Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Head Mistress: Susan Claassen bring's Edith Head's Hollywood to Life!

HEAD MISTRESS: SUSAN CLAASSEN BRINGS EDITH HEAD'S HOLLYWOOD TO LIFE!  Every now and then, something comes along that draws you into another world -- a world seemingly lost in time and yet so vividly alive in our imaginations that you wish somehow it would be real, indeed. Well, for those of us who just love anything and everything about the Golden Era of Hollywood (ranging from the silent film era of the 1920s to the late 1950s depending on who you ask) something very special is coming to Southern Californina -- and it's A Conversation with Edith Head -- a critically-acclaimed one-woman production starring Susan Claassen as the most famous costume designer of all time Edith Head. Even celebrities who've worked with and have known Head (see interview below) practically swear that Claassen's take on Head is spot-on in every way -- so much so that they too feel as though the toughest lady to ever work the studios was in their midsts once again. (In the photos above, Claassen is pictured with Joan Rivers and Tippi Hedren -- and there's a photo of Ms. Head with Doris Day!) Seeing as how most of the dialogue in the play is taken directly from Head's own words, it's no wonder that audiences have been entranced by Claassen's performance. We encourage you to visit the play's site to learn more and to get tickets to shows at the Santa Barbara Center Stage (November 2 - 4); the Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theater (November 8 - December 1); or at Working Wardrobes in Costa Mesa (December 4 & 5). Since this production by Claassen and Head's biographer Paddy Calistro is so engaging and so filled with stories, gossip and insight into a studio system that no longer exists, we hardly know where to begin to describe it. So, we went to the top! Below is an exclusive Studio of Style interview with the star herself -- and we look forward to her Pasadena performance as well.  Won't you join us and take a fashionable stroll down Hollywood's memory lane and experience a great night of live theater? You will? Fabulous! By the way, for all you pet lovers (yes!) the opening night in Pasadena on November 9 will benefit the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Pet Care Program (Head herself once said that "Animals are my best friends, always have been."). So get your tickets, pick out a nifty ensemble to wear and we'll see you there!

Studio of Style: When you first began preparing yourself to portray Edith Head many years ago, what was the first aspect of her personality or mannerisms that you recall perfecting? How did the rest fall into place from there?

Claassen: I first got the idea to create a theatrical presentation when I was watching a television biography. I contacted Edith's estate and they granted me permission to pursue this project. I madly read anything I could find and when I came upon Paddy Calistro's 1983 book, Edith Head's Hollywood, I decided to attempt to locate its author. I called telephone information for where I thought Paddy lived and, voila!, she was listed. I placed the phone call and it was kismet. At our first meeting in Los Angeles we knew the connection was right and we agreed to collaborate.

With Paddy’s connections we received the blessings of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They prepared a reel of film clips of Miss Head’s appearances and I was able to study her physical traits: the way she walked, a tilt of the head, how she gestured -- really, how she carried herself.  I also studied her speech patterns and rhythms.  She had been a school teacher so she had distinct way of speaking -- clipped and to the point!  I worked with a voice and movement coach in order to constantly perfect the details of her mannerisms and vocal qualities. My studying is ongoing.

I remember seeing Edith Head on television when I was a child. I was aware of her work when I would see the film credit “Gowns by Edith Head” but I wasn’t really aware of her as a person. Some of the common misconceptions are that she lacked a sense of humor and that she was rigid. You rarely hear about her charitable efforts and her kindness and mentoring of other designers. She was extremely charitable and provided many opportunities for other designers. In fact, she was one of the founders of the Costume Designers Guild and an early member of Fashion Group International -- 1935. 

Studio of Style: You were given access to 13 hours of taped interviews with Ms. Head.  Was there anything about her, based on those tapes, that struck you more so than anything else?

Claassen: Paddy had not only written the book but had inherited 13 hours of taped interviews with Edith Head - it was truly a gift from heaven. We can honestly say that A Conversation with Edith is based upon the words and thoughts of Edith Head -- the ‘Edith-isms'. In hearing her speak, it struck me how bright she was -- and she did not suffer fools lightly. She had to keep up a strong exterior in order to mask her vulnerability. Her longevity is a direct result of her tenacity. Paddy and I have worked very hard to create an intimate portrait that reveals the complexity of this fascinating woman.

Studio of Style: Because your portrayal of Ms. Head is so uncannily realistic, have people (especially Hollywood insiders or celebrities) who've known her or worked with her made some interesting comments of particular note?

Claassen: I know I'm not Edith. And the audience knows I'm not Edith Head. But there's a shared moment. Everybody can remember a film they saw, or a date they had, or the first time they saw the film credit “Gowns by Edith Head” or the first time they saw Grace Kelly in the gorgeous gown, or Elizabeth Taylor in the A Place in the Sun dress. It brings back something that in some way touched them. And that is a connection that I just treasure.

Norman Lear and Barbara Rush, who both worked with Head on Come Blow Your Horn, came to see us and said, “You are more Edith than Edith!”  Jean-Pierre Dorléac, a costume designer who was one of Edith's contemporaries, came to opening night and said, "I just felt I was with my friend again."
The list goes on from Joan Rivers to Anthony Powell to Tippi Hedren to Elke Sommer to Kate Burton (Richard Burton's daughter) who said, “I am having an out of body experience. I used to come to your fittings ‘Miss Head’ with my step-mom!”
Studio of Style: How do you prepare yourself for this role before going onstage each night?
Claassen: I’m very disciplined. I study the script every day. I listen to her interviews. Arrive at the theater two hours before curtain to slowly and thoroughly get into Miss Head’s “head” -- it is a wonderful time and very precious to me. I have my rituals that I go through like eating the same thing prior to every performance. It is an awesome responsibility to keep someone’s legacy alive and I embrace that wholeheartedly.

Studio of Style: Have there ever been moments, while onstage, when the expectations from the audience and their desire to believe and your desire to deliver Ms. Head for them resulted in transcendental moments where you've felt as though reincarnation had happened?

Claassen: I feel every moment to be transcendent - not a reincarnation but a shared moment in time. We set the play in 1981 during the making of her last film, Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid starring Steve Martin. She died two weeks after the wrap of the film and the film is dedicated to her. Throughout the play, we see glimpses of a woman who has outlived all her contemporaries and is wrestling with a lifetime of memories and regrets. It is some those vulnerable moments that resonate so deeply.

Studio of Style: Are there particular mannerisms of Ms. Head's that you do onstage that only insiders, perhaps, would catch or notice?

Claassen: I have studied her mannerisms like the way she tilted her head or posed for photos and it seems to pass the test of industry insiders!

Studio of Style: Is there a greater message about the long-lasting career of Ms. Head that those looking for careers themselves in Hollywood can learn from?

Claassen: Edith paved the way for all costume designers. Edith was an executive woman before there was such a thing! It was a “boy’s club” when she started in 1923. Women in the Unites Stated had just recently got the vote, if you can imagine. It has been said that Edith had the instincts of a pastry chef and the authority of a factory foreman. She herself said, “I knew I was not a creative design genius…I am a better diplomat than I am a designer...I was never going to be the world’s greatest costume designer, but there was no reason I could not be the smartest and most celebrated.”  She knew how to play the game better than anyone. Her concern really was to change actors into characters. Edith said, “I make people into what they are not - ten years older or younger, fatter or thinner, more handsome or more ridiculous, glamorous or sexy or horrible.  The camera never lies, after all, so my work is really an exercise in camouflage.” She was women with a great heart, a great sense of humor and great, great determination.
Studio of Style: Of all your global performances for this play over the years, has there been an especially notable one that you'll always remember?

Claassen: Every audience is notable and remarkable. From our first night in London when Dame Cleo Laine came to my student matinees -- each opportunity is a blessing.

Studio of Style: What do you want theater-goers to walk away with from this play or from your performance that they didn't necessarily have when they walked through the theater doors that evening?

Claassen: The audience response has been amazing. From Tbilisi to Edinburgh to Chicago audiences have been touched by Edith’s story.  What they take with them after having seen the performance is truly dependent on what they bring to it. Film buffs get immersed in  hearing stories from someone who has lived through the evolution of contemporary film; older audiences remember always seeing the closing credits, “Gowns by Edith Head”  and it evokes a bygone era; and younger audiences think of the Pixar animated film The Incredibles and Edna Mode, designer to the super heroes. The universal response is summed up by a note I received from a fan: “My friend saw the show on Saturday and adored it. He said the same as me -- i.e, if someone mentions Edith Head to me now, my first reaction will be to say "Oh yes, I met her once and it was unforgettable!"

Pasadena Playhouse Tickets click here.
Images courtesy Susan Claassen.