Just after 9:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, Skylar Winkley is building mermaids for Kentucky Conservatory Theatre.
Slowly, she works a needle and thread around loosely hung tubes of pink and blue fabric that will be the basis for mythical sea creatures in SummerFest's production of Peter Pan, which plays the next two weekends at the Arboretum.
"I think it's horsehair netting, and it's going around these wires so the mermaids don't look so wirey," Winkley, 15, says.
The mermaids will be flowing puppets who dive through fabric waves during several scenes in the stage version of J.M. Barrie's classic story about the boy who would never grow up. Puppets are how director and KCT education director Vanessa Weig chose to solve many of the challenges the beloved story presented her and also to give her students a fun and intense theater education experience.
She and festival manager Wesley Nelson say they wanted to take the show in a different direction from the high-flying rigging and wires typically used for Pan productions.
"This is the most unique production of Peter Pan that I have seen or been a part of, to date," says New York-based theater artist Travis Lope. "With all the elements, it's a huge show, and it's going to be a great show."
As the puppetmaster, Lope is an integral part of making the production live up to that promotion.
Lope is from Sonora, near Elizabethtown, but as a military kid, he moved around frequently. He majored in theater at Berea College and thought he would become an actor. But work with masks and puppets soon started drawing him in.
He had been interested in puppetry and its techniques since childhood. He found he had a knack for them. Part of that he attributes to assisting his grandfather, a plumber, when he was a child.
"I learned to bend PVC pipes and things like that, which really helped in building puppets," he says.
Now he is imparting that knowledge to students in the Kentucky Conservatory Theater, many of whom will be in Peter Pan, either as actors or puppeteers.
"This is not what I expected," Paul Laurence Dunbar High School student Joy Whitten says of her conservatory experience. "But I am extremely excited for the show, to see what it all looks like."
As she talked, Whitten and Lafayette High student Meredith Peterson were working on one of the shadow puppets that will represent Peter Pan in flight.
These are not just cutouts mounted on sticks. The shadow puppets will move, turn in profile and animate in the service of creating scenes earthbound human actors can't achieve without the aid of ropes and rigging.
"I have seen so many productions of Peter Pan where it became about the wires," Weig said. "And I didn't want that."
Puppetry was the way to go, she decided, and it presented a great opportunity to bring in her friend, Lope, whom she met 13 years ago when they were both working in New York.
"He's teaching the students puppet manipulation skills, and he's also teaching them how to make them," Weig says. "So they have molded the crocodile, they have learned how to dye fabrics, they've learned how to sew, they've learned how to melt and bend wires. It's been a phenomenal process."
At an evening rehearsal last week, a trio of actors manipulated the skeleton of the crocodile that terrifies Captain Hook. Through the week, many of the same students' tasks were adorning the reptile to turn him into an eye-popping creation by opening night.
That was ultimately Weig's goal with the production.
"We wanted to involve them in something behind the scenes," she said. "And we really wanted them to create something."
IF YOU GO
What: Outdoor theater presented by Kentucky Conservatory Theatre.
Shows: Peter Pan, July 5-7, 10-14. A Chorus Line, July 24-28, July 31-Aug. 4.
When: 8:45 p.m., gates open at 7.
Where: The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, 500 Alumni Dr.
Tickets: Both shows: $25 general admission, $35 reserved chair, $120 reserved blanket space for four. Single show: $15 advance, $18 at the gate general admission; $20 advance, $25 gate reserved chair; $65 advance, $90 gate for reserved blanket for four. Visit Mykct.org to order.