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Hello, Kitty! Celebrating two decades in the costume shop

posted by Chad Jones on Mon, Dec 14, 2009
in Backstage buzz , Costume shop

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Kitty 1

When she left her native Bay Area in the early ’80s, Kitty Muntzel was an artist and a teacher, with students ranging in age from Kindergarten to the golden years. She landed in St. Paul, and while touring the Minnesota Opera, she heard the costume shop was looking for stitchers to help build costumes for Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

“I thought I’d give it a try,” Kitty recalls. “As an artist, I had learned to sew working on fiber sculptures, and I had experience in taking something flat and making it three-dimensional.”

Kitty quickly discovered a love for sewing, and after a year under the apprenticeship of Gail Bakkom at Minnesota Opera, Kitty began working in costume shops around the country, from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to San Francisco Opera to the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. With each new experience, her skills grew, as did her title.

In the summer of 1989, Kitty came home to the Bay Area when she became a draper at Berkeley Rep.

Now celebrating her 20th anniversary with the Theatre, Kitty can most often be found in the downstairs costume shop adjacent to the Thrust Stage. On a recent morning visit, Kitty was working amid dress forms displaying some favorite costumes she helped to construct over the last two decades.

With Leonard Cohen music playing in the background, she demonstrates the craft of a draper using as an example one of David Zinn’s elaborate gowns for In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). First comes the costume designer’s sketch, which in this case is for the character of Mrs. Daldry played by Maria Dizzia (who wore this same design during the show’s Broadway production).

Kitty’s job is to realize the designer’s vision, and she starts with what lies underneath the garment that will help create the proper silhouette. Using muslin (an inexpensive, workmanlike fabric), and employing the actor’s measurements, Kitty begins draping the dress form to create a mock-up for the garment that will then be used for the actor’s first fitting. Once adjusted on the actor, the parts of the muslin garment are traced onto sturdy brown paper, which then become pattern pieces in the costume puzzle.

Those final pattern pieces are then used by Kitty’s “first hand” — costume speak for “assistant” — and a crew of stitchers to cut the fashion fabric and begin building the actual costume.

During a “build” for a show, there is never an idle moment in the costume shop. Kitty is involved with constant cutting, fitting, stitching, and, most importantly, problem-solving to make sure each costume looks and works exactly as it’s supposed to in terms of the actor’s mobility and the designer’s vision.

“Kitty has an amazing aesthetic and a really great eye,” observes Maggi Yule, Berkeley Rep’s costume shop manager. “She pays a lot of attention to detail, and everything she makes is beautifully done – clean, all finished off. She’s really conscientious and is great about figuring out how to make things work. That’s all part of the expertise she provides to designers to help them have a better product.”

For Kitty, the greatest reward of her job is watching a show come together and then experiencing the audience’s response on opening night. “That is such a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and pride,” she says.

Having worked for many different companies, including the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Kitty maintains that there is no place like Berkeley Rep.

“This theatre has everything – subscribers who are smart and supportive and a season that is always challenging and interesting,” she says. “And we get to work with the highest-caliber designers from around the country. I love how varied our seasons are. Already this season, we’ve gone from a huge musical to tiny one-acts. There’s so much flexibility here, and that’s why the costume shop itself is a seasoned shop and why designers look forward to coming here. We know what we’re doing. We bring a lot of skill and experience to the support we provide.”

On a personal note, one advantage of Kitty’s tenure at Berkeley Rep was meeting her husband, Paul Feinberg, at the Theatre when he was a properties manager. The couple lives in Alameda, where Kitty is active with East Bay Heritage Quilters making quilts for children in hospitals and homeless shelters.

Coming from a family with a keen eye for design – her father was an architect and her mother designed stationery – Kitty is actively involved with the Oakland Museum of California’s Council on Architecture and is a tremendous fan of landscaping and architecture.

“Costuming is a bit like both of those arts,” Kitty muses. “Everything has to support everything else.”

Constantly striving to learn new skills (last summer she taught herself how to “felt,” or turn raw wool into cloth), Kitty is still excited to come to work every day – even after 20 years.

“I love my work,” Kitty concludes. “I learn something new and grow with every show.”

Above photo: Kitty Muntzel in Berkeley Rep's costume shop. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.


Thanks for sharing her story! I love reading the histories of BRT staff! :)

Kim | Wed, Dec 16, 2009

Hi Kitty, We worked together at the Folger and Washington Opera in 19??81?82. You entertained the costume shop crew for Thanksgiving Dinner. Glad to see you are doing great work.

Shirley V. Brown | Thu, Nov 28, 2013

I'm now on the board of the local civic light opera company... no facility, no budget, lots of talent. Shirl.

Shirley V. Brown | Thu, Dec 5, 2013

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