I went to see a show about Marlene Dietrich. The epitome of glamour on stage, she apparently insisted on cleaning her own dressing room from top to bottom before a performance. When it got to this bit, the audience laughed hysterically at the sight of the sultry siren in her Marigolds scrubbing away.
However, my companion and I, veterans of many a theatrical tour, simply nodded knowingly at each other. What’s funny about that? Like Lily Marlene herself, we couldn’t possibly give our all in a performance from a dirty dressing room. And believe me, there are plenty of those.
Not only does one have to clear away the detritus of previous occupants, such as week-old orange peel, tissues, half-eaten sandwiches and take-away litter (pre-show nerves, interval energy crises and after-show euphoria/depression all serve to bring on the munchies for us luvvies), but managements invariably consider the rooms a depository for unwanted furniture. I became famous for my cry of ‘Too many chairs!’ prior to chucking the things angrily through the nearest fire exit.
For my chums in the Natural Theatre, preparing the dressing space, whether an overheated cell in the depths of some plush Edwardian pile or our half of a dripping marquee in a field, is an important part of the performance ritual. Other groups roll up and simply dump their grubby trainers and scruffy costumes on the backs of chairs (or even, heaven forbid, on the ground!) We get out the tablecloths, the demarcation tape and the Wet Wipes. We might be in the middle of a mud-filled Glastonbury, but the Naturals have to look immaculate, and that starts backstage.
Once, remembering the deficiencies of the shared dressing tent at a Japanese street theatre festival, on a second visit I packed a steam iron. On arrival I set off into Tokyo to seek out a full-size western-style ironing board. An iron is an anathema at a street theatre festival. The other groups stared in disbelief, but they were soon queuing up to borrow it.
Someone pointed out that the iron was full of water when we unpacked it. Going by the price of excess baggage, we probably paid a fortune to transport a pint of water halfway round the globe.
But it was worth it, just to get the dressing room exactly as we like it.