Local Costume Designer Makes Masks for Hospital

Donna Southern Schmidt partnered with Main Street Theater to make masks for hospital workers out of costume fabric remnants. 

Interview by: Chantal Lemieux

Tell me a little about yourself, and your experience working in costume design? 

I am the manager of the Costume Connection and a freelance costume designer.  I have been designing professionally for 28 years in the Houston area.  I am married to Gavin Schmidt, who is a forensic investigator for Harris County and we have 2 kids, Eliana, 13 and Brandon 11. 


How much creative freedom do you have in theater design? 

I feel I have a great deal of creative freedom.  The director sets the parameters for the “world” they are creating, but in most instances, you have a great deal of freedom in how you interpret that world.  Even if you are doing a familiar classic or well- known story, how you choose to interpret that world can go in many directions.  I have designed many shows more than once in my career and each time you do a new production, there is always something new you can draw on.  Each director has a different point of view and therefore you always come up with something new and fresh even if it’s the same story.  

In photo: Dr. Dana Oldham wearing one of Donna’s masks


Where do you get your inspiration?

Everywhere!  When I am designing a show that is historical, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, I research that period or that person, and a lot of my inspiration comes from the existing data.  I also try to understand the personality of each character I am designing.  When you really understand the character, the world they are living in and the way they view that world, it becomes easier to design for them.  When I am doing a children’s show that is fantasy it can come from anywhere.  When I designed Sideways Stories from Wayside School, the design premise for the show was the school was the opposite of a normal school, so I took that and ran with it.  In designing the characters, we did the opposite of normal that ranged from hair color, color combinations, or prints.  Everything was just the opposite of what you would expect in a normal school.  My inspiration for that show ranged from Cirque de Soleil to Japanese Harajuku fashion.  


What’s the best part of working at Main street Theater? 

I think one of the best parts of working at Main Street Theater is how supportive they are of artists. They are truly interested in bringing out the best in us and are expressive when they are pleased with our work.  They are professional in all aspects of how they run each production, so it is just a joy to work in that atmosphere. 


Tell us a little bit about how you came up with the idea to use costume fabric remnants to sew masks? Which plays were the costumes used from?  

I am a member of a Facebook group of professional designers and there had been a lot of discussion of the need for masks. A great deal of the designers and technicians in that group live in New York.  I was concerned about that becoming necessary for us here in Houston, so I was very attentive to the research and prototypes they were involved in creating.  There was a lot of shared research and just practical information of what was needed especially for the medical workers on the front lines.  I was thankful that I had access to that information should it become necessary here.  As we were already planning to purge some of the fabric at the Costume Connection, I set aside fabrics from Main Street Theater that I knew were cotton and purchased fairly recently that could be used for the masks.  The fabrics are primarily from Sideways Stories from Wayside School and The Wizard of Oz. 


How did you approach Main Street Theater with a partnership? 

I emailed Main Street Theater to let them know I had set those fabrics aside and my plan for using them and they responded with an enthusiastic yes to continuing on with the project of creating masks.  


Do you have a goal in mind of how many masks you would like to sew?  Are there any other community projects you are thinking of starting? 

I have a personal friend, Dr. Dana Oldham, who is the clinical resource nurse in the emergency room of LBJ in Harris County.  I contacted her and when she received confirmation that they did indeed need masks to cover their N95 masks to prolong their use, I sent her 3 prototypes.  When we decided on the best one, I asked her how many were on her staff, thinking she would comment 15 or 20.  She told me 200.  I would love to gets masks to cover her entire staff.  I don’t have any other community projects in mind at this time, making the masks has kept me very busy. 


What other creative activities would you suggest to best utilize our time?  

I think now is the time to do whatever creative idea you have always wanted to try.  I am gardening right now, trying to improve my watercolor skills and I am even thinking about learning to crochet.  If you do know how to sew, join in and help us with masks. 


What is the best advice you can give to an inspiring costume designer?  

Learn as much as you can about all aspects of design.  Learn how costumes are made.  Take a sewing class, take an art class, see as much live theater as possible.  If you see a show that you especially love, don’t be afraid to reach out to the designer and learn how they came up with their designs.  


In what ways do you think the arts will rise to the challenge of connecting with audiences during our current stay-at-home orders? 

We are a tenacious and resilient bunch.  If there is a way to connect, we will find it.  I think it is important during this time for everyone to be aware of what it is they are turning to in these difficult times.  I don’t know anyone who has not tried to find a creative outlet during this time.  I think as a society as a whole, we often don’t put much value on what artists provide.  I hope that opinion will change.

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