Leo Lionni’s children stories come alive with puppet production

Photo by MARGO ELLEN GESSER Rhys Bevan-John operates the puppet for Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia's 'Inch by Inch.' Show caption
Photo by MARGO ELLEN GESSER Rhys Bevan-John operates the puppet for Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia's 'Inch by Inch.'

Bigger than life

Eric Carle was working in his studio when Jim Morrow noticed the fish.

Carle is a children’s author and close friends with fellow children’s author Leo Lionni, who cut the fish out of felt. It’s now the prototype for the main character of Lionni’s 1973 book, “Swimmy.”

And there it was on Carle’s shelf. Morrow had taken the fish from the shelf and was examining it when Carle divulged its creator.

“He said Leo Lionni had given the fish to him,” Morrow says. “And I decided then that if we created a production about Swimmy, he would look like this fish.”

And he will when the Mermaid Theatre brings its traveling production of Leo Lionni’s“Swimmy,” “Inch by Inch” and “Frederick” to the Manship Theatre on Sunday.

Morrow is the artistic director for this children’s theater based in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Its touring adaptations of “Guess How Much I Love You?” and “I Love My Little Storybook” stopped by the Manship Theatre in December 2012.

Now it’s Lionni’s characters’ turn.

“Our plays are for very young audiences,” Morrow says. “But adults enjoy them, too.”

Lionni’s books fit the bill. The stories are designed for children between ages 3 and 7, and Lionni was the illustrator as well as writer.

“We don’t work with traditional playwrights,” Morrow says. “We adapt our stories straight from the books, and we try to make them as close to the books as possible.”

So, children familiar with Swimmy the fish, Frederick the mouse and the inch worm who measures everything in “Inch by Inch” automatically will connect with the theater’s adaptations.

In the first story, Swimmy is a tiny fish that uses ingenuity to fend off danger. He encounters a school of little fish who are afraid to come out of hiding until Swimmy shows them how to overcome danger through teamwork.

“Leo wrote very beautiful stories,” Morrow says. “Most of his books became Caldecott Award winners, which is the highest award for children’s books. His stories are not complex, but they have deeper meanings, and each resonates with children.”

The backgrounds behind Lionni’s illustrations will be projected upon a screen during the production.

“Swimmy will actually be swimming through the pages of the book,” Morrow says.

“Swimmy” will be followed by “Frederick,” based on Lionni’s 1973 book where a field mouse named Frederick gathers sun rays for the cold, dark days of winter while others gather food. Frederick is the dreamer whose supplies feed the spirits of his fellow mice on the dreariest of winter days.

Finally, there’s Morrow’s favorite Lionni story, “Inch by Inch,” based on the 1995 book.

“The inch worm measures everything,” Morrow says. “And he survives being eaten by the birds by measuring everything on them. We’ll count the inches and have the children count with us. The puppets in this one will be bigger than life.”

Morrow not only is creator of this show but his daughter is one of the troupe members.

“She operates the puppets,” he says. “And she’s been to Baton Rouge before. She’s been to a lot of the states and to Asia, so this has been a great experience for her.”

Just as re-creating Lionni’s book for the stage has been for Morrow.

“His work is beautiful,” he says. “And I was stunned when Eric Carle told me Leo had made that fish.”

And now that fish is swimming straight to the Manship Theatre.