For those artists who are reading this, the term “Green Room” resonates. It’s where bands and performers sit backstage awaiting their moment to hit it in front of an audience.
But for those who’ve sat in the green rooms, one thing is clear: they’re never green.
So, what does this mean? What is the history, origin, and meaning of the term? That’s what we’re set to find out here. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.
As a reminder, the green room is the location in a theater or other performance venue that serves as the place where artists wait to go on. It’s a common area, of sorts, slightly different than an actor’s trailer, where he or she waits to shoot their scenes.
Some theaters have multiple green rooms, demarcated for various bands. Maybe the headliner will have the biggest one, whereas the opening band gets the most cramped. Even in green rooms, there can be a hierarchy.
Often, there are food and drinks in the green room, couches, and posters on the wall. It’s where the night’s producers will find the talent and tell them when there are five minutes to go on. It’s a place to relax without the eyes of audience members glaring. It’s also a place to go after the show to decompress and talk about the performance that just took place.
But the origin of the term is cloudy. Were these rooms at one time painted green? Today, they are not, unless a theater’s production manager wants to have fun and decides to color the walls a green hue. But this is rare, and hard on the eyes, depending on the color chosen.
Yet, the term subsists. Why?
Possible Beginnings of the Term
While the origin of the term is perhaps lost to history, one possible explanation dates back to 1599 and the Blackfriars Theater, which offered a room behind the scenes where actors waited to hit the stage. That room was painted green and was even called “the green room,” according to lore.
In 1662, London’s Cockpit-in-Court theatre also included a room covered in green material, which may also have sparked the use of the term. Some have posed that these rooms were painted green so as to relieve the eyes of the brightness and glare of the stage—though, why green? And can’t green also be harsh on the eyes? Even then, early-stage lighting was often done with candles; hardly a solar flare.
Author and historian Richard Southern wrote that in medieval theatre, the acting area was referred to as “the green.” It was a central space, often outdoors and covered with grass. It was used by actors, surrounded by onlookers on benches. “The green,” then, was known as the stage, for all intents and purposes.
History also shows that green stage cloth was often used to let audiences know that a tragedy was afoot and would be the subject of the day’s performance. Therefore, the green room could have been understood as the room meant for those players who perform on the green.
Others have suggested that the term has something to do with another theater term: limelight. But the limelight does not imply the fruit, rather it points to calcium oxide. And the term limelight was invented in 1820, hundreds of years after the term green room was used. Perhaps the green room refers to the color of makeup worn by actors on stage. Not likely. Or maybe it’s called the green room to rhyme with “scene room”? Probably not.
Though for all these ancillary reasons, the term may have stuck around longer as a result.
Likely, since the stage itself was known as “the green” for so long, during the days before electric lights and all the accouterments we’re used to, it’s likely that the “green room” was the room where those who traverse “the green” were meant to stay between acts and performances. That seems the most obvious origin.
Yet, green is a common color, one with many uses and histories. And like a nursery rhyme with many possible meanings (though, perhaps, only one true origin story), the term has stuck. Maybe the room is painted green? Maybe it has to do with makeup or a rudimentary rhyme? Maybe it’s where the money is made or where young “green” actors go? Maybe it’s where envy is born?
Or maybe it’s simply all of the above.