Claassen's play about Hollywood icon adapts to locale
February 25, 2009, 5:08 p.m.
Just like an evolving work of art, Invisible Theatre's original production "A Conversation with Edith Head" has evolved.
Back in 2002 when IT's artistic director Susan Claassen wrote and made her debut in this one-woman show - giving a much-praised portrayal of the iconic Hollywood costume designer - the story was set on the Universal City Studio Tour where she had a bungalow. Now Claassen makes adjustments to her intimate portrait so it is set in whatever city - or country - she happens to be in for the show.
So when "A Conversation with Edith Head" returns to the Tucson stage March 5, the dialogue will be adjusted so there are direct references to the Old Pueblo.
"Her husband loved Southwestern art, and they would come here looking for pieces to collect," Claassen says. "They also went to Nogales. And remember that 'The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean' was shot here, " Claassen adds. She doesn't expect any shortage of Tucson references.
"Edith Head knew the value of reaching out to the public, and we do that, too. It is especially rewarding for me to meet people who actually knew her."
There were some particularly touching incidents in London, where the show played for three weeks in 2007. The London run followed the play's successful three weeks at Scotland's Edinburgh Festival Fringe ("There is no such thing as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they always say 'Festival Fringe' Claassen assures us), where the show was officially declared a sell-out.
"Out of 2,000 acts, there were only 200 that officially sold out," Claassen says proudly.
"When we went to London, people were always telling us stories about their personal connections to her, especially older people. One said how they would see Edith Head's name during World War II and just seeing that name would give them hope."
Edith Head lived up to that promise, going on to design the costumes for the stars of many pictures for decades after the war ended. The last film she worked on was Steve Martin's comedy "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," released in 1982.
The iconic costume designer had a particularly close working relationship with another Brit, Alfred Hitchcock. Claassen is especially taken by the gowns Head designed for Grace Kelly in "Rear Window" and "To Catch A Thief."
"In 'Rear Window' the clothes she wears actually progress the story," Claassen points out.
In a complementary event, the Loft Cinema is screening "Rear Window" at 1 p.m. Sunday. Claassen will be there to talk about Head's costumes for the picture and dish a little dirt on Hitchcock's battles with uptight censors to keep some sexual tension in this 1954 classic thriller.
"In film, you design for the close-ups," Claassen explains. "That's what made the neckline so important."
"Edith would be on the set so if the censors complained about too much cleavage, she would slip in a large flower, or something else fashionable."
Hitchcock and the costume designer worked especially well together, says Claassen, who has become an expert on the subject.
"Edith would say, 'With every director you have a special language. But with Hitch I didn't even need words.'"
Claassen also feels a strong connection to this lady who was equally famous for her bangs.
"On a lot of levels I do relate to her," Claassen says. "I love doing the role. Whenever I'm in costume, I always stay in character. I feel personally responsible for representing her accurately.
"On a lot of levels I can relate to her directly. To her determination, and her love for style. Both of us have such passion for what we do.
"But she is different from me, too. She is more reserved, less animated than I am. Her sense of humor is different. She didn't smile as much as I do."
However there is no denying the physical look they share. When Claassen is stage-ready, the resemblance to Head is uncanny.
"If you Google her I come up a lot. The Web site for the Biography Channel had a picture of her, but it was actually a photo of me.
"We did notify them of the error," Claassen adds with a little smile.