It seems to me that someone should be compiling an oral history of dressing rooms. For every story unfolding onstage there are some equally riveting ones being passed down backstage. Stories of life changing performances, theatrical disasters, lost loves, and sometimes even saved lives.
It’s impossible to tell which of these are apocryphal and which are not (actors have wonderful imaginations and a flare for drama), but these stories swim together backstage to create a kind of collective memory, language, and sense of community. They shape our values and expectations of what a life in the theater should be. As we move on to work with another cast, to stay in intermittent touch with those who came before, these stories stay with us, knitting us together as a tribe.
Among my favorites are:
- Supposedly during a performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a visually impaired gentleman sat in the theater with his seeing-eye dog. When Elizabeth Ashley made her feline entrance, the dog got very agitated to the disturbance of the audience and annoyance of Ashley. A few days later she received a note of apology from the man, stating that his dog was usually very well behaved, in fact, the only thing that could agitate him to that degree was being in the presence of a cat.
- During a regional theater performance of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a man in the audience had a heart attack. The woman playing Frankie (wearing very little and feeling very exposed) had had a second career as a nurse and was returning to the stage after some time off. When the man’s distress became apparent, she ordered the house lights up, jumped down off the stage and administered CPR. When the man had recovered and was on his way to the hospital, she pulled herself back up on stage, ordered the house lights down, and resumed the performance.
- And then, of course, there is the famous fiasco story as recounted by This American Life. (not a dressing room story, but exceedingly delightful.) Have a listen.
Those are a few that have stayed with me through the years. What are yours?