The Tangled Origin Stories For The Term "Green Room"
A recent article about Green Room Etiquette on OnStage Blog took me back to all of the great times I’ve had in Green Rooms, and had me looking forward to all the great times I (hopefully) have ahead of me in them. I can picture the furniture, layout, and shade of green (or other color) of each Green Room in which I have spent a significant amount of time, as well as the faces of the people I shared them with (probably because they were made up in some distinctive way). When I first heard the term “Green Room,” it was in reference to a room the defining feature of which was that it was bright green. I didn’t know it had anything to do with theatre beyond my high school. Now I know better, and I know it was probably not green by accident, but because of theatrical tradition. I’ve also noticed that not all Green Rooms are green, and yet they all retain the color in their name. The name’s the thing, and so I went in search of the definitive origin of that name, and reader, I will tell you right now that there is none. If you keep reading, though, you will get to consider, as I did in my research, all of the wild reasons and theories that have been given based on centuries of theatre history.
Two historic London theatres, Blackfriars Theatre and the Cockpit-at-Court, are said to have had the first “green” rooms backstage, and started the trend. But why were the rooms green? Some theories have to do with simple word evolution. The stage itself, in 19th century Cockney rhyming slang, was referred to as the “greengage,” which would have meant the room just off the stage was the “greengage room,” or the “Green Room.” A greengage, by the by, is a kind of green plum. The room just behind the stage, historically, was also often the room where scenery was stored, and therefore referred to as the “scene room,” which may have become “Green Room” over time. Some of that scenery was fake grass, which may have helped in that particular version of the term’s origin. Similarly, one theory has it that the walls of the room just off stage were often covered with a fabric called baize, to prevent the paint on the walls from rubbing off on costumes when actors leaned on them. The baize came in two colors, red and green, which is one reason why many early Green Rooms were actually red.
Many of the theories about the origins of the term “Green Room” have to do with actors, and here is another that specifically has to do with their interactions with the walls: sometimes they would get fake blood on the walls, and the fake blood didn’t show up as much on green painted walls as it did on white painted walls. Blood spatter, even if the blood is fake, can look very disturbing on a white wall. Another reason given for the hanging of fabric is that it soundproofed the room, preventing voices backstage (running lines, warming up, etc.) from interfering with the action on stage. Green is also reported to be a very soothing color, both for people psychologically and for eyes to look at, especially eyes that have had stage lights burning into them for a scene or two. The eye explanation, while interesting, is a particularly unlikely origin story because when the term “Green Room” first came about in a theatrical context in the 17th century (in Thomas Shadwell’s play A True Widow), stage lights were candles.
Once upon a time, the stage makeup actors wore had to set before it was ready to be seen by an audience, and before it was ready it was green in color, so the Green Room may have been named for the people with green faces who were waiting for their makeup to be ready. Or, according to another theory, their faces may have been green because they were very anxious about going on stage. Or perhaps it is based on the actors themselves being green, as in very young and inexperienced, like the actors who originally portrayed William Shakespeare’s female characters, or understudies both nervous and excited to potentially go on for a star. We don’t know, but such explanations are particularly cute.
One theory has to do, appropriately, with outdoor theatre. Medieval theatre was often performed on a space called “The Green,” which was surrounded by a bowl like incline and usually grassy. In some places, particularly in the West End in London, the stage is still referred to as “The Green” and the Green Room is a place to spend time getting ready for one’s entrance on “The Green.” But outdoors is not the only place plants may have inspired the name of the Green Room, because in Shakespeare’s day the rooms where actors prepared to go on stage were filled with plants, the moisture in which was believed to be healthy for their voices.
So even though there is no way to definitively trace the origins of the name “Green Room,” given all of the possibilities a more appropriate name for that particular backstage area cannot be conceived. Maybe it is historically a place where an actor might feel green with envy toward a more successful actor or because the person he had his eye on got together with a techie. I just made that one up. One of my favorite Green Room memories is counting the money we collected for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The walls were white and the furniture I’m pretty sure was brown, but it was definitely a “green” room those nights. In a way, not knowing is more fun. You can make up your own reasons for why the Green Room is green to you. Maybe you instituted a recycling program at your local theatre, headquartered in the Green Room. Maybe the person playing Elphaba ran into the wall a few too many times over the course of a run of Wicked. The possibilities are endless.
Aaron Netsky’s writing has appeared on AtlasObscura.com, Slate.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, Medium.com, and all over his personal blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Days/366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com). He is also a novelist, actor, and singer who has performed and worked in a variety of capacities off and off-off Broadway. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.
Photo: University of Wisconsin