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Invisible Touch 

Why late Edith Head’s doppelgänger will never leave Tucson

click to enlarge Susan Claassen on her Edith Head show: “It’s been such a privilege to keep her legacy alive and it’s a joy to do it every time.”

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Susan Claassen on her Edith Head show: “It’s been such a privilege to keep her legacy alive and it’s a joy to do it every time.”

Each Thanksgiving Day, one of Arizona's "48 Most Intriguing Women" becomes a clown. But when it comes to her career, she's anything but clownish.

Standing at 5 feet, Susan Claassen's energy, style and sense of taste makes her an all-around class act. She not only runs Tucson's Invisible Theatre, but she acts, writes and directs.

"She's not afraid of big projects," Claassen's lifelong friend Molly McKasson said. "She's willing and able to take on all of the work."

Claassen's surreal physical resemblance to late Hollywood designer Edith Head changed her acting career forever.

Years ago, she did a double take while watching a television biography of Head and knew there was a story to be told. In 2002, her one-woman show A Conversation With Edith Head was born and has been running ever since—earning her an Ovation Nomination, the Los Angeles version of a Tony Award.

"It's been such a privilege to keep her legacy alive and it's a joy to do it every time," Claassen said. "Every show is different and I'm always researching. I have a great identity with it. It's fun to see people who knew her or remember; people want to go with the magic of it. Nobody will ever do what she has done. Her record will go on forever."

A Conversation With Edith Head has attracted audiences around the world. The show has played across the United States and has toured other countries including a short run in London.

"[Late] Joan Rivers and Tippi Hedren saw the show," Claassen said. "We have people all the time who worked with her come in, who understood her, who marveled at her."

The show first premiered at Claassen's hub, Invisible Theatre on First Avenue and Drachman Street. She came to the theater in 1974 and has held the title of managing artistic director for 42 years. It is her pride and joy, and the sole reason she still resides in Tucson—besides the warm weather of course.

Claassen discovered the theater a couple of years after she came to Tucson. When she first arrived, she worked at a theater box office. While auditioning for a play she met McKasson.

"I wasn't feeling fulfilled working there," Claassen said. McKasson then introduced her to the newest theater in town, Invisible Theatre.

"So, we walked up the steps of the Odd Fellows Hall and it felt fabulous; it felt like home. That really was the beginning of knowing that Invisible Theatre was what I wanted to do."

While Invisible Theatre is professionally run, there's a family feel to it. As visitors walk in theater, Claassen welcomes them with a tight hug and kisses on both cheeks. It's as if she knows every single person that walks in.

The 80-seat theater is named for the invisible energy that flows between the actors and its audience members.

"You just want to keep getting better and better and continue to have fun while touching the lives of others through our energy. We've had a great run."

Born and raised in Maplewood, N.J., Claassen was exposed to the arts at a very young age. With a father keen on Shakespeare, her parents took Claassen and her siblings to numerous Broadway shows. She has never looked back.

"Certainly not in the last decades have I ever felt that what I do is less than had I gone to New York," Claassen said. "The people are as sophisticated here as they are in New York."

Her next step is to find next-generation leadership. Although she's not going anywhere at the moment, she feels she must find someone who has a passion for the theater.

"It's harder and harder to find; not just in the theater but in anything," Claassen said.

Betsy Kaplan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at betsykap@email.arizona.edu.

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