“I am not a costume designer. I am an engineer.”
Signature Theatre associate costume director Natalie Kurczewski makes her position clear right away. When people learn she works in a costume department, they assume she designs the garments, but Kurczewski insists, “I’m a terrible designer. I’ve never been interested in costume design.”
So, what is Kurczewski interested in? Everything else that goes into creating a costume: selecting the fabric, generating a pattern, constructing the garment, fitting and altering it to the actors’ body and delegating to a team of fellow drapers (the people who construct the costume) and stitchers (the people who add the finishing detail and alterations) — so when curtains rise on opening night, the designers’ vision becomes reality.
The confusion behind Kurczewski’s position is rooted in preconceived notions associated with costume departments.
“I have a lot of opinions about ‘boy jobs’ and ‘girl jobs’ and gender parity in this industry,” Kurczewski says. “Because costumes are considered women’s jobs, they’re also considered unskilled, despite the fact that I have a master’s degree in costume production.”
She describes “boy jobs” as the set carpentry, lighting and audio components of a production, which are referred to as the technical jobs.
To shed light on unfair labels, Kurczewski once asked a theatre professional to describe what a technical director does. The colleague responded that a technical director takes sketched blueprints, decides how to build structures for the stage and delegates a team to complete the projects.
“And I said, ‘That’s what I do,’” Kurczewski recalls.
Although all genders work across departments, Kurczewski notes the traditional stereotypes still linger in theatre. Costume department jobs on average are paid less than the technical theatre jobs.
Despite industry inequity, Kurczewski is passionate about what she does. Growing up in Wisconsin with a family where all the women knew how to sew, she began stitching at 12 years old.
“I think as young as 12, I knew that my attention to detail was greater than other people’s,” she shares.
Following high school, she earned a bachelor’s in apparel design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and worked at a bridal salon, a handbag manufacturer and a costume rental shop before earning her master’s at the University of Wisconsin. Through connections from the graduate program, Kurczewski landed her first theatre gig at Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. in 2002. By 2007, she became one of their full-time drapers.
While Kurczewski was content with creating patterns and constructing as a draper for Shakespeare Theatre, she still had her sights set on mastering one last skill.
“I really like menswear,” says Kurczewski. “Menswear has rules. I like rules. Everybody thinks I’m a rebel, but I like having parameters. Womenswear, you can do anything; it’s all very arbitrary. But with men, you have standard rules and if you follow them, you are going to get a beautiful product. You shape the garments around the man. For instance, Cary Grant had all his shoulders built up because he had sloping shoulders.”
Her interest in menswear and obsession for detail made Kurczewski want to master tailoring. And one day the opportunity walked in.
“One of the wardrobe people at Shakespeare walked past. I knew her name was Sue, and I knew she had an accent. And I said, ‘Sue, where’s your accent from?’ She’s like, ‘Oh, I’m from Stratford-upon-Avon. I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company.’”
Knowing the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK has an excellent tailoring program, Kurczewski asked if her colleague could hand the Royal Shakespeare Company a letter inquiring about an internship to learn how to master tailoring suits. It resulted not in an internship but a full-time position as a principal men’s cutter for four years.
At the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kurczewski created and tailored costumes for a slew of famous actors. She ran into David Tennant, Patrick Stewart and Kit Harington, to name drop a few. While she has plenty of entertaining stories to tell about her time working with celebrities, she saw them as peers at the end of the day.
“I don’t care how famous an actor is,” Kurczewski says. “They’re my coworker. And I can’t belittle or demean myself to be under them. Because that isn’t fair to me. Because we’re humans.” She quips, “They still have to take their trousers down to use the toilet.”
It’s this mindset that has propelled Kurczewski into leadership roles. In addition to her talents, she is unabashedly a champion for drapers and stitchers.
“I hate the phrase, ‘Oh, she’s just a stitcher.’ There is no such thing as ‘just a stitcher.’ It’s a talent that not everybody has. I’ve hired people in the costume room that have told me they know what they’re doing, and then they don’t and are not asked back. These garments are too important to me. I want every single person sitting in the audience to marvel at how beautiful the costumes are, even if I didn’t make them.”
Since returning from the UK, she’s worked at Signature Theatre since 2015 as the associate costume director aside costume director Frederick Deeben. As second in command, she delegates and makes sure the costumes are of quality and completed on time. With her high standards, organization and time management skills, Kurczewski tries to offer drapers and stitchers flexible work schedules based on when they’re available and wants them to know they can use her as a resource.
“My catchphrase is, ‘I’m here to make your job easier,’” Kurczewski says. “I want this to be collaborative. I don’t want to be the top of the heap. I just want to be the person that everyone can come to and say, ‘I have this problem’ or ‘How do you do this?’”
During the upcoming season, Deeben will step down as the costume director after “No Place to Go” completes its run on October 16. Signature Theatre offered the top role to Kurczewski, who initially declined.
“The artistic director told me, ‘You are the perfect person to fill that position,’” Kurczewski says. “And I said, ‘No. I’m really good at making costumes, but I don’t want to be a manager.’ Then we started talking and 45 minutes later, I was completely convinced I was the right person for the job.”
What convinced her was being told that she could still construct costumes while overseeing the department. And after a recent bout of Covid-19, where she was able to work from home while in quarantine, she realized that being in the top leadership role could keep the department on track, even if someone falls ill.
“I realized that because I know how to drape, how to make patterns, how to cut prints, how to stitch, I can step into any position on this floor if someone is sick.”
While Kurczewski notes that she will have to learn the financial matters of running the department for the position, she is eager to learn and take on the next chapter of her career as a leader — even if she is reluctant for the title.
“I never wanted to do this, but I am so proud and humbled that I was asked to, and [that] people trust and believe that I have the right skills to do it. I don’t know everything yet, but I’m willing to try. I’m willing to make sure every single person who comes into this room to work with me is protected, cared for and treated in the best possible fashion they can be treated.”
View this post on Instagram
See Kurczewski’s costume work on stage with Signature Theatre’s current shows: “The Color Purple,” open through October 9, and “No Place to Go,” open through October 16. To see upcoming times, purchase tickets and view the complete schedule of shows playing this season, visit the theatre’s website.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.