For School of Drama, mask-making takes on new meaning and urgency

Yale’s theater stages have gone dark for now, but members of the School of Drama’s costume and scene shops are still hard at work: They’re putting their talents to use by making masks and face shields for local health facilities to address the critical shortage of these items during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Six members of the costume shop staff have spent the past three weeks making some 400 cloth masks for donation to Connecticut Hospice, and an equal number of carpenters are fabricating desperately needed plastic face shields for Yale New Haven Hospital. School of Drama design students have also recently joined the mask-making effort. All are working from home using their personal tools and sewing machines, and materials provided or purchased by the school.

I am inspired by the wisdom and creativity of our shop personnel in coming up with such good ideas, and then contributing their expertise in fabricating to these projects,” said Yale School of Drama Dean James Bundy. “As they are on every Yale Rep and School of Drama show, they have been resourceful, upbeat, and professional. We can all be grateful that they have turned their hands to support of the health care system at such a critical moment in time.”

Bundy enlisted the help of the scene shop carpenters after Dr. Gary Desir, the Paul B. Beeson Professor of Medicine and vice provost for faculty development and diversity, asked if the drama school employees — who under normal circumstances build the theatrical sets for School of Drama and Yale Rep productions — might apply their skills to meet new needs born of the pandemic.

Likewise, deputy dean and professor Victoria Nolan didn’t hesitate to offer the drama community’s help when Barbara Pearce, interim CEO of Connecticut Hospice, put out a call to area theaters for masks.

We had already been talking as a group about what we could be doing and how we might contribute,” said Christine Szcepanski, the costume shop’s manager. She is facilitating the mask-making effort, distributing supplies to the costume technicians at their homes, and delivering the masks to hospice on a weekly basis.

Various other Yale departments have made donations of PPE equipment and are engaged in fabricating face shields and other medical equipment, including Yale School of Architecture. Yale researchers have also weighed in on the effectiveness of masks in slowing transmission of COVID-19 and are

We are makers’

The mask makers, all women, are Clarissa Wylie Youngberg, Pat Van Horn, Mary Zihal, Stephanie Taff, Linda Kelley-Dodd, and Deborah Bloch. With varying official job titles that include “draper,” “firsthand,” and “costume project coordinator,” they customarily collaborate behind the scenes fitting stage actors and actresses for their costumes and making their theatrical attire. Much of the fabric being used to make the cotton masks is leftover material from School of Drama and Yale Rep shows.

Normally, the costume technicians would be working during this time on costumes for the annual end-of-school year Carlotta Festival of New Plays, which showcases the work of graduating playwrights, as well as other spring drama productions on campus, including the Shakespeare Repertory Project and some undergraduate shows.

Mary Zihal, a staff member in the School of Drama Costume Shop, sewing a mask at home.
Mary Zihal, a staff member in the School of Drama Costume Shop, sewing a mask at home.

The pleated face masks the costume shop colleagues are sewing feature a pocket for filters and a metal nose piece (to help it conform to the nose in the way an N95 face mask does), and fabric ties (rather than elastic ear loops). The cotton fabric is pre-shrunk.

They are simple, but there are several steps to making them,” said Van Horn. Once the women have measured and cut the pieces, each mask takes about 20 minutes to make.

Van Horn said that she is especially motivated to work on the project because Connecticut Hospice made the special request.

There had been so many conflicting messages about whether it would be a help to make masks,” she says. “To have Connecticut Hospice ask for them empowered me. I thought, ‘Okay, I know we are doing this for a reason.’ They will be used.”

The costume shop personnel are spending as much time as possible making masks while also juggling continuing academic responsibilities. Szczepanski, who is also an assistant professor of technical design and production at the drama school, is remotely co-teaching a spring seminar on costume production, and Youngberg, a draper, is co-teaching a course about the history of fabric and fibers. Szczepanski and Zihal have school-aged children at home, while Bloch’s daughter, son-in-law, and 18-month-old grandson are currently living in her home. Her grandson sometimes keeps her company as she sews.

For both Zihal and Bloch, the paucity of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and shields is an issue that hits close to home.

My wife is a doctor, and while she is not on the frontlines in this, I made her a mask to wear because all she has is one N95 mask,” says Zihal. “I think we all realize what health professionals are going through and understand the importance of helping out.” Bloch’s son-in-law is a doctor in New York City, the current epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.

Deborah Bloch, a senior draper in the Costume Shop, is sometimes accompanied by her 18-month-old grandson while making masks.
Deborah Bloch, a senior draper in the Costume Shop, is sometimes accompanied by her 18-month-old grandson while making masks.

The frontline people who are taking care of the ill people are the heroes,” says Zihal. “We are makers. It’s nice we can do our small part to help.”

Szczepanki says the group will continue making masks until there is no longer a need. “It is great to be a part of something bigger than ourselves,” she said.

Needed: creative thinking

Ryan Gardner, a master scene shop carpenter at the drama school, was just preparing to get back to work after paternity leave when Yale’s work-from-home mandate took effect for all but essential employees.

He now spends a part of every day with his 3-month-old daughter strapped to his back in a carrier while he constructs face shields in his basement workshop.

He and his carpenter colleagues are making the shields using a lightweight polycarbonate plastic. The 8”-high by 12”-wide shield has a foam band that rests on the forehead and an elastic band that wraps around the head to hold it securely in place. Face shields are worn by doctors and nurses who are treating patients diagnosed with coronavirus, among other medical professionals.

The other carpenters are Eric Sparks (the shop’s foreman), Mathew Gaffney, Sharon Reinhart, Libby Stone, and Kat McCarthey. Overseeing the collaborative project are faculty members Neil Mulligan DRA ’01, professor in the practice of technical design and technical director for the Yale Repertory Theatre, and Matt Weilander DRA ’09, an adjunct associate professor of technical design and technical director for the drama school.

The group hopes to make about 1,000 shields in total over the coming days.

Both Ryan and Eric made tweaks and improvements to the original design of the shield that make them even better, so I’d say our shields are one-of-a-kind,” says Stone. The prototype was developed at Johns Hopkins University.

Both Ryan and Eric made tweaks and improvements to the original design of the shield that make them even better, so I’d say our shields are one-of-a-kind,” says Stone. The prototype was developed at Johns Hopkins University.

The biggest hurdle for us in the procurement of supplies was getting the elastic [for the head bands], because everyone was selling out of that,” Gardner said, noting it has been much in demand for DIY mask-making.

Once all of the pieces are cut and laid out, Gardner says it takes just two minutes to fabricate each shield. The carpenters then clean the plastic and place each shield in its own Ziploc bag. Gardner delivers the finished items in boxes to the Yale New Haven Hospital Operations Center on Derby Avenue, where they are accepting donations of PPE equipment.

Like the costume technicians, the carpenters would normally be busy preparing for the Carlotta Festival. Gardner says he and his colleagues are glad to be able to spend their time at home engaged in a meaningful project.

Ryan Gardner shows off one of his shop-made shields.
Ryan Gardner shows off one of his shop-made shields.

In complicated times like these, you want to find a way to contribute,” he said. “It’s a great outlet for us as a scene shop collective to put our energy toward helping people on the frontlines. … It’s great to be contributing, especially at a time when you can get stuck just watching your newsfeed all day long.”

Gardner and his wife are a blended family with five children between them. Their teenaged daughters keep busy sewing fabric masks while Gardner works nearby on the shields.

Creative thinking is what is needed right now on so many levels,” Gardner said. “The theater lot are a very creative bunch. This project is a collaborative effort, which also comes naturally for those of us in theater.”