At the Mercer University Costume Shop, Shelley Kuhen Aims to Sew the Curve Flat

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Mercer Theatre masks
Mercer Costume Shop

Mercer University Theatre costume designer Shelley Kuhen and assistants Lauren Parris and Katie Trotter have already made around 250 masks for local healthcare professionals.

MACON – Though campus classrooms and buildings may seem quiet during virtual instruction in recent days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a familiar hum and whir emanates from the Mercer University Theatre costume shop.

The sound of sewing machines clicking their needles together continues with costume designer Shelley Kuhen at the helm. But instead of adding sequins to skirts or fixing a hem to fit an actor, Kuhen is using her sewing abilities to create masks for Navicent Health and other healthcare professionals.

“The first time I heard about it, it was the costume shops in New York shifting gears to making masks because all their shows were cancelled,” Kuhen said. “I was contacted by a woman from a local group of people doing this from home.” This was through Facebook groups like “Sewing Masks for Macon Hospitals” and “Sewing for Middle Georgia” that aim to fill the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) quickly and locally.

Kuhen and her two assistants, Mercer alumni Lauren Parris and Katie Trotter, had made roughly 250 masks at the time of this writing and showed no signs of stopping. When asked how often she plans to sew, Kuhen responded, “Probably every day. Someone is usually in here four to five hours a day.”

The materials they are using for masks can be found in the Mercer costume shop, normally stocked up for the Mercer Players performances and for theatre student projects. Making the mask requires three layers of fabric: cotton, flannel, and muslin. The cotton fabric goes on the outside of the mask and typically features a fun and colorful design. The flannel goes inside the middle part of the mask, and the muslin forms the layer that goes against doctors’ and nurses’ faces. Elastic ties are then sewn onto the sides.

Kuhen’s traditional costuming is well-known among local theatre artists at Mercer and around Macon. “Shelley is the queen of costume construction,” noted Richard Fraizer, Artistic Director of Theatre Macon, where she has designed costumes for numerous productions. “She and her work give performers the final boost of confidence they need to be successful on opening night. I am beyond grateful for the many years we have had the opportunity to work together and I look forward to many, many more.”

This enthusiasm was echoed by Associate Professor and Director of Mercer Theatre Scot Mann: “Shelley and her crew have the skills to do this correctly.”

Kuhen says that the work she is doing for the masks is “a whole other world” compared to the work she does with costumes. “I’m not used to making multiples of anything, so this is kind of funny,” she remarked. “Accuracy is important. You can’t just throw these [masks] together.” Yet in less than a week, the project has already started to make a difference.

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Julia Rubens