Susan Claassen becomes a fashion icon in A Conversation With Edith Head
Exactly. People say I sound exactly like Edith, but nobody really knows what Edith sounds like. But she was a teacher -- so we studied the speech patterns. She was pretty flat and authoritative and sort of barked. (Laughs.)
She won eight Oscars for her work and was nominated for dozens. How did you incorporate that into the show?
Legally, you're certainly not supposed to replicate Oscar because it's trademarked, or use Oscar's name in vain -- but you can't do a play about Edith Head without mentioning the Oscars. She loved them. Because Paddy has a great publishing company, Angel City Press, which publishes edgy, California-based books and has done things for the Academy, we contacted (their legal department.) We explained that the play was about Edith Head and they asked if Oscar was talked about in a favorable way; I faxed pages (of the play) over and we got the permission and they loaned us two prop Oscars, which you'll see in the play. They're the Oscars they use to set shots. Edith actually left her Oscars to the Academy's wonderful library, which has been an incredible resource for us.
What kind of preparation did you do in order to write this play?
We spent almost a year researching. This was in 2001. It wasn't quite as easy then to find everything online as it is now. You can go into the Academy's library, which is open to the public in Beverly Hills, and say, I want to know everything about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They will give you files and files of everything they have.
Edith left the bulk of her papers there, even some of her furniture from her house. They had everything and we just read and looked through everything and we catalogued the thirteen hours of taped interviews. We met with Bob Mackie, who was a sketch artist for Edith, and we met with Lew Wasserman, who was the head of Universal. His wife, Edie, was a good friend of Edith's. We went up to her house, which was incredible because we were really in the midst of Hollywood history.
They were wonderful, because that's how we got back stories. Edith was extremely discreet; Lucille Ball said, "Edith knows all of our secrets. But she won't tell."
Each performance of A Conversation With Edith Head can vary, because you interact with the audience. What is that like for you?
I stay as Edith after each performance to answer questions -- and obviously, I know I'm not Edith, people know I'm not Edith. But there's a shared moment, a memory that people really want to relive a film they saw or a movie palace they went to, or who they were with or what date it happened on.
If I get enough back story or information -- if there was somebody who knew Edith and they are in the audience -- the show will change. When we were in San Diego, we got a call at the box office that a woman who had been a model for Edith was coming to the show. I had enough information that I could address her; her name was Gladys.
So (in the show) I said, "And we would always fight Gladys, about how I wanted her to wear red and she wanted to wear another color. And who won?" And she said, "You did, Miss Head." It was chilling, the audience was weeping because it was just a suspension of time.