Just a month ago, costume designer Donna Southern Schmidt had one fitting left for Main Street Theater’s production of Charlotte’s Web, and Theatre Under the Stars’s costumers had purchased tons of clothes for the world premiere of Pure Country. Then everything changed. “We frantically returned everything, knowing that the organization was going to need the money,” says Colleen Grady, TUTS costume shop manager and designer.
Houston’s theaters have been hit particularly hard as the novel coronavirus has kept companies trapped in an extended intermission that has ended spring seasons and cut into fundraising efforts. But that hasn’t stopped members of the Bayou City’s performing arts community from joining the chorus of Houstonians doing their part to fight the spread of the virus. Armed with fabric and elastic, they’ve taken to their sewing machines and taught themselves to make CDC-approved masks.
“The first one that I made was a little bit of a dumpster fire ‘cause I screwed up,” says Meg Edwards, an assistant stage manager at Houston Grand Opera. “But I made another one so I could go to the costume shop and pick up the masks and drop them off wherever I needed to.”
Since last week, volunteer HGO staffers have sent more than 1,500 masks to St. Joseph Medical Center, and opera house is not the only theater whose staffers are stepping up. Grady and TUTS wardrobe supervisor Sandy Keslar say they’ve helped to create and donate more than 1,500 masks, which have been sent to nursing homes and hospitals in Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Schmidt worked with Main Street Theater and her neighborhood to give LBJ Hospital nearly 150 masks, including covers for the highly prized N95 masks. The masks are made to be single-use but emergency personnel are wearing them numerous times because of the ongoing shortage, says Schmidt, who also manages Costume Connection Houston, a collaboration among local theaters that enables companies to share their sartorial resources. “By creating a cloth mask to go over the top of these, we’re helping to prolong the life of these disposable masks.”
Theaters have also been supplying the fabric for the masks, Schmidt says. Many of her masks have been made from the same fabric she used to make the flying monkey costumes for a production of The Wizard of Oz. HGO was supplying fabric, elastic, and any other kind of needed materials needed to make masks from the extra fabric in its costume shop, but that soon ran out. Now, the organization is buying fabric and elastic specifically for mask making, Edwards says. TUTS originally created mask-making kits out of old fabric, but that fabric is “long gone,” Grady says. “People have been generously going into their own stashes of fabric, and elastic, and T-shirts, and whatever they can pull out of their hoard to continue making the masks.”
“Thank God we’re all fabric hoarders,” Keslar jokes.
This isn’t the first time Houston’s theater community has come together in times of crisis. During Hurricane Harvey, many out-of-work stagehands volunteered to help clean up affected homes. Schmidt says some organizations even donated show proceeds or invited first responders to attend shows for free. “I often think how lucky a lot of us in this business are,” Grady says. “If somebody’s in trouble, somebody needs something, theater people are always open to helping.”
Once again, most of the theater staffers that are making masks and organizing donations aren’t employed anymore, Edwards says. Still, the theater community has the drive to better the lives of others and the skills to do so during this pandemic. As Edwards says, everything the theater community does is for other people.
Schmidt says it’s important during times like these to remember that creativity is "something that helps us all during a crisis—the arts, especially. I don’t know anyone who’s not watching TV shows or reading a book or trying to learn a new skill or draw or paint or something. I just hope that people remember the theaters when this is over with.”