Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dressing Rooms: Spaces of Magical Reality

Alyssa Velazquez writes about dressing rooms as transitional spaces, questioning how, and to whom, these secret and privileged spaces generate imagined realities.

MLA citation format:
Velazquez, Alyssa,
"Dressing Rooms: Spaces of Magical Reality"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 4 December 2017. Web. [date of access] 

You are now going “behind the scenes.” As you cross over the threshold you may expect to experience the intimate and exclusive, to learn the unknown, or view the insides of a specialized world. Museums, historic homes, aquariums and zoos, sports’ stadiums, and performing arts spaces alike offer this level of familiarity to their venues in various formats: guided tours and over-night sleepovers, or through sponsorship pamphlets and advertising campaigns. Dance Retailer News, a magazine for the selling and marketing of dance retail, published in 2008 a one-page tutorial on how to glam up a display case of merchandise with a dressing room “motif.” The picture that accompanied this short advertisement displayed a three-tiered makeup organizer, open for the viewer to glimpse an assortment of brushes and nail polish, a kaleidoscope of eyeshadows, and its crowning jewel: a tiara. To the right of the case was a T-shaped earring stand and a double-bar bracelet holder sitting atop a circular mirror. In front of, and amongst, these primary fixtures were perfume bottles, a powder container, and a small wooden artist’s model. Behind this display of makeup and accessories floated a—from their description—gold Rococo mirror, accented by a pair of point shoes hanging from its top right corner. All these elements, if positioned just so, were intended to create “the perfect little girl’s fantasy dressing table.” [i]

This materialized dressing room, rather than revealing the backstage to the viewer, is a staged viewpoint. The malleability of the dressing room as a space or d├ęcor is partly due to that fact that the theater’s backstage space remains one of the “least documented, least analyzed, least theorized areas of theater space.” [ii] For Dance Retailer it can be whatever they want it to be. In this case, by setting the store up in this fashion: a dancer’s private vanity, the retailer is promoting merchandise within the mystical transitional space of a dressing room. Validity is given to makeup brushes and frames through the placement of these items in a space devoid of walls and its inhabitant. Without its occupant, the dressing table, costume pieces, makeup, and production footwear are the actor’s stand-ins—not only do they represent the transformation, but also, the person who was or will be transformed. Stripped of any defining architectural features and specific production elements, the magic or the fantasy of the dressing room is encapsulated in the objects that are brought into the space to prepare and to be used on the stage, rather than what already exists. In 2008, the New York Times ran an article on Broadway dressing rooms and some of their a-list occupants. Harvey Fierstien, most known for his roles in Hairspray and Fiddler on the Roof, was quoted as saying, “architecturally, most dressing rooms are pretty horrifying—the bare walls painted seven thousand times. There is magic in the theater, but it’s not in the dressing room.” [iii]
Figure 1: Backstage Dressing Room from the Billy Rose Theater Division,
The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 2, 2017.
That statement was certainly considered true in England throughout the nineteenth-century. On November 30rd 1889 the British Medical Journal ran a short piece on the dressing-rooms of provincial theaters. The article linked the recent deaths of two touring actors from enteric fever— a bacterial disease today known as typhoid—to the “insanitary condition of the rooms in which they “change” or “make-up” before appearing on stage.” [iv] Within the write-up these spaces of change were described as being near water-closets or waste-pipes in unventilated corners that lacked the necessary fresh air circulation—all of which was believed to be the cause of actors’ ill health. The French were equally intrigued with the backstage spaces of its performance venues, exemplified to them in the writings of Emile Zola, who, vividly depicted the sexual atmosphere of chorus girl water-closets and the immodest entertaining of male audience members by leading ladies in their dim and close quarter dressing rooms. 
Figure 2: Don Nicol and Ballet, Theater Royal, Sydney (January 30th 1946). From the collection of the State Library of South Wales. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Today, from this physically and often metaphorically unclean dark and hidden space, the dressing room is emerging as the performer’s private world. The four-cornered dressing spaces of leading men and women throughout the twenty-first century (specifically with the increase of music and cinema stars debuting on Broadway) are becoming venues for interior designers to construct a “home away from home” for their client, or a center of inspiration that speaks to the actor’s character. As a result, these secret and privileged spaces built to transform the performer into someone other than themselves, are being constructed with the fictional personae in mind, as much as, the space’s physical inhabitant. These interior design makeovers are then made the feature story of newspapers and trendy publications, making their transformation public knowledge. 
Figure 3: British actor Alec Guinness in Under the Sycamore Tree, London, 1952.
Accessed October 2, 2017. 
The dressing room, as a transitional space, is a bridge between reality and the world on-stage. This physical hybrid of architecture and imagination has, over the years, been featured in fiction, poetry, news reports, interior design magazines, and even retail catalogues, making a theater’s backstage a fixture in the human imagination. But what are they? What do these spaces do? What do they generate? Why, even in 2008, did Mr. Fierstien direct the outsider’s gaze to the stage as the source of a production’s magic, rather than, the “horrifying” space in which he went day-after-day to transition from a man to a woman for his role of Tracey Turnblad’s buxom mother in the musical Hairspray? From whom or what do these eccentric spaces derive their draw and power? [v] In their marketability, as in Dance Retailer News? In their malleability, as in the professional remodeling of Josh Groban’s dressing room for his character in The Great Comet? Perhaps it’s a lingering vestige of its salacious literary past. Or is it derived from the continued exclusion from the cannon of research in theater history? It is the room? Is it the bric-a-brac that fills the room? Or is it all a product of our imagination? 

[i] Adriana Lee, “A Vanity Fair,” Dance Retailer News 7, no. 2 (February 2008): 50. 
[ii] Gay McAuley, Space in Performance: Making Meaning in Theater, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 26. 
[iii] Penelope Green, “Setting the Stage, Offstage,” The New York Times (March 20th 2008).
[iv] “The Dressing-Rooms of Theaters,” The British Medical Journal 2, no. 1509 (November 30th 1889): 1236. 
[v] The term “eccentric spaces” is derived from Robert Harbison’s book entitled Eccentric Spaces, New York: Knopf, 1977, in which he looks at spaces and interiors that are created based off human imagination. 



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