In the time of COVID-19, a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, face shields, and medical gowns plagues hospitals and health care centers around the nation. But with Broadway’s shutdown—and the closure of hundreds of theatres across the country—wardrobe department workers and costume designers are among those with a sudden surplus of time and skills. And, as always, the theatre community stepped up to help.
Just as Broadway’s stitchers responded to the Australian Wildfires by sewing Joey pouches and koala mittens, sewers from New York City to San Francisco took to social media, called their local and state governments, and offered to manufacture life-saving medical supplies.
The volunteerism was so overwhelming that New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office called in reinforcement from Jeffrey Whiting of Open Jar Studios, a rehearsal space in Midtown Manhattan. “They said, ‘We’re getting so much interest of Broadway and people reaching out and there’s no real organized effort,’" Whiting says. "And a friend of mine who works there just said, ‘You know who’s really good at organizing? Jeff Whiting.’”
Via phone calls liaising between the government and the Broadway community, Whiting is now in the midst of converting Open Jar to a factory, as he heads up one operation to construct 55,000 surgical gowns in the next four weeks.
And Whiting has enlisted people from every corner of the industry. Based on a pattern by Crye Precision (a military garment manufacturer) costume designer Robin L. McGee and designer Janet Bloor, who works for Broadway costume shop Euroco (responsible for such shows as Moulin Rouge!, Beetlejuice, The Producers), collaborated to design a prototype for at-home sewing. Whiting called on B&J Fabrics, which provides fabrics for Broadway productions, to source materials that meet the medical requirements, and splash test scores of them for safe use. Actor Javier Muñoz and the Broadway Green Alliance, which sources material, have been instrumental partners, and RoseBrand (that makes most of the show curtains for Broadway) and PRG (that builds automation and supplies for most every show) have also been invaluable to the operation.
Through a solicitation on the Open Jar website, over 900 professionals in the community volunteered to sew from their homes. The vast majority come from wardrobe teams and costumes shops serving Broadway shows like Moulin Rouge!, Mrs. Doubtfire, Company, Beetlejuice, and more, though stitchers from film and television, and workers from other departments—like props and set decoration—with sewing skills have also joined the army of worker bees.
“Every single organization has reached out to see how they could possibly help,” says Whiting, “because we're all sitting in our homes looking at these people wearing garbage bags and wanting to do something.”
With his troops in place, Whiting focuses on home base at Open Jar, which will be the assembly site for kits of materials to ship to sewers. “Each sewer, at home, will get about 60 gowns a week to be doing,” Whiting explains. “Then, we have developed a pretty elaborate drop-off system” courtesy of Special Tony Honorees Winzer Cleaners, who have coordinated 32 drop-off/pick-up points in the five boroughs for the exchange of kits and finished gowns.
The bonus of the Open Jar operation: All workers will be paid. “Part of the goal is to create jobs for as many people as we can that are out of work,” says Whiting. Because the project is government-funded, these sewers are employees. (Some workers wish to donate their time, and will donate their pay to The Actors Fund.)
The McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, has also remained committed to its in-house wardrobe team while supporting the healthcare community. Sarah Romagnoli, a first hand in the McCarter’s wardrobe department, knew of the impending mask shortage before the public at large. Her sister is a doctor working on a U.S. military base in Louisville, Kentucky. “It was clear to her from very early on that there would be a shortage and that this was going to be something that was necessary,” says Romagnoli.
The sisters began video-chatting March 17 to create a pattern for fabric masks to be worn over N95 masks, in order to extend the life of the latter. A costume designer of 30 years, Romagnoli put her design skills to work, asking, “How often will you take this off, and what would be more comfortable, and would this work better, and what is the goal here?” She pored over research about fabric sanitization (so she could use fabric from the McCarter) and mask fit. “I'm researching how to sterilize the fabric I get from the hospital and how best to sew with the fewest holes in the mask—because when a sewing machine needles through, it creates a hole,” says Romagnoli. Her pattern is also designed to make quickly, in large quantities, and by sewers of all skills.
McCarter’s team of eight staffers remain employed to sew masks for The Mercer Mask Project (so far serving West Windsor Fire and Police Department, Greenhill Pharmacy of Robbinsville, Plainsboro Rescue Squad, the Philadelphia Homeless Clinic, as well as private doctors, nurses, and home healthcare workers) and the base in Kentucky, and their call-outs to the community have yielded approximately 100 more volunteer sewers.
Meanwhile, McCarter’s in-house production staff collected and donated unopened N95 masks, face shields, and coveralls typically used during construction. Technical director Alex Bergeron is working to produce face shields using the theatre’s 3D printer.
“I used to work at La Jolla Playhouse, where we developed Come From Away,” says Michael Rosenberg, the McCarter’s managing director. “I remember watching that show come together and thinking, ‘Would we ever do something like that in the U.S.?’ It's so heartening to be in Princeton, with this staff and with this community, and see them doing exactly that.”
Bay Area sewers from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley are producing masks for the local Emergency Assistance Network, and the TheatreWorks team donated N95 masks and Nitrile gloves from their stockpile to San Jose Valley Medical Foundation. Minnesota Opera’s costume shop has converted its workers to mask-makers based on patterns from HealthPartners and the scenic division handles deliveries; the Costume Designers Guild has issued a rallying cry.
Still, as New York City remains the epicenter of the health crisis in the United States, New York and its institutions hope to set an example for all of those wanting and able to help. “On Broadway we specialize in doing the impossible on the stage,” says Whiting from his studios. “I figure, why not do the impossible here? It's been a pretty herculean effort from everybody and it only shows what this community is made of. We can make the impossible happen.”
How to help:
1. Join the Open Jar relief effort and sign up here.
2. Volunteer through SewTheCurveFlat.com with CDC-approved patterns and resources.
3. If you have or know how to find fabric that is: Woven or non-woven, Weight: MAX 4.0oz/yd, Water Resistance: MAX 4.5gr (AATCC Test Method 42) email firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Follow along with new requests, approved patterns, and more with Masks4Medicine.