The Green Room

Greenroom graphic

Have you ever wondered where the term “green room” comes from? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The Green Room

In show business, the green room is the space in a theatre or similar venue that functions as a waiting room and lounge for performers before, during, and after a performance or show when they are not engaged on stage. Green rooms typically have seating for the performers, such as upholstered chairs and sofas.

The origin of the term is often ascribed to such rooms historically being painted green. Modern green rooms need not necessarily adhere to a specifically green color scheme, though the theatrical tradition of the name remains.

Some English theatres contained several green rooms, each ranked according to the status, fame, and salary of the actor: one could be fined for using a green room above one’s station.

Possible sources of the term:

The green room at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The definitive origin of the term ‘green room’ is lost to history, which has led to many theories and claims.

One of the oldest stories is that London’s Blackfriars Theatre (1599) included a room behind the scenes, where the actors waited to go on stage, which happened to be painted green, and was called “the green room”. A later renovation of London’s Cockpit-in-Court theatre in 1662 included a green baize dressing room, which has also been suggested as the origin of the term. It has also been theorised that such waiting rooms were originally painted green to “relieve the eyes from the glare of the stage.” On the other hand, early stage lighting was by candlelight and later by gaslight, so the “glare” might well be apocryphal, a modern reference to bright stage lighting.

Richard Southern, in his studies of medieval theatre in the round, states that in this period the acting area was referred to as ‘the green’. This central space, often grass-covered, was used by the actors, while the surrounding space and circular banks were occupied by the spectators; Southern states that ‘the green’ has been a traditional actors’ term for the stage ever since. Even in proscenium arch theatres, there was a tradition that a green stage cloth should be used for a tragedy. The green room could thus be considered the transition room on the way to the green/stage. Technical staff at some West End theatres (such as the London Coliseum) still refer to the stage as ‘the green’.

It is sometimes said that the term ‘green room’ was a response to limelight, though the name is merely a coincidence – “limelight” refers to calcium oxide, not to the fruit or colour. Furthermore, limelight was invented in 1820 and the term “green room” was used many years prior to that. The term ‘green room’ is also attributed to the makeup worn by actors; long before modern makeup was invented, the actors had to apply makeup before a show and allow it to set up or cure before performing. Until the makeup was cured, it was ‘green’, and people were advised to sit quietly in the ‘green room’ until such time as the makeup was stable enough for performing.

It is possible that ‘green room’ might be a corruption of ‘scene room’, the room where scenery was stored which doubled as the actors’ waiting and warm-up room. Many actors also experience nervous anxiety before a performance, and one of the symptoms of nervousness is nausea. As a person who feels nauseous is often said to look “green”, suggesting that the ‘green room’ is the place where the nervous actors wait. Comedian and dancer Max Wall attributes the phrase to Cockney rhyming slang, where ‘greengage’ is ‘stage’, therefore ‘greengage room’ is ‘stage room’; like most rhyming slang, the term was shortened, hence ‘”green” room’. Rhyming slang can be traced only as early as the 1840s, whereas the phrase “green room” predates this by several centuries, making such an etymology unlikely.