The stage may have gone dark prematurely for award-winning costume designer Rick Peña, but he’s back at work in his sewing room on a life-saving project.
Over the past 10 years, Peña has designed and sewn thousands of dazzling costumes for Slow Burn Theatre Co. and other regional theaters. (A talented actor and singer, he’s also frequently featured on stage.)
More recently, he joined the staff of the American Heritage School’s nationally-recognized theater program as a resident costume designer. And, then the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools, performing arts centers and other public venues, just as he was preparing for two major productions.
“I just couldn’t watch the news anymore,” the Fort Lauderdale resident said. “I needed to do something, but wasn’t quite sure what I could do by myself.”
Then, a call came from a cousin who manages a production company. She was seeking masks so her employees could safely continue to provide fruits and vegetables to her customers.
Always resourceful, Peña found a pattern online and quickly whipped out a few masks. Jill Kratish, the Broward Center’s director of programming and a friend, then referred him to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, which was suffering a shortage of masks for nurses, doctors and other frontline workers.
“I went to Walmart and JoAnn’s [Fabrics] and found some fun ‘superhero’ prints, since they’re the real heroes right now,” he said of the 50 masks he initially provided the hospital.
He would go on to create colorful masks, even adding Star Wars- and Disney-themed styles as he came upon interesting fabrics.
Thanks to social media, word of Peña’s inspiring contributions to the effort spread and requests multiplied. He spent hours at the sewing machine, but quickly ran out of fabric and supplies. Luckily, friends and family came to the rescue donating hundreds of yards of fabric and industrial-sized spools of elastic.
His experience led him to eventually alter his pattern as some of the hospitals requested the addition of pockets for disposable filters, so the masks could be washed and reused. Since then, he has provided hundreds of additional masks to Holy Cross Hospital, Prideline Youth Services and other essential service providers.
“I’ve tried to keep it as simple as I can,” he said, but never abandoning the stylish flair that made him so successful creating eye-catching costumes. “I’m going to keep sewing until I can’t anymore. I just want everyone to be safe.”
The weeks have passed quickly — he says he’s lost track of time since undertaking the project — and at last count, Peña has completed more than 800 masks.
Those popular “superhero” prints he discovered weeks ago may be long gone from store shelves, but he’s proving to be an unsung superhero himself in the fight against the pandemic.