of my favorite collections of stories,” she added.