ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Dressing Rooms

News   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Dressing Rooms Hey, up there: determining dressing-room assignments for Broadway productions.

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This week's question comes from Andrew L. from San Jose, CA.

Question: Dressing rooms come in all different sizes. What are the rules determining what kind of dressing rooms the actors receive? Answer: To answer this question Playbill.com spoke with Altar Boyz and Awesome 80's Prom producer and theatrical blogger Ken Davenport, who has had previous experience as a general manager for the Broadway productions of Thoroughly Modern Millie and the 2003 revival of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters.

Playbill.com also spoke with a representative from Actors' Equity who shared information from the Equity rule book that outlines suitable working conditions and requirements for its members.

Actors' Equity has regulations within its rule book that state producers must use their best efforts to ensure that any rooms originally intended to be dressing rooms within a theatre must be provided to the actors.

The guidelines for dressing rooms state that Equity members must be provided with properly heated and ventilated dressing rooms with adequate lights, mirrors, shelves and wardrobe hooks. Florescent lighting is not permitted for make-up purposes, which is why incandescent bulbs flank dressing-room mirrors. Also, for every six actors assigned to a dressing room, there must be a washstand with hot and cold running water. Lavatories and showers are not required to be in the actual dressing room, but must be on each floor, or alternating floors.

Equity also specifies that actors with more than three costume changes during a performance are required to have a dressing room within two flights of the stage deck. However, Equity stipulates that this is a "best effort" clause, and should space limitations make this an impossibility, the stage manager, producer and Equity deputy must all be notified.

Those are Equity's requirements, but just how are the dressing room assignments made? In addition to the standard points on a Broadway contract, stars and principal actors may also request first choice for dressing-room assignments. Because a number of productions aren't certain which Broadway theatre they will be playing, a specific room isn't always appointed within the contract – it becomes a matter of selection order. This occurs during contract negotiations when agents and the general manager (acting on behalf of the producers) of a Broadway production hash out the order in which individuals get to select their dressing rooms. Actors are assigned, first, second, third choice and so on. As was the case with Gypsy, Davenport states, Bernadette Peters had first selection.

Once the Broadway house is secured, the production stage manager is brought up to speed on the order of selection. The stage managers, who know the needs and traffic patterns of a production best, then take the actors through the theatre and show them the selection of dressing rooms available.

For example, they may tell the actor with first selection which dressing rooms would be first, second and third choice – also offering which of those rooms may best suit the needs of the actor for that specific production. Typically, the largest room that is closest to the stage is considered first choice for the principal or star, since they are used the most during a production. Once the first individual selects his or her dressing room, the next cast member on the list is taken through a tour of the remaining rooms and so on.

Depending on which theatre a production is housed in, there may not be enough individual dressing rooms available to accommodate all of the actors who request them. "For example," Davenport says, "there were many character men in Gypsy – very well established and great actors. But frankly, there were so many principals in that production that we couldn't give them all their own room. So then it becomes, 'If he can't take his own room, he will share with no more than one other person, or will share with no more than two people.'"

Once the principal requirements are fulfilled, the stage manager then begins to assign dressing rooms for chorus members based on which company members have the most wig and costume changes. This is also a tricky logistical move, as the various departments — including wardrobe and wigs — utilize dressing rooms, or parts of them, for their work.

Many Broadway theatres are among the oldest and smallest theatres in the country. Because of the increasing size and scale of modern productions, backstage space at most Broadway theatres is crammed with scenery and the machinery necessary to operate it. In some cases, this additional machinery infringes on the available space for dressing rooms.

"Stage managers have gotten creative," Davenport states. "Parts of basements have become dressing rooms or quick-change areas. During Gypsy, the women's dressing room had previously been the costume department during Chicago. We had to add counter space for the actors, and it was a lot of work to make sure everyone fit and was very comfortable."

Davenport also offers that it isn't simply the assignment of rooms that is coveted, but also what goes in these rooms. Because the theatre – and more specifically, a dressing room – becomes the home-away-from-home for many actors, producers may be required to furnish the dressing rooms for their principal cast members. Davenport states the most requested items are couches, refrigerators and microwaves. With some stars, new paint, carpeting, wallpaper, or even custom closets are among the items detailed within the production contracts.

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