Annie Evans has always had a fondness for elephants. With “Aanika’s Elephants,” that love is finally being translated to stage.

“Aanika’s Elephants” debuted at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta on Aug. 17 and runs through Sept. 3. The show follows the story of Aanika, a young girl in Kenya who meets and befriends an orphaned baby elephant in the sanctuary where her father works. 

Evans – the writer and producer for the show who has worked on a plethora of children’s television such as “Sesame Street,” “Out of the Box,” and “Oswald the Octopus” – said the basic idea for the show – a little girl befriending a baby elephant – came to her almost a decade earlier during a yoga class. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that she really started writing. 

“[Elephants] were just such a specifically different looking kind of animal. I always loved the look of them,” Evans said. “Then as I aged I learned that they were so smart, and that they were matriarchal, which was really important to me.” 

Marty Robinson, the puppeteer famous for his work as Telly Monster, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and others on “Sesame Street” – and Evans’ husband – created the puppets for the show. If you go to see “Aanika’s Elephants,” you won’t just see huge elephant puppets up on stage. Instead, you’ll see something a bit more fanciful. At times, puppeteers will maneuver single elephant body parts, like trunks or ears, by themselves. With the exception of Jimmica Collins, who plays the role of Aanika, the human characters are represented by items like hats or glasses. 

Evans said she and Robinson wanted the design of the puppets to allow kids to fill in the blanks on their own. 

“The play is [Aanika’s] memory. She’s a storyteller, and storytellers come with a little bag of goodies,” Evans said. “They don’t come with a full-blown elephant. So we wanted to keep with that kind of storyteller style, that it was memory.” 

Collins, who is from Georgia originally and previously worked at the Center for Puppetry Arts, now plays the role of Grandma Nell on “Sesame Street.” Jon Ludwig, the artistic director at the center, helped connect Collins with “Sesame Street,” and at the time that she and Evans met, Robinson was training her to do puppetry for television. 

“By the time I was looking for people to be in the show, there was already a group of people working at ‘Sesame Street’ and training,” Evans said. “So I just went hey – you want to be in my play?” 

For Collins, ending up in the world of puppetry was a “happy accident.” She had loved and been involved in theater since she was a kid, but the interest in puppetry didn’t begin until she was cast as an actor in a show at the Center for Puppetry Arts in 2017. After that show ended, she didn’t want to leave.

“It’s just so pleasant, and the kids are great, and the audiences are great,” Collins said of the center. “So I became a teaching artist here just so I could stay in the building, even though I wasn’t in a show.”

Collins said that one of the reasons she likes puppetry is because it allows her to diversify the types of roles she can play. Collins wouldn’t normally be able to play a character like Grandma Nell, she said, but because the role is a puppet, a world of possibilities opened up. 

“You get cast based on your abilities and what you look like,” Collins said of acting. “So, some roles I couldn’t get because I’m not a 70-year-old woman. But I love playing old ladies!” 

Much like Evans, Collins has had an affection for elephants for a very long time. In high school she would collect elephant figurines, and in college she went on a trip to South Africa where her love only grew. She likened the experience of acting against the puppets to the experience of playing with a very large dog. The cast would watch videos of elephants, she said, and one of the things they learned about baby elephants is that they don’t quite understand how to use their trunks right away. 

“Because they’re puppets and they’re very light, they jump on me, and they put their trunks in my mouth, and they swat at me,” Collins said. 

Collins had to leave her job at the center when she started doing television work, and said bringing the show back to Atlanta has been a blast. The show has been performed at workshops and conferences in other cities, but Collins said this is the first time the audience has been made up of majority children. 

“This is the first time, at the center, that we’re actually having audiences that are mostly kids,” she said. “And it was meant for them, so that’s been really fun.”

After the run in Atlanta ends on Sept. 3, the show is expected to go to the New Victory Theater, a Broadway house specifically for family-oriented plays, in early 2024.

In addition to Collins, the cast includes Latoryah Alexander, Jared Brodie, Bradley Freeman Jr., Arianna Hardaway, Cedwan Hooks, Jean Marie Keevins, and Reay Maxwell. The show is directed and produced by Pam Arciero with music by Paul Rudolph. Tickets can be purchased online.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.