Muncie Theater Costumers Sew For Life-And-Death Drama Now

Volunteers like Nancy Carlson are among local theater seamstresses making masks. Photo by: John CarlsonVolunteers like Nancy Carlson are among local theater seamstresses making masks. Photo by: John Carlson

By: John Carlson—

Muncie, IN—Masks such as the classic Muse of Tragedy and Muse of Comedy have had an integral association with theater for centuries.

These days, however, theater costumers nationwide – including groups of dedicated ones here in Muncie – are at their sewing machines, busily making masks that have nothing to do with things happening on stage. Instead, they have everything to do with helping rein in the deadly coronavirus, COVID-19.

When Laura Williamson, executive artistic director of Muncie Civic Theatre, saw a costumer making medical masks, she and Civic manager Brittany Covert were intrigued. She asked Sally Jones, “Do you think we can do this?”

Jones didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“This is pretty repetitive,” said Civic’s co-manager of costuming, who usually faces more challenging jobs in outfitting actors for shows. She can make a mask in fifteen minutes or less. “It doesn’t take long, but it makes you feel good.”

Besides Civic volunteers, others associated locally with Ball State University’s theatre department are engaged in the effort. In total, up to twenty theater seamstresses are working to fill the need. Other local volunteers are also helping.

By now, you undoubtedly know the story. The shockingly quick spread of this pandemic caught our nation’s medical personnel ill-equipped for the task at hand. While ramped-up efforts aimed at producing more personal protective equipment (PPEs) as well as respirators and ventilators are underway, at present supplies are nowhere near the levels experts anticipate will be needed.

Meredith Demaree sports a fashionable looking mask crafted by her mother Sarah Demaree. Meredith works in the healthcare industry. Photo by: Meredith Demaree

Meredith Demaree sports a fashionable looking mask crafted by her mother Sarah Demaree. Meredith works in the healthcare industry. Photo by: Meredith Demaree

When available, hospitals and other such medical facilities will be first in line for manufactured supplies. But it is understood the theater costumers’ masks will be mainly targeted for use in nursing homes, where they are also needed, said Carma Shawger.

Retired as an advising coordinator at BSU and a former employee of the university’s costuming department, she and the university’s costume shop director, Emily Busha, got involved in the effort early on.

“It makes me feel really happy,” said Busha, noting that in this time of required social distancing, theater folks missed the sense of camaraderie from working together on a project, such as is required to stage a play.

Now, with making masks?

“To have a task that can be helpful,” she said, “it helps us feel relevant.”

Tightly woven one-hundred-percent cotton is the material required for making masks, Shawger added. Unlike PPEs, that isn’t in short supply.

“Anybody that quilts always has a stash,” she said.

A local business, Joann fabric store in Northwest Plaza, has truly taken the lead in supplying material for this effort, providing free kits containing the essentials required by volunteers at work on their sewing machines.

“They really are stepping up locally to do what they can,” Williamson, the wife of an oncologist, said of Joann’s. By the way, she noted that Sandra Hoover, volunteer director at Indiana University Ball Memorial Hospital, says lap blankets for cancer patients remain needed, too.

“It’s really lovely to see that happening,” Williamson added, of Joann’s efforts.

It’s also lovely to see the wider American effort by theater costumers to make the masks.

“It is a movement,” she said.

Meanwhile, some of the reasons the volunteer seamstresses are choosing to take part are also interesting to note.

“Why?” asked Beth Messner, a communications studies professor at BSU. “Why not? If I can be useful in this time, why not?”

It’s good to feel needed at such a time, Williamson added.”And we feel so helpless.”

Volunteer Cindi Marini seemed destined to take part. She learned of the effort through three – count ‘em! – sources, the aforementioned Sally Jones, the group Pies For Peace, in which she is also active, and being at Joann fabric store when she saw employees giving away the mask-making kits.

So what led her to volunteer?

“Obviously, we are kind of housebound,” Marini said, then laughed. “And I don’t like housecleaning that well.”

Retired small-business owner Julie Herron’s take?

“It’s a crazy time, a very crazy time, and in these times, it’s real rewarding to do something that somebody needs,” she said, adding that being homebound in proximity to the kitchen was also a concern of hers. “So if you’re sewing, you’re noteating.”

As for volunteer Nancy Carlson (full disclosure: she’s this writer’s wife), who was sewing on costumes for the eventually upcoming Civic show “Mamma Mia” when work abruptly halted, every bit helps.

“I know they’re not certified as personal equipment,” she said of what they are making, “but any mask is better than no mask.”