Broadway has been closed for three months and this week, it was announced that New York City’s Broadway theaters will remain closed until at least September 6, in an effort to continue social distancing and curb the spread of coronavirus. Film and TV productions have been put on hiatus as well, and as a result, many costume designers have suddenly found themselves out of work for the summer. But in light of the pandemic, a new collective of hundreds of costumers are repurposing their craft to make Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, who are on the frontlines battling the virus every day.
Over 700 costume designers and sewers have teamed up on the Broadway Relief Project, a new initiative producing PPE, such as masks and gowns, and delivering them to public hospitals across New York City. (Many of which have been experiencing shortages of the equipment). The project is being spearheaded by Open Jar Studios, one of the largest Broadway rehearsal spaces in New York City. Its president, Jeff Whiting, says the movement evolved out of many designers wanting to do their part. “Show people tend to be problem solvers,” he says. “We’re in a live entertainment field, and we’re wired to deal with unexpected things. As soon as this pandemic hit, everybody's brains went into that mode and asked, ‘how can we help?’”
The studio got its chance to help at the end of March, when Whiting received a call from New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, asking if the studio would build a community of sewers and designers who could make these masks, as well as disposable and reusable gowns. (In the first week, they created over 5,000 masks, but the group has since been focusing on gowns, where there is more of a need.) Through conversations with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Whiting worked with the state to develop a special contract, where the studio is given funding to secure and distribute the materials that designers need to make the PPE at home. The designers then either receive a fee for each batch they produce, or they can choose to donate their fees to the Actors Fund, which offers financial assistance to the performing arts community, instead.
Two particular costume designers—Robin McGee, the project manager for Broadway Relief Project, and Janet Bloor—worked on the prototype for the gowns, developing a simple pattern that can be made easily at home. These patterns are cut at Duran Cutting Corp. in New Jersey and then sent back to the studio and assembled into kits. The kits are then sent to the designers across boroughs through vans provided by Ernest Winzer Cleaners, a popular dry cleaner used by Broadway costumers. On average, each designer makes 30 gowns a week, which totals to thousands a week. Once a week, their finished gowns are picked up, and they are given a new kit.
Beverly Law, a costume designer who has worked on films such as The Dead Don’t Die and Vox Lux, had discussed the need for PPE with other designers, stylists, makeup artists, and more across the city and wanted to get involved. “The government did not act early enough to secure the PPE,” she says. “We wanted to step up to lend our sewing skills.” Amy Breen, who has done costume design work on productions such as Hamilton, says learning to make the gowns has been a process, but with community support, she has rapidly picked up the skill. “Everyone's been really great about posting tutorial videos on how to put them together,” she says. “There was definitely trial and error. Now, I’m on my fourth bag.”
Other costume designers have been producing even more than 30 gowns a week, too. “We leave it up to them, and what their machines can handle,” Whiting says. Janet Bloor—who runs the costume shop Eurococo, and is a longtime costume designer who has worked on the Mrs Doubtfire, Moulin Rouge, and Beetlejuice productions—made a whopping 80 gowns in her first week. “Generally, everybody wants to help, but creative people like to create—that's the way their heads go,” she says. Many designers are producing PPEs outside of the Broadway Relief Project as well. Anne Brenneke, who has worked on Bad Education and For Life, has been making gowns for Open Jar Studios, but has also been creating masks for anyone who may need them. “I put a little mask box in my hallway, and when it's empty, I try to refill it,” she says. “It's really humbling to do something that is actually needed.”
For now, the Open Jar Studios contract with the state runs until the end of June. But Whiting (and many others) say they will continue to make themselves available all summer long. “I get the privilege where I can sit in my house every day and choose when to go out,” says Breen. “These people that are working in hospitals, they don't have that choice.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue