World Theatre Day is March 27th. Celebrate! Buy a ticket, feed an actor, or tell a playwright that everything is going to be okay.
If you are not a theatre person, the first thing I’ll tell you is that there is almost no theatre person past the age of sixteen who likes things with the Comedy and Tragedy masks on them. Not t-shirts, not jewelry, not anything. We are over it. When you work in any field for more than a few years, the romance is gone and none of it seems key-chain worthy any more. Do bankers wear ties with dollar signs on them? The masks’ real names are Thalia and Melpomene, by the way. I just looked that up on the Google this minute. I had no idea. I call them Happy and Saddy.
Civilians may also need to know that the Green Room is the room between the dressing rooms and the entrance to the backstage area. It is the actors’ waiting room, lunch room, pacing room, and where we often sit down for a very civilized drink after the performance. Laurence Olivier, who was an actor, said that the best thing about acting is the drink after the show. It is pretty nice.
You also need to know that theatres, by agreement with Actors’ Equity, have to provide a place for actors to take naps. This is known as the Equity Cot. More workplaces should have one.
Green Room Mystery #1: The Obvious
Why are most theatre Green Rooms not green? I don’t know, and I feel I can speak for most theatre professionals when I say no-one cares. Someone told me it’s called a Green Room because that is where they used to count the money. A logical enough theory, but it lacks drama. It’s theatre we’re talking about, so there may be one of those superstitions attached to it, like the one where you say “break a leg” or “merde” (which is “shit” in French) to wish actors luck, or the one that forbids whistling backstage. Some costumers believe it is good luck to bleed on the costume you’re building. That is not normal, and I don’t think Workplace Safety and Health would approve. Then there’s that superstition about saying the title of a certain “Scottish Play” by Shakespeare. If you say that word in a theatre it will really land you in the soup, and there is always someone around to put you through the humiliating cleansing ritual.
I’m tempted to type the name of the play here, in great big letters, but some of my colleagues get the serious heebie-jeebies about this, even if you are typing the word on a laptop 4.7 kilometres from the nearest theatre. I am not that way inclined, but I am bound by professional courtesy to respect those who are. Therefore I will refrain.
So maybe green paint is bad luck for Green Rooms. It is much more likely that Green Rooms are not green because most artists would rather die than be so obvious as to paint something the colour in the title. We are artists after all.
Green Room Mystery #2: Filth
Both a hotel room and a Green Room are temporary housing, way-stations for a succession of users. No-one stays for long, and not everyone comes back. Why are Green Rooms infinitely superior to hotel rooms? Because they are much dirtier. Theatres are filthy places; grimy and cluttered, and therefore very homelike indeed. An old joke: what’s the difference between theatre technicians and film technicians? Theatre technicians also have to wash their hands before going to the bathroom.
In your average Green Room, and they are all average, you will find a table and some chairs. The table is one of those old formica jobs in an unworldly colour. There are a couple of couches, well worn and dented by the asses of the great and the ungreat alike. The fridge, like the theatre, is held together with duct tape and stubbornness and it might be running a deficit. Even if the microwave is spotless, the room feels like a room where no one ever cleans the microwave. Mysterious.
Green Room Mystery #3: Where Do the Coffee Cups Come From?
While most of them came from the Marketing Director’s house after she couldn’t sell them in a garage sale, and some of them may have been donated by a downsizing subscriber, I believe they are left by the Mug Fairy.
During a Stage Manager’s “prep week,” – the week before rehearsals start – one of the things they do is whip out the handy label maker from their Giant Tackle Box o’ Stage Management Supplies™ and assign a mug to each actor. In this way they are better able to keep track of which actors wash their mugs at the end of the day, and which ones are slobs. I think they fill out a report card at the end of the run, but I can’t be sure. The labels don’t always get removed when the show is over, so sometimes you’ll find a mug in a Green Room that says “Doreen Brownstone” on it. That’ll make you step up your game! Or you might get a mug that was once used by the late, great and dearly missed Wayne Nicklas. With a Wayne Nicklas coffee cup in hand, one stands taller somehow.
Green Room Mystery #4: What is That Smell?
When you walk into a green room and wonder what that smell is, it is not just a smell. Yes, you smell day-old coffee and spilled scotch, somebody’s egg salad from yesterday, apple cores and that old-couch smell. You do not smell greasepaint, not anymore. Lots of hairspray, though, and throat lozenges. And whoever was just in here, would it kill you to light a match?
Something else, too, accretes. It is the waxy yellow build-up of years of intense feelings, spilled and soaked into the rug, layering the walls in coat after coat of invisible paint that isn’t green. You can’t see it, but it makes its presence felt. It makes the air heavy, but somehow nourishing. With all that waiting and celebrating and nervous pacing and congratulatory hugging going on, the room gets an emotional bathtub ring.
You are also getting a subtle (or not-so-subtle) hint of what the showfolk call flop-sweat: the terror that rises when you know the show sucks but nobody can come right out and say it and there are two weeks left in the run. There is also a whiff of residue from the shrieking, heart-bursting high that you get when you win a good solid laugh or some enthusiastic applause that this time, you know you earned. Highly addictive stuff. There is more than a soupçon of boredom, and there are stinking, vomitous waves of self-doubt, ebbing and flowing like the tides.
Green Room Mystery #5: Why Be a Dick?
It’s hard work. Not every show is great and not every cast turns out to be the collective love of your life. Except in rare cases, flop sweat is no aphrodisiac. Sometimes you have to work with someone with whom you are not, shall we say, simpatico. And make out with them in public every night. Like you mean it.
If the play’s not working you have to do it anyway. I have seen this bring out the best in people. I have seen the opposite. I’ve seen the diva push the ingénue around, and I’ve seen directors undermine the actors’ confidence just when they needed it most. Some of the pissiest behaviour I have ever witnessed happened in a Green Room and it had to do with an unhappy, frightened cast. The play wasn’t going well, so two or three of the cast began taking it out on the Stage Manager. It was like watching a wolf pack take down a deer.
Green Room Mystery # 6: Why Aren’t They All Dicks All the Time?
Almost no-one in theatre is getting paid enough, and there is no job security, given the current state of arts funding don’t get me started. Everyone gets stressed out and cranky from time to time, but considering the intense anxiety, the high level of self-absorption required to be any kind of an artist, and the dedication and hard work it takes to direct a play or run a theatre company (or even just write the grants it takes to run a theatre company), or oh holy cow be a Stage Manager (my heroes), maybe the mystery is why they aren’t all dicks all the time, and mighty big ones at that. But I have met more sweethearts in this business than I can count. Showbiz is full of loving and gifted people who have mastered that most essential of all acting skills: how to get along.
Actors are mostly pretty bright, and many of them are sensitive. Not all, okay, some of us do forget to wash our mugs at End of Day. (Sorry.) Actors can be noisy, boisterous and rude. (I know I can.) Others are charm personified, refined ladies and gentlemen trapped in a circus tent and making the Green Room a classier place by their very presence. Barbara Gordon comes to mind. Lots of actors are pretty neurotic, and who wouldn’t be? It’s hard to get enough attention when everyone in the room needs so much attention. Yes, actors can seem like they are always “on,” always putting on a show. They may be, but at the same time, they are being utterly genuine. That is who they are: people who put on shows.
If you meet an actor and think he or she seems a little squirrely, remember that in order to get even six weeks of work next year, they have to audition. If there was a way to cast a show that was less excruciating to all involved while still being fair, I’m sure someone would have come up with it by now. Auditioning is a process so inhumane it would make the Buddha himself bitch about his costume and try to get the best dressing room to himself.
Green Room Mystery #7: What Am I Doing Here?
In the last performance of a run, you can feel the show falling away. This will never happen again. By the time the actors have hung up their costumes on closing night, most of the set is already gone. The labels are being soaked off the mugs. It couldn’t be more ephemeral. Did it even happen? Was I dreaming? For all the difference it’s made to anything, was there any point in doing it? These moments and these questions come to us all: “should I have done something that matters?” “Have I wasted my life?”
If I was travelling in a foreign country and got into some kind of scrape, I might go to the Canadian Embassy for help with passports and legalities, sure. But first I’d look up how to say “I am also in the theatre” and present myself at the nearest playhouse, flashing my Equity card and begging for asylum. I would find the theatre by looking for the sign with Happy and Saddy on it, naturally. They would show me to the Green Room, make me a cup of something hot and possibly coffee in a mug with a label on it, and tuck me in for a nap on the Equity Cot. Maybe an actor will come in and be funny! Oh, I hope it’s Gord Tanner. Thank God for him.
I may be wrong, and I’d love it if I was, but I don’t think a banker in distress in a foreign land would head for the nearest bank and say “I am also a Mortgage Broker!”
Have we wasted our lives? Of course not. Building a family is a worthwhile endeavor. Whether it’s the flesh-and-blood family you’re supporting with your small, infrequent paycheques, or the temporary and sometimes dysfunctional clan that is the cast and crew of a show, or a centuries-old global community of artists and their allies, you’re building something. Maybe a couple of times in whatever you have that could be called a “career in theatre” you have handed the audience a good time, or a little insight. Making art matters as much as anything else. This small satisfaction will have to suffice, because we showfolk are not built to do anything else.
We are lucky in life if we find someplace where we belong. The first paycheque, the Equity card, and the code to the Green Room are signs that you are a member of a Society of Misfits, if there can be such a thing. You are one of the kids allowed in the treefort. You might not get to come in as often as you’d like and someday you might decide to move on to other worthy endeavors but for now, make yourself comfortable. The coffee is not great, and the couch is a smelly old piece of crap, but there’s a mug with your name on it.
©2017 by Ellen Peterson, member of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association since 1986. Photos by me, and paintings by Rene Magritte.