UIC, Chicago Shakespeare Theater partner to supply 5,000 face masks to UI Health

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Chicago’s First Lady Amy Eshleman, left, helps Rebecca Rugg, dean of the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts, and Chris Plevin of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, deliver 5,000 fabric face masks to the University of Illinois Hospital on April 3.Chicago’s First Lady Amy Eshleman, left, helps Rebecca Rugg, dean of the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts, and Chris Plevin of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, deliver 5,000 fabric face masks to the University of Illinois Hospital on April 3.

They used to outfit performers on Chicago's theater stages, but today, costume fabricators from across the city are making patient masks for healthcare settings in the fight against COVID-19 as part of a new partnership between the UIC College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts (CADA) and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

This partnership already has resulted in the manufacture of 5,000 facemasks, which were delivered to the University of Illinois Hospital on April 3 to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that patients in a healthcare setting should wear facemasks.

Chicago's First Lady Amy Eshleman was on hand, along with Chris Plevin, director of production for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Rebecca Rugg, dean of CADA; Dr. Robert Barish, vice chancellor for Health Affairs, and Shelly Major, chief nursing officer at UI Health, to receive the face masks to help ward off the spread of COVID-19.

With funding from UIC's leadership, Rugg enlisted CADA faculty and staff, the UIC Innovation in COVID-19 Working Group, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to design and approve cotton face masks for patients and to pay skilled artists in the theater's costume shop to fabricate them, with a goal of delivering 250,000 masks to hospitals and convalescence wards throughout the Chicago area.

"The live arts were immediately hit hard by this pandemic," Rugg said. "Places where people gather became a public health hazard, so productions and theaters were closed, and some nonprofits have needed to lay people off. This felt like a way to help the health system and help the unexpectedly unemployed fabricators in the theater industry."

Myron Elliott, assistant professor in UIC's School of Theatre and Music, brought his experience as a costume designer and technician to the design and sourcing of materials for this project. Elliott worked with Dr. Yannek Leiderman, a retinal surgeon who leads the Vitreoretinal Microsurgery Laboratory and part of the UIC Innovation in COVID-19 Working Group, to validate his design and materials with input from the Hospital Incident Command Group and Environmental Health and Safety Office.

Working in a healthcare setting was a new experience for Elliott, who spent his career in theater costume shops across the city.

"I usually make clothes for imaginary people. But these masks are for real people and do an important job," he said. "It brought a sense of urgency and pride to my work in a time when I feel a little helpless."

Materials are a critical concern when it comes to personal protective equipment. According to Leiderman, a surgical mask must accomplish two things: stop the spread of germs from the mouth and nose of a healthcare worker to a patient, and stop the transmission of germs from patients to the healthcare worker. It's important to note that a surgical mask is not the same as a surgical respirator, such as an N95 respirator mask.

Together, the bioengineering and costume design teams settled on a 100-percent cotton, double-layer design.

"As a physician and surgeon, it's rewarding to be part of a project that is helping our team at UI Health. But as a member of the Chicago community, it's also very gratifying to help our arts and theater community," Leiderman said.

Marcia Lausen, director of the UIC School of Design, and Philip Burton, professor and chair of graphic design, created a graphic identity for the project based on their early work to establish a brand identity for Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In the meantime, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater had its costume shop deemed "essential" by the City of Chicago and hired staff to assemble the masks.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Plevin shared, "Chicago Shakespeare is proud to be partnering with UIC and the Chicago theater community in addressing two critical challenges facing our city in this time of crisis. With the shuttering of our theaters due to COVID-19, swaths of our city's theater makers have found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly out of work.

"By rallying this extraordinary team of over 100 costume artisans into producing masks for our medical institutions, we can support the defense of our city against this virus, while offering much-needed employment to the artists of Chicago."

Paying the fabricators is especially gratifying to Rugg, who said the project takes its inspiration from President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration efforts during the Great Depression, which, in addition to other infrastructure efforts, famously created the Federal Theater Project. Back then, the government paid people to do the work that fit their skills and helped lift the country's economy.