Claassen portrays Head in Sketches: Edith Head's Hollywood, a play Claassen co-wrote and presents in its world premiere at Invisible Theatre January 15 through February 3. It's an evening of Hollywood glamour and gossip, reviewing Head's six-decade career.
As IT's artistic director, the busy Claassen manages to get back onto stage only about once a season. She wanted to develop a special vehicle for herself, and found her subject while watching a TV biography of Head--the two could almost be twins.
Claassen's interest soon went more than skin deep. "The more that I learned about her, the more I was intrigued because of her tenacity," Claassen says. "She started in Hollywood when it was definitely still a boys' club, she began at Paramount only two years after women got the vote, she was there 44 years, and then when her contract wasn't renewed in 1967 because the whole studio system had changed, she managed to maneuver things through Alfred Hitchcock and Lew Wasserman and moved to Universal [which Wasserman headed]. She was a true collaborator and never let her ego get in the way of a project; she said she was a better diplomat than a designer."
Head worked on 1,131 films, dressing everyone from Mae West to Steve Martin. She received 35 Academy Award nominations, eight of which led to Oscars.
Claassen points out that, unlike other costume designers--and, for that matter, most mainstream haute couturiers--Edith Head was familiar to nearly everybody in America through her work and even her face.
"She was a master of self-promotion," she says. "She wrote newspaper articles and books, she did fashion shows, she was on Art Linkletter's House Party. She was giving fashion tips to the heartland of America."
Claassen developed the script with director Carol Calkins and Head biographer Paddy Calistro. For this production, she has managed to wrangle everything from snapshots of Head and official prop Oscars (which the academy otherwise has never let into theatrical shows) to a voice-over from Linkletter.
"It sort of helps when [the donors] see me, and they know our motive is pure," Claassen says, while suggesting that purity does not entail whitewash. "We want to do this with all the authenticity we can."