For stylist Katie Steller, the impact of her salon is clear: “This community, my clients and employees, saved my life.”
Steller weathered a lot in a short time: divorce, mental health struggles, suicidal thoughts, the deaths of family and friends and substance abuse treatment, including nine weeks when her employees ran Steller Hair Co. without her. What saved her was knowing, “I need to get healthy because I’ve made promises to people and we need each other.”
A similar need is the focus of the Guthrie Theater’s “Steel Magnolias,” which opens Friday and takes place in a Louisiana beauty parlor owned by Truvy (played by Austene Van, who often hung out at her mother’s St. Paul salon as a kid). Set over the course of a year, Robert Harling’s comedy periodically checks in with six women as they navigate marriage, death and pregnancy. Unlike the star-studded movie, the play never leaves “the most successful shop in town,” which underscores the intimacy director Lisa Rothe is aiming for.
“The first conversation I had with my designers was about it being a safe space where women can come and drop whatever protections they need in the world,” Rothe said. “You’re in this position [leaning back, neck exposed] and it’s very open and awesome and you have warm water flowing through your hair and people just start to talk.”
Owner Melissa Taylor sees her Beauty Lounge in northeast Minneapolis as a place where people can let their hair down, literally and figuratively.
“I’ve been through divorces, seen kids grow up, seen them through adolescence, remarriage, dating, aging parents, getting a new job, unemployment, being with them and serving as a sounding board,” Taylor said. “People laugh in that chair and cry in that chair.”
“Steel” characters hit the salon even when they’re not getting their hair done, as in a scene when customer M’Lynn, under a dryer, is surprised by daughter Shelby popping in to say “Hi.” That rings true for Steller, whose shop often has visitors stop in with doughnuts or to use the Wi-Fi, and Taylor, whose salon has hosted birthday parties, helped launch a new game and served as a haven.
“After the  election, there was a very solemn feeling in the salon. I think it was important for people to have a space like this. At work or even at home, they didn’t have a place where they could talk,” Taylor said.
There’s more emotional upheaval than styling in “Magnolias,” and hair isn’t everything in real life, either; Taylor estimates that 80% of a salon experience is the vibe.
“If you have a great personality and are warm and people enjoy talking to you, your business will skyrocket, as opposed to someone who is amazing with hair but lacking in those other areas,” Taylor said.
She and Steller, who remembers watching the “Magnolias” movie with her grandma, have created diverse spaces. Salons tend to segregate themselves because clients gravitate to stylists who look like them and because many cosmetology schools lack instruction on braiding or working with textured hair.
“If you’re a white-majority person, I don’t think you necessarily think about it at all. There are lots of places that are designed for you. But if you are a person of color, you may have had an experience where your hair got messed up or your friend’s did and you do maybe start looking for someone who looks like you,” said Taylor, who has taken steps to welcome people of color and nonbinary customers. (Steller set up a space for people with anxiety and women with hijabs, who don’t reveal their hair to men, and invested in adjustable shampoo bowls and mirrors to make sure wheelchair users get the full treatment.)
In its off-Broadway, movie and Broadway productions, “Steel Magnolias” was played by white actors, but Rothe wanted to cast an African-American stylist who’d know how to do all kinds of hair. She also chose actors of color as mother and daughter Shelby (Nicole King) and M’Lynn (Melissa Maxwell), who frequent Truvy’s. The text has not been altered, but the design, particularly the wigs, reflects a diverse community. That’s a big reason Taylor signed up to consult on the authenticity of the production and participate in post-show talkbacks.
Taylor also welcomed the “Magnolias” cast to Beauty Lounge for practical tips and to explore how stylists and clients function almost like therapists.
“One person, she had this beautiful head of hair but, all of a sudden, it was breaking off. And I thought, ‘This is kind of weird. Something’s happening.’ I said, ‘Your hair is breaking. I don’t know what’s going on,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I’m getting a divorce.’ Stress, nutrition — it all comes out in your hair,” Taylor said.
Rothe experienced that while working in Atlanta. The night before a play’s opening, she and other residents of her hotel had to evacuate.
“The next day, I woke up and a ton of my hair had fallen out. Overnight. I went to get it cut. I didn’t know this woman but she said, ‘Wow, what’s happening?’ ” Rothe recalled. “It’s weird. We have these particular identities with our hair, and it’s been interesting to have that conversation with women of color in this piece.”
Van, who recalls “hearing people in my mother’s chair talking about husbands, jobs, all that stuff,” thinks of Truvy as a “healer” with a “sixth sense” about connecting to many different kinds of people.
But, if Truvy — and Steller and Taylor — are de facto therapists, it’s also a two-way street. The joke at Steller Hair is that people cry in the boss’ chair all the time but she cries, too.
“Katie has a way of making people feel deeply seen and heard. Not in an uncomfortable way, but I think it’s so important to acknowledge the things people are going through,” said Abby Marolt, who’s been seeing Steller for six years and has shared details of her courtship and wedding and her mom’s death. In turn, Marolt has seen Steller’s highs and lows.
Steller believes the cadence of a salon — where client and stylist meet periodically, rather than every day — makes it easier to see the big picture.
“It’s interesting to be able to be, like, ‘Things were hard eight weeks ago, but we can touch base and think about what has happened since and realize things are better now. Maybe new things are hard, too, but you see how life goes up and down. You get a different visual of how life works than if you talk, day in and day out. You are able to mutually remind each other that the intensity of hard things never stays that intense,” Steller said.
That, says Marolt, is what makes a salon a nurturing community.
“It comes with enough periods of reflection in between peaks and valleys that, by the time I’m seeing Katie again, I’m back at a manageable point,” Marolt said.
“It really is almost like therapy,” Van said. “Salons are the places where it seems like it’s safe to confess all of your experiences, all of your woes and your triumphs. There’s a trust when someone is in your hair.”
The connection between life and hair runs deep in “Steel Magnolias,” where the good-humored vibe of a salon community may be best summed up by apprentice Annelle (Adelin Phelps), whose life is a mess but who assures the other women:
“I swear to you that my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair.”
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367