No one who has ever worked in musical theater took the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney trope of “let’s put a show on in the barn” seriously. That’s because they knew exactly how much work it took to “just” put on a show.
But they also know a thing or two about adapting to their circumstances. So, when Broadway went dark six weeks ago, the community – all of them now out of jobs, from the star cast members and musicians, to the dressers, sewers, and lighting technicians – were ready to help in the emerging crisis.
“When this all went down,” says Jeff Whiting, of Open Jar Studios, a rehearsal space on Broadway – 48th St, “I got a call from the governor’s office. They said, ‘Listen, we keep hearing all these folks from the Broadway community who want to help. Do you think you could arrange a phone call with these groups and figure out how we can organize something?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’”
A whirlwind of phone calls followed, until Jeff ended up on the other end of the line with the city’s Economic Development Corporation. “They said, ‘We know your folks know how to build gowns, and what we need are a million medical gowns. Let’s see how quickly can you make them.’
“So I launched into action and basically formed a coalition of all of the Broadway stitchers who were normally creating Broadway costumes, who are now at a standstill, but have this skill that’s really necessary. Essentially, I’ve transformed our studios into a gown factory.”
Sewers who would normally have been working on the elaborate costumes for Moulin Rouge or Lion King, Phantom, Beetlejuice, and Hamilton – “I’m almost positive that pretty much every Broadway show is represented,” says Jeff – are stitching together the simple but badly needed hospital gowns for front line health workers.
A small team works from the 50,000 square foot studios, where all the materials are delivered and the pattern cutters get to work. There is then an elaborate drop-off plan that gets the fabric to the army of 300 stitchers all over the city. “We’ve got 18 stops around all the boroughs, so, sort of like you would get on the bus, everybody just chooses what stop is closest to them. We deliver the materials, then they send it back at that same location on the day it’s due.”
After four weeks of sewing, they’ve already made 5,400 gowns, and are about to launch into a second order of 39,000. “They’ve asked if we can keep going. And so of course, we’ll go as long as we can find fabric to sew together.”
‘We do the impossible on the stage so why not do it under this situation too?’
And there’s the challenge. Because the world’s specialist fabric supplies are running low. “I’ve called at least 40 mills across the world,” says Jeff. “We’ve got some of our fabrics from MMI Textiles, which specializes in medical grade fabric. But, because the need is so great and they’ve run out of that, the EDC have said, ‘OK, as long as it has this amount of water permeability, it can be used.’ So we’re using fabric that’s intended for backpacks and bags and other things.”
The program has created more than 300 jobs for out-of-work stitchers, and while the rate is less than they’d make on a big-budget Broadway show, they’re happy to be employed, and to be helping.
“Many of them are actually saying, ‘Oh no, I want to donate my time.’ And those who do, the proceeds go to The Actors Fund.”
The whole system is super efficient. “From start to finish – by the time we get the fabric, cut it into the pattern, sew a group of them, then get them back here and put them in a box and ship them off – it’s about a week,” he says.
“Look, we’re stage managers. So I figure, we do the impossible on the stage so why not do it under this situation too?
“These will be the very finest made medical gowns that are out there.”
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