What performers take off (and put on), as told in 33 photographs and the words of Jesse Green, co-chief theater critic for The New York Times. “Some dressing rooms are shrines to self-love,” he writes. “More pertinently, they are assembly lines for reinvention.”
About the last thing a dressing room is is the room where actors get dressed.
First, it’s where they get undressed. It’s where, along with extraneous layers of clothing, they remove the extraneous layers of self they bring into the theater. It’s where they take themselves off.
When I used to visit backstages frequently as part of my job, I saw performers in every kind of semi-nudity. It’s no different now: Coed locker-room shamelessness is the rule. In the long galleys where ensemble members prepare, there’s really no choice — no privacy, no modesty. Men parade in their dance belts, and women in silk robes casually gapping. The chatter down the row of mirrors is just as uninhibited.
But even in the star quarters, which are rarely as glamorous as one might wish, actors spend less time putting on makeup than scraping off their public personas. One star who invited me to drop by — a soignée veteran of musicals that regularly featured her in sequins — enjoyed her dressing room as a place to release her inner grandma. She wore flowery housecoats and fluffy slippers.
When I followed another into her windowless new palace on the first day of stage rehearsals, she did not quail at its industrial-strength ugliness but did gasp at the floor-to-ceiling mirrors a previous tenant had glued to a wall. She asked her assistant whether they might be ripped down or covered up. A dressing room was no place to see oneself.
Not everyone feels this way. Some dressing rooms are shrines to self-love, certainly. It takes a lot for an actor to throw away flowers dangling notes of praise.
More often, though, dressing rooms are other things: nurseries, clubhouses, makeshift trysting spots. Conference centers for hash-outs with agitated authors. Publicity offices with stacks of photos that still need signing. Impromptu rehearsal studios. Kennels. Napatoriums for two-show days. Ramen kitchens, botánicas, graveyards for humidifiers.
More pertinently, they are assembly lines for reinvention. Even if actors arrive solo, sometimes hours before curtain, they aren’t alone for long. Here come the wig handler, the dresser, the sound technician with his condom-wrapped microphone packs. Knock, knock: It’s the director’s assistant with a performance note. The co-star complaining about last night’s stepped-on joke.
But at some point, dressing rooms are places of silent, solitary work. Except for the Elphabas of “Wicked,” who need mechanical green-spraying, most actors put on their own makeup; it’s part of a tradition going back to the ancients. A designer will usually have provided the template; many’s the facial diagram I’ve seen perched on the mirror showing exactly how the transformation should happen.
The magic isn’t in the mascara. Nor is it to be found, at least not at first, in anything that’s added. It’s in what’s taken away. In front of the dressing room mirror, an actor’s own hair will often be secreted in a stocking cap, his 5 o’clock shadow spackled away, her freckles powdered to nothing. Looking at themselves disappearing, they may find their character getting ready to enter.
Later come the costumes and warm-ups, the guests and Champagne — even the press. Among them over the years have been photographers for The New York Times, catching classic performers in the act of becoming someone.
But first, before they can become someone, they have to become no one.
Betsy Horan is a Betsy Horan is a digital photo and video editor at T Magazine. Jesse Green is the co-chief theater critic for The New York Times.
Edited, reported and designed by Lorne Manly, Scott Heller, Carrie Gee, Alicia DeSantis, Michael Paulson, Joshua Barone, Ken Jaworowski, Nick Donofrio and Nakyung Han.