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Portland’s Laid-Off Stage Hands Have Made and Donated Thousands of Masks During the Pandemic

The mask-making brigade began with conversations between Rebecca Lewis, who worked as props carpenter at Portland Opera before the pandemic, and some of her laid-off co-workers.

A ritual has developed at the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 28's union hall.

Throughout the pandemic, members of Portland's theatrical stage workers union have stopped by the union's Creston-Kenilworth building and to drop off bags of homemade face masks in the parking lot. Since the start of the pandemic, the group has made about 2,000 masks, which are then donated to everyone from grocery store employees to transit operators to kids organizing Black Lives Matter protests.

"Having something to focus on and doing something that you can feel good about was really important for a lot of us," says Rebecca Lewis, chair of Local 28's Good and Welfare Committee. "We come from an industry where we're used to seeing each other all the time…and a lot of our sense of community is tied up with our jobs."

The mask-making brigade began with conversations between Lewis, who worked as props carpenter at Portland Opera before the pandemic, and some of her laid-off co-workers. That led to the creation of a sewing team (which uses a pattern from Deaconess Hospital in Indiana) that included not only laid-off wardrobe department workers, but actors, audio engineers and more.

The efforts of the ad hoc sewing team have reached beyond Oregon—they have sent masks to Washington and even Puerto Rico. It's a project that has been profoundly meaningful to laid-off stage employees like Lewis, who doesn't expect to return to her job at Portland Opera until May 2021.

"Losing the opportunity to collaborate on something with other humans was a really big blow, and I think it's that way for a lot of people," she says. "And so even though we couldn't be in the same place, I think having some outlet where we could sort of socially distance collaborate together was a really big help for a lot of people."

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