After weeks of darkness, the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre is alive again with activity. But the physically distanced teams of workers are not building sets; they’re setting up stretchers and cots, ventilators and other medical equipment – a mock field hospital. The Vancouver theatre company has donated the large black box space to a local multidisciplinary medical start-up to help showcase its inventions: low-cost respiratory support equipment for the COVID-19 crisis.
It’s one of the most dramatic examples of ways Canada’s performing arts companies, suddenly dark, have been playing their part during the pandemic – mobilizing to offer supplies, space, expertise and creativity.
“There’s an honour in being able to contribute to this fight,” says Ashlie Corcoran, artistic director of the Arts Club, whose wardrobe department has also been making masks and scrub caps and donating them to local medical and care facilities.
“This is terrible for everyone; this is affecting everyone across society. But if we can do things like make some masks or give our space to people who are actually trying to solve the problem, how to treat COVID-19, it feels like a very small but important contribution.”
The field hospital simulation is the work of COSMIC Medical Technologies (COSMIC stands for Collective Open Source Medical Innovations for COVID-19). The volunteer group was co-founded by Chris Nguan, a kidney transplant surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital, whose surgeries had been cancelled because of the pandemic. Nguan issued a call to action to his students, and in less than six weeks the group, working remotely to maintain distancing, designed a ventilator prototype. The Gravity Ventilator – or gVent – prototype was one of the recipients of a $100,000 grant through the Roche Canada COVID-19 Innovation Challenge.
The crowdsource volunteer group now has more than 150 people helping, including doctors, engineers, designers, and medical professionals ranging from students to retirees. The group has branched out from the gVent, with seven additional active products designed to help COVID patients from early stages of the illness to postventilator rehabilitation.
“That’s where the Arts Club comes in,” Nguan explains.
It seemed like a good idea to bring the groups together – “because we are working in these disparate teams that are really almost siloed," Nguan says – and set them up as a demonstration site. One participant, who had previously done some theatre work, suggested finding a theatre venue to put all of the projects in context of a large deployment in a hospital. They contacted the Arts Club.
“They were amazing in terms of understanding the vision, and what we’re trying to achieve,” Nguan says. “They were able to help us envision in how these things work together and how it might appear to the public and to the hospital systems. Their creativity really energizes us.”
All but one of the projects are set up in the theatre as a demo, spanning more than nine metres. But the collaboration with the theatre company has been about more than providing the space, Nguan explains. “They’re very sensitive to how we appear and function, whereas we’re really on the engineering side and might be blind to a lot of those things. So they really helped us develop the vision for that. … They’re really, really helping us envision how all these things are going to work together and be deployed in the real world.”
Performing arts companies have been helping in the crisis since the very early stages of the shutdown. Many companies, as they were shutting down a few weeks ago, donated the PPE that they keep in their prop and construction shops, such as N95 masks and gloves.
Some companies moved to making things: Wardrobe departments that are usually making elaborate costumes have now sent bolts of material to sewers, working mostly out of their homes, to create non-surgical-grade masks, scrub caps and gowns.
The Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., was early out of the gate. After donating cases of N95 masks, they learned from Niagara Public Health that there was a need for more masks, bands to hold those masks in place and, especially, gowns to protect frontline workers. Fulfilling that need has turned into a major operation, with a staging point in Shaw Festival executive director and CEO Tim Jennings’s garage in St. Catharines, Ont., (his wife, Truly Carmichael, is a pattern-maker and is helping costume-shop manager Jason Bendig organize distribution). The Shaw has supplied a few hundred gowns a week to organizations that include hospices around the Golden Horseshoe, with stitchers and other pattern-makers working from their homes. All the labour and materials are donated by Shaw, and the effort has kept around 30 people at Shaw employed, on full salary thanks to the festival.
They have received, in return, photos from medical staff wearing the gowns. “The morale boost that we all get from the work these people are doing is just remarkable,” Jennings says.
Other companies – and there are many – that have taken on mask-making include Vancouver Opera. VO, which regularly works with a number of community organizations, learned there was a need for non-surgical masks, and got to work.
“We went down to the costume shop and raided everything that was there,” says technical director Autumn Coppaway, who is leading the initiative along with the head of costumes. Recipients include the BC Society of Transition Houses and some veterinarians.
“These are for people – as our lovely prime minister said – ‘speaking moistly,’” Coppaway says.
In Toronto, the production team at the Canadian Opera Company has made more than 1,300 masks with extra material left over from past productions, for visitors to Michael Garron Hospital.
“Especially in the production department, we’re problem-solvers by nature, it’s what we do. We’re used to jumping in and solving problems on a small budget and a short timeline,” Michael Ledermueller, the COC’s technical director, says. “So it seems like second nature to want to jump in and do something because, I mean, otherwise we’re sitting at home feeling helpless in all of this.”
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