USM Theatre Professor, Graduate Students Employ Costume Design Skills in Making Masks for Essential Workers
Fri, 04/24/2020 - 12:54pm | By: David Tisdale
Pearl River County Sheriff Department’s Sgt. Tyler Tate picks up masks made by USM Costume Shop Supervisor Kelly James-Penot and her graduate assistants Mackenzie Dunn and Erin Jester.
Kelly James-Penot is back in character.
James-Penot, costume shop supervisor for The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Theatre program, was forced to suspend her work helping in the preparation of stage productions as the spread of the COVID-19 virus across the country and around the world led to severe restrictions on public gatherings everywhere.
For the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, USM-sponsored events were cancelled and the school’s faculty began facilitating instruction and course delivery online to adapt to a ‘new normal’ of social distancing and sheltering in place.
But for James-Penot and her two graduate assistants in the USM Costume Shop, Erin Jester and Mackenzie Dunn, the show had to go on, as they decided to use their talents to serve a broader constituency.
“After the University extended spring break, we discussed the growing need across the country that we were seeing for masks and substitutes for other types of PPE (personal protective equipment) in hospitals and healthcare facilities as well as for first responders when PPE is not available, and how we could help by making masks for those working on the front lines against the virus,” James-Penot said.
The costume shop crew researched the many patterns circulating amongst their colleagues in the theatre industry. They then prototyped several patterns before choosing one they believed was best. The collaboration has taken place across three different states. James-Penot lives in Pearl River County, Mississippi; Dunn in Cullman, Alabama; and Erin Jester in Gainesville, Florida. They use the Microsoft Teams platform for communication, and once they identified the appropriate materials for constructing the masks, James-Penot shipped the supplies to the others through her local post office.
“We had several careful conversations on construction techniques and material selection,” James-Penot said, including with her father, who works at a VA Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. They finally went with 100 percent cotton and a tight weave for the masks, with Huck towels - similar to surgical towels - in the construction.
Initially, the three wanted to donate what they produced to the Moffett Student Health Center on the USM Hattiesburg campus, following protocol that what they produced could be used to benefit another state-supported entity. But after learning the Moffett Center had enough on hand, they began looking elsewhere for a beneficiary of their handiwork.
James-Penot reached out to the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department to see if they could use the masks in their day-to-day operations. Major Joe Quave of the department was enthusiastically receptive to the offer, which extended to the staff of the Pearl River County Correctional Facility.
“We really appreciate Kelly and her students contacting us,” Major Quave said. “The N-95 masks we need are hard to get because they are in such demand now, which we completely understand, but our supply was minimal. For them to step up and help at this time is a real benefit to us.”
Multiple batches of the masks, made to be both functional and professional in appearance, have already been produced and distributed, with the remainder to be delivered by the end of the month.
“Once Mackenzie and Erin complete a batch of masks, they ship them from their local post office to my house,” James-Penot said. “I then arrange for a pick-up from the Sheriff’s department. It’s quite an effective system we have in place.
“I just wish Mackenzie and Erin could be here when the officer on duty arrives each week (for the pickup). I wish that they could meet one of the individuals their skills and talents are impacting.”
Jester said that while on the extended spring break, making masks for essential workers was “a way to infuse meaning into a quiet period.”
“It's a team effort to try to keep people safe,” she said.
Dunn said she appreciates the opportunity to “use my skills for something new, and in a way that benefits some of the public servants that we’re not as focused in on at the moment.”
The project has also given James-Penot a renewed sense of purpose. “The first day I started working on this, it felt so good. I’ve felt so out of my element, working from home and not being on campus,” she said. “I thought, ‘this is normal.’ I had really missed sewing.
“While we cannot put our talents to use for our theatre productions at this time, we’re fortunate to have the opportunity to create protection for those who are out protecting us.”
For information about the USM School of Performing and Visual Arts’ Theatre program, visit https://www.usm.edu/performing-visual-arts/#our-programs-list.