There are eight dressing rooms at Southbank Theatre, each one coloured instead of numbered to help promote a harmonious ensemble (or ‘because actors can’t read’, as actor Greg Stone jokes). The six rooms behind the Sumner stage are red, orange, yellow, blue, pink and purple; the two behind the Lawler are gold and silver.
Former MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips was involved in designing the theatre. Explaining the rooms’ door colouring, he says he was determined to avoid any implied hierarchy after having ‘so often found the stage management team with heads in hands, trying to juggle the potential ego-bruises that might occur when the allocation of dressing rooms was announced.’ Calling himself ‘a man possessed at the time’, he notes that he spent hours ‘combing colour charts for the exact door colours and then fabric charts to match the sofa beds as closely as possible to the doors!’
‘I’d spent a great deal of time listening to actors’ grievances about other dressing rooms.’ – Simon Phillips
It’s the little touches that speak to how well tailored these purpose-built rooms are (for example, their doors are extra high and wide to allow easy entering or exiting by actors wearing tall wigs or millinery). Phillips recalls that he’d ‘spent a great deal of time listening to actors’ grievances about other dressing rooms’ and so he organised ‘official consultations with them to see if we could leave no whinge unturned in the Sumner.’
No whinge unturned
During these consultations, natural light and having somewhere to nap between matinée and evening shows emerged as the primary concerns. ‘We made sure that whatever configuration of the overall design we explored, the dressing rooms always ran along the outside wall so they could have windows.’
For actor Bert La Bonté, a regular on the Sumner stage, this is a highlight: ‘They have windows, with air! Being in a dressing room where you can open the window? It’s incredible! And there’s not many dressing rooms in the country where you have a bed.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by actors Nadine Garner, Marg Downey and Greg Stone, who’ve all spent plenty of time in the Southbank Theatre dressing rooms. ‘They’re a bit like a self-contained boutique hotel room, like a little suite,’ says Garner. ‘They’ve got these sofas that pull out into a really comfortable bed – which is absolutely genius! – and the lighting is really sensitive, the shower, the toilet area … it’s all just so comfortable, and when I walk in there I immediately feel like it’s my second home.’
‘It’s so exciting when you arrive and you get allocated to a dressing room, and it’s like a home away from home.’ – Marg Downey
Downey agrees: ‘That pull-out bed is inspired! I don’t know why I haven’t seen it anywhere else. And the colours are nice and relaxing – there are a couple that I just love the colour scheme of. It’s so exciting when you arrive and you get allocated to a dressing room, and there’s a blanket that’s obviously been recently washed and a pillow with a clean pillowcase. That’s a delight to see when you enter your room. It’s like a home away from home.’
For Stone, who definitely appreciates the pull-out beds on matinée days, they’re simply ‘the best dressing rooms in the country.’
All four actors also single out the rooms’ proximity to the stages as a highlight. They are very user-friendly, says Garner, ‘in terms of timing entrances and the like. If you’ve got to traipse a long way to the stage every time you have to make an entrance, or you have to rush off and do a quick change but you have to run up two sets of stairs, it makes for a much more frantic time.’
A common problem
The outpouring of praise for well-designed dressing rooms is not surprising when you realise how rare they are. Many are tucked away in the bowels of very old, heritage-protected buildings, or hidden in basements or even under the stage. They were not originally designed to be dressing rooms, and can often be ‘cold, dark and mouldy’ says Garner. Adds Downey, ‘they’re falling apart, the plumbing doesn’t work, they’re grotty. And they’re cramped.’
It’s a common problem: In New York, Mike Harrison is an interior designer who specialises in customising Broadway dressing rooms, which he says are often in ‘terrible shape’. British actor Michael Simkins calls most dressing rooms the ‘theatrical equivalent of doss houses’.
For performers, it’s refreshing to be somewhere designed with them in mind. ‘To be in a space that’s literally purpose-built for performers’ needs is really something,’ says Garner. ‘It’s an amazing luxury that the Southbank Theatre affords actors and it makes performing there a real pleasure.’
But it’s not just the dressing rooms; the whole backstage space draws acclaim. ‘I am definitely Team Southbank when it comes to backstage areas,’ says Fiona Choi, who has fond memories of her 2019 Sumner season of Golden Shield.
Downey agrees: ‘That backstage area is so well planned and thought out. It’s a very good design.’ For La Bonté, ‘the whole space is seamless from backstage to front-of-house.’ He thinks the audience like it too as ‘they can always bump into the actors because we’re right near the stage door. And that’s the vibe of MTC anyway – it’s not superstar-ville; everyone just goes and does their job and the audience gets to see us afterwards to say g’day. It’s pretty phenomenal.’
The design ‘is probably the best backstage space in Australia,’ says Garner, noting that it creates a sense of ‘crossover between us on stage and tech crew and stage management backstage – a bit like we’re all in a big cross-cultural share house! You feel a real sense of belonging to a company, beyond your own show. That’s what The Southbank Theatre gives you. And I love that!
This is music to Simon Phillips’ ears: ‘It’s gratifying to think that our efforts at the time might have paid off,’ he says, ‘and that actors find it a user-friendly environment.’
Dressing room stories
Actors spend so much time in the dressing room that they have plenty of stories about them. Here are a couple our actors shared with us.
Bert La Bonté
‘My favourite story about the dressing rooms? During Clybourne Park, Pat Brammall, myself and Luke Ryan went to Southbank in between shows one night. After walking all the way back to the theatre, I went to look for my phone but couldn’t find it anywhere. So there I am thinking “damn it, I left my phone at Southbank; what an idiot!”
‘Luke gave me his phone so I could call my number, to see if somebody had picked it up. I called it and the guy who’s answered the phone was really drunk, and just being a complete idiot. I was trying to get him to tell me where he was but all he’s saying is “Cheryl left me, mate.” By this point I was starting to get a bit suss, so I went upstairs to the green room and there was Pat Brammall on my phone – he’d picked it up and he and Luke had decided to play a prank on me.
‘So to get him back, one night when he was in the shower in his dressing room, I snuck into his room and grabbed the keys to his motor bike, then Luke and I wheeled it into the wardrobe department. So when Pat left the building that night, we sat upstairs in the green room so we could watch him walk towards his motor bike from the front of house. We could see his shoulders just drop as he got closer, and he sighs and turns around to head back to the theatre. But then we see him getting out his phone, presumably to call the police, so we had to run downstairs and into the foyer to stop him!’
‘Southbank Theatre was where I first learned about doing cryptic crosswords. My aunt had showed me the basics, and when I was doing Hay Fever, I had a smallish role so I had a lot of time backstage. Some people knit, some people make use of the time to learn guitar (and we’ll go into their dressing room and have a bit of a sing-along) but I got into the cryptics.
‘And Simon Gleeson and I would share them. I might get a couple of clues done and then leave it on the little table in his dressing room; then I’d come backstage after having done a scene and he’d popped a couple more clues in, and left it on the table in my dressing room. When I was doing Emerald City I had a similar thing with Ray Chong Nee where we’d do the cryptic together.’
Published on 3 June 2020