“Thumbelina” brings storytelling to life

Kamishibai adaptation tells a story of friendship, agency, and one very tiny girl


“Thumbelina” showed at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Feb. 12. Photo by Annalisa Waddick, ’23.

Annalisa Waddick

“Thumbelina,” a Lenfest Center theater production about a girl half as tall as a human’s thumb, delighted local elementary school children and community members alike with a series of shows the weekend of Feb. 12. 

The production was directed by Jemma Alix Levy, associate professor of theater, and featured an intimate cast of nine actors, all varying in age and acting experience. 

Amelia Fisher, ’24, is one of those actors, and plays the parts of Toad and Mole. She explained how “Thumbelina” combined kamishibai with technology to create a unique theater experience. 

“Kamishibai is basically an old-timey Japanese art form of theater where there’s a little blank stage, and then pieces of blank paper – “kami” meaning paper – that will go in and out of that stage,” Fisher said. “So we’ve made that a digital process where it looks like you have this blank stage on the stage and we’ll be projecting images made of paper with sound effects, characters, and backgrounds.” 

Because “Thumbelina” is categorized as TYA, or theater for young audiences, the cast performed three shows specifically for local Lexington elementary school students. 

Levy said that the decision to invite the local students was easy. 

“It’s pretty obvious that if you’re doing theater for young audiences you should have young audiences, and we don’t generally,” Levy said. “This is really built for really young kids so it would have made no sense at all to not include the local elementary schools.”

The show follows the adventures of tiny Thumbelina as she ventures out on her own searching for people who look like her so she can finally feel as though she belongs. Along the way she makes various animal friends, gets into some trouble, and learns what she truly wants in life. 

Levy said that on its most basic level, “Thumbelina” teaches kids about acceptance and friendship. 

“The intention of this production for the kids who are watching it is to remind them that just because somebody looks differently than you do or behaves differently than you do or has a different life experience than you does not mean that they cannot be your friend,” Levy said. 

But Levy also noted that the show is about more than friendship, since an integral part of the plot involves Thumbelina taking control of her own story in an act of agency. 

“I think a lot of the time kids think that they don’t have any agency, and here’s this story of this kid who is littler than them…. Who can still make her own choices,” Levy said. “And I think that’s really important.” 

“Thumbelina” also includes moments of audience participation, and Fisher noted that the kids have been great in engaging with actors. 

“Audience participation is definitely one of the most exciting parts of the show for me. Just hearing kids’ responses, just getting them involved…hearing their ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’s’ and ‘yeses’ and ‘nos.’” Fisher said. “They’ve been great… they’re a great audience.”

Riwaj Shrestha, ’22, said he appreciated the show’s interactive nature, as it kept him engaged with the story. 

“It was my first time watching a play, like ever, and I really enjoyed it because it was very fiesty and there was a lot of connection between the audience and actors,” Shrestha said. “I didn’t feel bored at any moment in time… it all flowed together and I enjoyed the show.”  

Thomas Anderson, a young homeschooler from Staunton, was an audience member for Saturday’s show. He said he liked all of “Thumbelina,” but especially enjoyed the screens and costuming used. 

“I liked the screen part that was on the screen,” Anderson said. “And the costumes, I like the costumes.” 

Finn Connor, ’23, also saw the performance and specifically enjoyed a scene in which Mole, the great villain of “Thumbelina,” initiates a slow-motion, comedic rewind sequence. 

“I thought it was excellent. The acting and the technical elements were incredible,” Connor said. “I would say my favorite part was the rewind sequence, it was so exact and so clearly well rehearsed and engaging.”

Although “Thumbelina” was a quick show – one that matched its protagonist in size – each audience member takes away something different and meaningful from the production. 

“For me Thumbelina is about a little girl on an adventure, finding her own way,” Fisher said. “It’s about friendship, it’s about found families, it’s just a wild ride.”