Behind the scenes: why is a Green Room called a Green Room?

It all started with an Instagram post of the sign on the door of Sir Simon Rattle's dressing room – or more accurately the Barbican Centre's Conductor's Green Room. One of our followers asked the question: "why is it called a Green Room?"

A quick Google pulled up the Wikipedia page. "The origin of the term is often ascribed to such rooms historically being painted green." it said. Thanks Wikipedia for that enlightening answer! That couldn't be it though could it? There must be more to it than that. After all, the theatre arts go back centuries, millennia, even. Surely Shakespeare had a hand in this? So we did a bit more digging.

It turns out that no one really knows. The first seven search results on page 1 of Google have different answers and theories claiming to be the origin. Here are some favourites:

From Guardian Notes & Queries

"In the early years of the theatre there was always a room set aside for actor/esses to spend some time composing their thoughts before going on stage. In the interests of calm the walls and ceiling were painted green and the lighting kept subdued."

"This comes from the practise of shining a red lamp whilst recording or broadcasting and a green lamp when not. Like a traffic light, green means safe. It is therefore OK to talk and make a noise in the green room, it is not so in the broadcast/recording area."

"Stage actors often had to wear stage blood, which was very difficult to remove - consequently it tended to splash onto walls etc. This looks quite alarming on white walls, but oddly not on green walls - hence the paintwork of the back rooms in theatres are often painted green."

"The Green of the green room refers to youth. The green room was where understudies to major players would wait for their chance to appear on stage. They were the 'green' or immature actors."

From TheatreCrafts.com

"It was where the shrubbery used on stage was stored, and the plants made it a cool comfortable place."

"The room was walled with green baize as soundproofing, so actors could practice their lines."

From LBC.com

"It comes from Stratford, at a school where they put on plays. The room next to the stage where the actors got changed and where the council met was called the "Agreeing Room". If you had a Warwickshire accent it would sound like “greeing room” and that is where green room comes from."

From Ken Stein's Off Stage Blog

"It's believed in India during the 9th century the performers used to entertain the royal families in their gardens and they used to perform on temporarily created stages. The other artists used to wait for their entry under grapes yards or trees for shelter."

The debate is likely to rage forever, given that even the earliest written sources (which most agree to be in Thomas Shadwell's 1678 play A True Widow) merely mention the phrase and not why it is called so. In the play, the sophisticated Stanmore tells the interfering Lady Busy about a conversation with the “coxcomb” (a very vain man) Selfish about Stanmore’s prospective bride, Gertrude. Stanmore explains, “Selfish, this Evening, in a green Room, behind the Scenes, was before-hand with me ...”

All we know is that the Barbican Centre's Conductor's Green Room is definitely not green, but a very nice tasteful wood and red combo, newly refurbished a couple of summers ago. There's a grand piano, some easy chairs, sofas and a dining table; a private bathroom and one of those mirrors surrounded by bulbs that seem to be de rigeur in dressing rooms. It's a short stride to the stage door. It gets used for everything from relaxing to meetings to piano rehearsals to filming interviews (we filmed a lot of this video featuring Daniel Harding inside the "CGR" – several years ago, so pre-refurb!) to entertaining guests after the concert. Sir Simon Rattle – and indeed all the conductors and principal artists that use it – should be very comfortable there.

greenroom1 greenroom2

Outside the Barbican's Conductor's Green Room looking from the stage door and towards the stage door from the Green Room.


Sir Simon Rattle's concerts with the LSO this week take place on Thursday 11, Saturday 13 & Sunday 14 January, after which we head off on tour together to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg (15 & 16 January) and Cologne Philharmonic Hall (17 January). Wonder what their Green Rooms are like...

Got any theories about the naming of the Green Room? Please share them on our Facebook page or tweet @londonsymphony.