By Abby Weingarten
Technical theatre students at New College won’t be building sets or designing costumes this fall, as in-person stage shows are no longer options during the COVID-19 pandemic. But a creative instructor has found a new way to encourage Novos to utilize their crafty skills—by sewing masks for the entire campus community.
“I think the most important thing in the world right now is community, and that’s what theatre fundamentally does—it brings people together into the same room to have a shared experience,” said Tim O’Donnell, the production manager and technical director of the Black Box Theater at New College. “We all need to come together right now and do something. If we can’t do that on a stage, we can still do that with our voices and our skills.”
So, with four sewing machines and multiple donated bags of fabric, O’Donnell and his students are getting to work.
O’Donnell has spent weeks reaching out to his colleagues, asking for mask materials (leftover scraps, elastic and thread), and he has already received an abundant supply. His students will be making face coverings all semester in the on-campus costume shop in Hamilton Center (three people safely at a time), and providing the masks free of charge to faculty, staff and students.
“One thing I’ve learned during this pandemic is, the more masks you have, the better,” O’Donnell said. “I think New College is going to get so busy and people will be so active so that, if we could just be a place full of masks—and people could have one for every day of the week—we could keep people as healthy and safe as possible.”
O’Donnell has been overwhelmed with support for this project, and faculty and staff are continuously dropping off donations to his mailbox in ACE 116. He is also opening up the mask-making option to students outside of his “Theatre Management in the Arts” class in the Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) program. Students from all disciplines who want to do drop-in sewing sessions can reach out to O’Donnell for details.
Any special requests for styles? He is on it. O’Donnell wants the mask-making endeavor to be inclusive, so—for example—he is currently researching vinyl fabric options to accommodate the hard of hearing. While he is not a tailoring virtuoso, O’Donnell has been sewing for 20 years, and his close friend is a professional costume designer who is always willing to offer tips.
“I sit in my office and make masks whenever I have time,” O’Donnell said. “I can bang one out in about 15 to 20 minutes, and maybe four or five in an hour.”
His students, many of whom have never sewn before, are taking O’Donnell’s lead. They are also preparing for a radio play in November with the TDPS program, and O’Donnell is looking forward to the new virtual format.
O’Donnell is used to adapting to various forms of theatre, as he has performed numerous roles throughout his professional career. He was a company manager for the Radio City Rockettes for 10 years, ran the wardrobe department on a national tour of RENT, managed the office of The Lark (international theatre laboratory) in Times Square, and taught at several regional theaters. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in acting and directing from Adelphi University, and joined New College two years ago after working in the education department at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
“I have learned that, whatever your skills, you can always use them to promote a sense of community,” O’Donnell said. “Making masks with my students this semester is a great opportunity to teach them how to sew, and we can still work together in a productive way. This is something we can do to help.”
Safety is one thing but fashion is another. For O’Donnell, the two are not mutually exclusive. He is all about incorporating fun prints and colors into the mask designs, too.
“If I’m going to wear a mask, I’m going to make a statement,” O’Donnell said. “I’m going to be fashionable.”
To donate fabric for masks or to learn to sew, contact O’Donnell at (941) 487-4623 or email@example.com.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.