April 8, 2020

McCarter Theatre and Arts Council Make Masks to Help Fight Virus

MAKING MASKS: A variety of face masks made by McCarter Theatre Center Costume Shop staff members have been donated to the Mercer Mask Project, which disperses them where they are needed. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre Center)

By Anne Levin

Two of Princeton’s major arts institutions are aiding the effort to keep citizens healthy by making non-surgical masks to be worn during the COVID-19 crisis. At McCarter Theatre Center, staff of the costume shop are turning out several dozen a day. And at the Arts Council of Princeton, community members can cut fabric into patterns or actually sew the fabric into face masks. In both cases, the completed masks will then be available for pick up for those who need them.

A month ago, McCarter’s costume shop was busy working on productions that were scheduled to round out the season. But the swift outbreak of the coronavirus canceled them all, leaving drapers, cutters, and seamstresses at loose ends.

It didn’t take long for this enterprising group to turn their talents in a different direction. Within a week, they were sewing masks out of fabric they had on hand in the shop. By the end of last week, they had produced more than 350 masks. They donate them to the recently formed Mercer Mask Project, which disperses them where they are needed.

“The Mercer Mask Project came together in order to fight against potential shortfalls in personal protection equipment (PPE),” said project co-founder Cindy Rosen of Robbinsville. “The masks made by Mercer Mask Project are made for people who fall through the cracks and may not have access to PPE, like first responders, home health care, and the homeless, and may potentially be used to extend the life of N95 masks. I thank everyone involved at McCarter Theatre Center for their help in this fight.”

According to McCarter’s Costume Manager Cynthia A. Thom, the center got involved after Managing Director Michael Rosen got an email from the New Jersey Theater Council asking for donated supplies and assistance. “One of the women who works for me had actually started making masks,” she said. “We just sort of jumped on it. We researched local sources that needed masks, found a pattern, went to the shop, and we’re still going.”

Six members of Thom’s staff have been turning out about 60 masks a day. “There are people not on the absolute front line who are not getting supplies they need,” said Thom, who lives in Hopewell with her husband. He has medical conditions that make him especially vulnerable. “I’m taking every precaution I can to stay clean, and I think there are a lot of people in my position. It feels really good to be able to help people feel safe.”

The majority of the masks are being made with material that the costume shop has in stock. They are different colors, in several different shapes. “Most of us are trying to use anything that is 100 percent cotton and densely woven,” said Thom. “Most are shaped masks based on an official pattern that fits the face better and has a pocket where a filter can be put. They are taking a little more skill, and are not as easy to produce. But they are the ones we’re focusing on.”

Thom, or one of her staff, drops the finished masks off in Princeton Junction. “It’s basically somebody’s front porch. She has a Tupperware container, in which she collects the masks, and then she collects them and distributes them through the Mercer Mask Project,” said Thom. “We connected with them because they have a list, and they know how to get them to people who need them.”

Some of Thom’s staff have also given finished masks to members of their families, and to emergency medical workers they have met. People from other departments at McCarter are also making masks, she said. Volunteers are welcome to join in the effort. “For anyone with cutting skills, the Mercer Mask Project has fabric and they’re asking people to cut,” Thom said. People can go to their Facebook page and connect that way.”

Work at the McCarter costume shop shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m going to keep going until people tell us we have more masks than we need,” Thom said. “I think even a month from now, people are going to want to wear a mask when they go to work. I don’t see us stopping.”

The Arts Council’s mask-making project, known as Sew Many Masks, is part of the organization’s apART together virtual programming designed to keep people engaged during the crisis. It will provide masks free of charge to members of the community.

Arts Council Interim Executive Director Jim Levine said, “The Arts Council of Princeton is uniquely qualified to spearhead this effort, as we have years of experience teaching people to sew, and this project fits beautifully with our apART together program.  We think this is a great opportunity for people throughout Princeton to lend their time and skills to help each other out.”

For more information and updates, check the Sew Many Masks Princeton Facebook page. Specific questions can be directed to acpsewmanymasks@gmail.com.