Entertaining Her Options
Susan Claassen as Edith Head
More than 40 years ago, Susan Claassen was faced with a life-altering decision. This kid from New Jersey, away from home under the big blue skies of Denver, Colorado, found herself with a choice that has faced countless college freshmen — try to please their parents, or be true to themselves. “I thought perhaps I would major in speech therapy,” she says, reflecting on the day she signed up for classes, “but then I was in the big gymnasium and it was like ‘Speech Therapy … or Theater …? Who’s gonna know?’”
She chuckles at the memory as if to acknowledge that it was a foregone conclusion about which way she would go.
Watching Claassen — the managing artistic director of Invisible Theatre — on a stage, whether she is hosting an event, or in character in a performance, it’s difficult to imagine her doing anything else. She owns the space, and you don’t see any vestige of the “painfully shy little girl” she says she was growing up.
And despite her momentary trepidation about her path in college, the truth is that her parents actually prepared her for the life she embraces passionately. “My father — Philip Klein — was not college-educated. He was a businessman, but he instilled in my sister Jacqui and me such a love of the arts,” she reflects. “Both of my parents did.”
Claassen’s mother Goldie was a visual artist, and her dad was drawn to language. “My father would very often read to us at night from Shakespeare. He also loved the Yiddish theater, even though he didn’t speak Yiddish.”
Living in Maplewood, New Jersey, she had not only multiple opportunities to encounter the arts, New York City wasn’t far away. There were many trips to watch performances in Manhattan, as well as options to participate. Claassen had a friend who was involved in doing plays, so she joined in. She also took part in various food drives and fundraisers, early evidence of what has become a lifelong commitment to supporting the community.
It was the one-for-all/all-for-one feeling — so much a part of the theater — that made it irresistible to her. “We performed The Crucible in high school, and the costumes were supposed to come in from New York, and they didn’t. It became like, ‘How can we do the show?’ ‘We can do it!’ There was a real sense of community in the theater world, and it was such an exciting time.”
The University of Denver became for her an extension of that performing arts universe, and her time there ended with two big milestones: she started working as an Equity actor, and she married Robert Claassen. Though Denver was wonderful, Susan felt stifled being cast in “urchin” roles, and Bob was planning to continue his education in anthropology at the University of Arizona. They packed up and relocated to Tucson in the early 1970s.
“The woman who owned the house we rented when we first moved to Tucson knew that I was an actor and said, ‘ACT is having auditions.’ I thought it was a branch of American Conservatory Theater from San Francisco!” Susan reveals with a laugh.
In reality, Arizona Civic Theatre (the forerunner of Arizona Theatre Company) was a start-up group and it opened numerous doors for Claassen, including introducing her to a future collaborative partner. “I auditioned for a production of Hot L Baltimore, and Molly McKasson and I were both cast.”
ACT was a great introduction to the Old Pueblo’s theater world, but ultimately it wasn’t that fulfilling for Claassen, who felt she had a lot more to give. McKasson was of the same mindset, and mentioned something in passing one day. “She said, ‘There’s this new theater group that’s started. Come with me,’” Claassen recalls of their introduction to Invisible Theatre (IT). “There we were at the Odd Fellows Hall, and it was a hotbed of cultural activity. It felt like home immediately. There were wood floors, so the dance companies could rehearse there. We had our own graphics, our own everything. It was this incredible rush.”
The company was not exactly flush with funds, however, and over time most of the men who were founders and artists at IT left. “Molly was married, and I was married at the time, so we had a couple of incomes,” Claassen says of how they were able to stick it out and survive.
There weren’t many women artistic directors at theaters in those days, so Claassen and McKasson had to learn on the fly, as well as build the theater’s audience by both collaborating with other arts groups, and producing new plays.
Somehow, not only did they make the formula work, they figured out that they had a great onstage chemistry. “Molly and I both realized we had an improvisation background. I had been in an improv company in Denver, and hers was in Chicago, so we started performing at IT as ‘Mols and Suz.’ We had been calling each other that anyway. We were a good combination; as short and Semitic looking as I am, Molly is tall and Nordic. It was like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. It was at the height of the feminist movement and our material was very political. We did it up until Molly decided to run for City Council, and then we couldn’t do it anymore because we’d be satirizing her and that really wouldn’t work. People would ask me, ‘Why is Molly running for office?’ And I’d say, ‘Because it’s the highest paid job an actor can get in Tucson.’ And I think the pay was only about 10 thousand!”
There were many changes over the years at IT, and in Susan’s personal life. She and Bob divorced, but to this day remain good friends. And more than 30 years ago, Susan met and fell in love with Bella Eibensteiner, a local chiropractor. She notes, “I couldn’t do my life without Bella. Without a doubt.”
She also couldn’t run a theater that has been deficit-free for many years without a whole team of talented and dedicated people, including James Blair, IT’s associate artistic director. “It is so collaborative here,” she reveals. “Like with Jim — we’ve worked together for 25-30 years, and we know each other so well. We collaborate on every set, and we each have our areas, but we know that there isn’t anything that we wouldn’t do for each other.”
IT has become well known for presenting plays that are often Arizona premieres, and although they frequently tackle serious subjects — one of the offerings for 2017-18, The Value of Names, addresses the Hollywood blacklist nightmare of the 1950s — they all provide what Claassen calls “a modicum of hope.”
Over the course of a typical Invisible Theatre season, there also are tributes to musical legends, original and captivating one-person shows by big name performers, and often a surprise or two.
Audiences have come to anticipate certain special events, as well, such as the annual Sizzling Summer Sounds Cabaret Series at Skyline Country Club, and Claassen’s signature one-woman show, A Conversation With Edith Head, a witty and insightful look at the iconic Hollywood fashion designer. “With Edith it was an epiphany,” she says of how the show was created 15 years ago with writer Paddy Calistro. “Watching a biography on Edie and going, ‘Wow!’ I think about it now … it took courage to do it, especially since on opening night The New York Times was coming to review it. I didn’t want anybody to know that because I knew they’d be worried for me. And all these years later, I’m not tired of it at all because each time I do it, it’s different.”
As much satisfaction as she gets from being a sort of living embodiment of the spirit of Edith Head, she also finds boundless joy in working with a group of individuals known as The Pastime Players. Launched more than 30 years ago with Gail Fitzhugh, the program allows exceptional education students at Doolen Middle School the opportunity to learn about many aspects of theater and performance, working alongside seasoned pros. “I had no formal training in working with people who have special needs,” observes Claassen, who minored in education. “But I don’t work any differently than I would with anybody. I think they are all family. You can have had the worst day in the world, but you go in to work with the Pastime Players, and it’s just elating. People say, ‘You do so much for them,’ but it’s more like they do so much for me.”
When not acting, directing, or running the theater, she has certain go-to recreational activities that she and Bella share, including reading, going to movies, and watching professional tennis, sometimes in person. “We love to travel. That’s definitely a great passion. Our favorite cities — Paris, definitely, and New York. I don’t know that we’ve been anywhere that we haven’t loved. We went to Africa for my 50th birthday to trek with gorillas and had an extraordinary time. Travel is an opportunity to engage with others, and we’ve met great people everywhere.”
One of her favorite annual experiences is being a clown in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an honor she has enjoyed since 2001. Following 9/11 by just a few months, it was a very emotional initiation for Claassen to being in the iconic procession of floats, balloons and marchers. “We were at Clown Corner on the parade route in our slickers and fire hats, and the fire department went by carrying these two narrow American flags like the Twin Towers,” she reflects. “You could see all these clowns just weeping. We followed the Big Apple float, and they announced, ‘Funny firefighter clowns, join the Macy’s Parade, lift the spirits of New York and the world!’”
Back in Tucson, lifting spirits is certainly something the theater group she has nurtured for 40-plus years excels at, a fact that’s borne out by having an audience that returns again and again. “Many of our patrons and advertisers have really watched us grow up. Some of us started in our mid 20s, and our audience was about the same age. They’ve shown great loyalty,” she says with a smile. — Scott Barker