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Department of Theatre Faculty and Staff Working to Meet Community and Healthcare Needs

Face masks, hospital gowns created in response to COVID-19 pandemic

The Department of Theatre staff and faculty may not be building theatre sets, creating costumes, or marketing events, but several of its folk are hard at work on remote projects to improve our service to students, including meeting the needs of community healthcare workers and citizens by building PPE. Marketing and Outreach Specialist Jodi Taylor, Costume Studio Supervisor Tony Sirk, and Scenic Construction Supervisor Vince Lobello, as well as Associate Clinical Professor Rich Dionne have been hard at work on their own initiative since the COVID-19 pandemic caused Purdue University to shift to remote teaching and telework.

Working on her own time, Taylor has helped to organize a Tippecanoe County mask sewing group – Greater Lafayette Sewing Masks – by creating a website for the group (, developing request and volunteer forms to centralize operations, distributing orders, and sewing masks. “The group had already formed a couple of days before I got involved, but it didn’t take long to see that operating out of the Facebook group was causing headaches and confusion. It seemed like such a natural fit for my skill set that I volunteered my services to the group,” she says. “The great thing about volunteering at a time like this is that you don’t have to know how to sew. Simply offering up what abilities you do have can be invaluable to others.”

The sewing group has distributed over 11,000 free cotton masks to Tippecanoe County hospitals, nursing homes, and essential businesses as of April 23 since their beginnings in late March. “I’m a bit gobsmacked to see how quickly this project has found its feet – we essentially created a business from scratch and zero capital in a weekend. It shows you how much this community cares. Without the volunteers and material donations in the area, this effort has, and is, nothing.”

Local businesses have stepped up to support the group. Lafayette Venetian Blind has donated fabric, and Pete’s Custom Printing of University Bookstore is producing t-shirts with the “seamsters” logo (Rosie the Riveter wearing a face mask) to help build the group’s financial resources. General Manager Matt Nix of Pete’s says their goal was to “help the community in any way we could, utilizing the resources we had available, which would be printing services with an online storefront and fulfillment services.”

In addition to expanding training materials for the costume shop, Sirk has been working remotely from his studio sewing masks. He has already sewn several hundred masks, booties, and gowns for hospitals and healthcare workers there.

Dionne has also been working on his own time and dime, using his own materials and equipment, to create face shields for area hospitals. Dionne says “I’m naturally a fixer and a sheepdog: I want to solve the problem, and I want to keep my people safe and healthy—these are deeply ingrained instincts that drive my responses to many things, and this pandemic is no different. My sister is an ICU nurse, and I have a lot of friends who work in the medical industry, so the thought of nurses and doctors working without PPE scares me. I started reaching out over Spring Break to the local hospitals to ask what could be done, and they weren’t even ready to answer that question, but a week later I received a message that listed face shields as a needed resource. I had seen designs for 3D-printed shields online, and decided since I had the resources, I’d get to work. With only one machine, I can print about six shield frames a day, but it took me only a couple of hours to cut out the visors, so I can have 40-something shields a week, if I keep the 3D-printer running round-the-clock.”

Recently, though a connection forged by Theatre and Polytechnic faculty Davin Huston with Theatre Chair Ann Shanahan, Purdue Theatre staff has been connected to a larger, coordinated university effort: the COVID 19 Response Team, led by Nathan Hartman, Department Head of Computer Graphics Technology. With enthusiastic support from Rueff School Head Arne Flaten, Sirk and Lobello have been converting some of their remote hours to working with the team devoted to making soft goods PPE, including gowns, boots, and caps for area hospitals, who have requested “as many as possible.” The team is employing typical theatre ingenuity, using Tyvek house wrap as fabric -- which Lobello helped to select and source in a market where supplies are scarce.