The work of legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head can be seen in classic movies such as Roman Holiday, To Catch A Thief and Funny Face, work by the likes of Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and others. With more than eight Academy Awards and 35 nominations under her belt, it’s no wonder Head inspired actress, writer and artistic director Susan Claassen to pen a one-woman play in her honor. In December, Claassen will bring A Conversation With Edith Head to St. Louis. Claassen spoke with Ladue News about creating the show and what it’s like to portray the great Ms. Head.
What prompted you to create and write this show?
I was watching the Biography Channel and there was a biography of Edith Head. I had always been aware of Edith, but as I watched it, I thought, There’s a real physical resemblance here. And her story was amazing. That was the impetus.
I immediately checked to see if a theatrical piece had been done, and none have. I contacted the Motion Picture and Television Fund to get the rights and I found books she wrote or that had been written about her. The co-author of her posthumously written autobiography was in L.A., so I called information, found her, and we connected. This was 2001. We had 13 hours of taped interviews, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loaned us two prop Oscars, which people see in the show. We wrote and researched for six to seven months before doing the first reading. It premiered in 2002 in Tucson, and we had the miracle of being covered by The New York Times. Then we got a call from Chicago asking if we toured. This was the beginning of A Conversation With Edith Head, because we realized we could set it anywhere in the world—because she was everywhere.
How would you describe the show to someone who knows nothing about Edith?
It really is a conversation with a woman who was a female executive before there was such a thing. It’s set in 1981, while she was working on her last film, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. People learn about the inner workings of Hollywood and also how the woman—in very much a boys’ club—survived for 60 years, working with the greatest stars and directors of the time, and how she invented herself.
Edith definitely was way ahead of her time. And that’s why she speaks to all generations. What other designer has an animated character in homage to her? What other designer could have a Google doodle pay tribute to her? She put a face on what a costume designer did. So you don’t have to know anything about Edith Head to enjoy it. It appeals to people who remember her, as well as to fashionistas, to kids, to executives or people who are just interested in a great story.
A lot of the show focuses on Edith’s thoughts about fashion and about the various stars she worked with. How would Edith view fashion and Hollywood today?
There were no stylists when she was in the studio system. If a star was going out, she would go to the costume department, and Edith would design a wardrobe for her. Edith had a great sense of what was classic. You could walk the red carpet in one of her designs today.
She also used to work for the Academy Awards, and was in charge of all the fashion, and knew what could be shown on television, with codes of ethics and censorships. She sent out a letter to all the presenters, saying what was appropriate and what wasn’t appropriate.
There is a lot of audience interaction in this play. Why is this important?
The show changes every performance, depending on what questions the audience wants answered. They either remember a film or a gorgeous gown they saw. I stay as Edith after the show, and people come up to me to share memories. Someone once said, I was a Universal Studios tour guide in 1972. Do you remember me? I know I’m not Edith Head, and most people know I’m not, but they want to believe in that magic. Edith would be 116 if she was alive today, and it’s such an honor to keep her legacy alive.
Susan Claassen will star in A Conversation with Edith Head at The Sheldon. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 6, and Saturday, Dec. 7. Seating is at reserved 4-person tables. Tickets are $40, and can be purchased by calling 534-1111 or by visiting thesheldon.com