World Theatre Day took place on 27 March, bringing to life the magic of “make-believe” for the small audiences mandated by pandemic guidelines for performance venues. But while shows are back and artists are embracing the new normal, what we seem to have lost, possibly forever, is the frolic, joy and warmth of the ubiquitous green room, once a hub of activity.
Bridging the real and imagined worlds, theatre green rooms have always been much more than ordinary “dressing rooms”. This is where actors would bond, run through lines, laugh, cry and exchange nervous energy before a show. This is where the cast and crew would come together, in loud celebration, relief, or a sombre mood. This is where costumes and jewellery would lie scattered, props would be piled, and food exchanged.
It was in the very nature of these rooms, privy to intense moments, that lasting relationships were built. It would be safe to say, then, that green rooms have been witness to both extraordinary times as well as ordinary ones that led to extraordinary stage work.
The pandemic has changed much of this. The warmth of reconnecting remains but with norms mandating that the actors and crew remain masked until they come on stage, the green room is now a place of muffled voices and isolation. Actors and directors say less time is being spent in these rooms.
Mumbai-based Quasar Thakore-Padamsee (of QTP Productions), who returned with his popular play, Every Brilliant Thing (EBT), in February, didn’t think about the post-pandemic green room experience until much later. But when he did, it left him a bit distraught. “We are a community of huggers. I struggled with it,” he says, adding: “A fist bump, which has become an acceptable greeting in the pandemic, doesn’t cut it. Even a handshake passes more emotion.”
Thakore-Padamsee did hug Vivek Madan, the actor in the solo piece. “I was sending him out into a world where everyone was masked. It can be an incredibly lonely place,” he says, admitting that they got the actor tested on the morning of the show.
Venues like Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre have even disallowed the entry of audience members into the green room after a show. So the corridors leading up to it are no longer crowded with fans, relatives and friends. The revelry of a successful performance has all but disappeared and the actors can only meet the audience once they are outdoors.
Almost overnight, the green room has become a starkly lonely place where an actor sheds the part of the day in a vacuum. This holds true especially for the solo pieces that have become more popular and easier to produce in these times.
Characteristic of green room rituals before a show was the “huddle”, with the production cast and crew coming together in a group hug. “There is a lot of nervous energy in the room and the huddle serves to unify that energy. It is both energising and helps in calming each other down,” explains Thakore-Padamsee. Actor and comedian Trupti Khamkar, who has performed two plays, Piya Behrupiya and Stories In A Song, featuring large casts during the pandemic, says the huddle is still around. “Only, some people are excluded from it.”
“There are other changes, like now the water bottles placed around the stage during the performance have names labelled on them. So, during the show, in the darkness, we end up having to look for them. We are sharing as little as we can,” Khamkar says.
Atul Kumar of The Company Theatre remembers the endless cups of chai and coffee that were once so common in green rooms but appreciates the need for caution. “They have become more dry and cold than before,” he says. Kumar chose to address the question of pandemic etiquette on a WhatsApp group with the cast and crew of his long-running play Piya Behrupiya, urging people to respect each other’s comfort with physical interactions. “You don’t know who is going back home to whom and what is the sort of risk they are living with,” he explains.
Khamkar says you can no longer greet someone with a hug, and finding out if they would be comfortable with one has become a longer, complex process. “There is also a tendency to keep a distance from those who have travelled recently,” she says.
The protocol isn’t limited to the green room. Madan’s play, about a young boy and his battle with mental health, relies heavily on audience interaction. “Requesting the audience for touch has also become very different now. There is an unsaid exchange of expressions in prior to check if they are comfortable,” he says.
Khamkar says the green room experience in the comedy world has virtually disappeared. “Unlike theatre, comedy clubs have small green rooms where comics chat or smoke before they make their appearance on stage. Now, most comics arrive just in time for their spot. With the proximity of these rooms to the stage, conversation through masks has also become difficult. I miss interacting with other comics and sharing jokes before shows,” she says.
Longer line-ups also ensure rolling green rooms in comedy clubs, with new comics arriving closer to their spots and the others leaving after theirs. The nature of the act, solo in this case, is also markedly different from the warmth of a group. Which is perhaps why a Mumbai-based comic who chooses to stay anonymous believes the new rules could well be a blessing in disguise: “Comedy green rooms are toxic places. Firstly, very few venues have functional green rooms and when they do, they become hierarchical set-ups. A typical comedy green room features the popular comedians sitting in the centre of a huddle of junior comics imparting gyaan (holding forth).”
For Madan too, the loneliness has actually proven useful. “It gives you a little wind-down time after the show. You aren’t greeted in some state of undress by audience members at the door. Especially on days you have had a bad show, the last thing you want is to be patted on the back,” he says.
Kumar remains optimistic “We have all been isolated and been through a difficult time. If anything, it has brought us closer.... So what if it isn’t being conveyed through a physical hug?”
Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.