There are about 30 dressing rooms at the National. Some hold up to five people, and a few accommodate just one. They are arranged around a 60-foot-square air shaft, five stories high, at the very center of the building’s sprawling complex. All of the dressing room windows face in on one another. Look out any window at the half-hour call, and you stare right into the windows of dozens of other actors, all readying themselves for one of the three shows they are about to perform.
That cut is from a great article John Lithgow wrote for the New York Times. I’ll link to it at the bottom after I tell you my story about the dressing rooms at London’s National Theatre. Caution: serious name-dropping ahead!!
New Year’s Eve: 1997
Four friends of mine and I were in London for a mad week of theatre and touristy fun. One of my friends, an actor, was playing the dual role of Captain Hook/Mr. Darling in a production of Peter Pan in the States. We were going to see a production of the same adaptation in London at the National and the same role my friend was playing in the U.S. version was being assayed in London by Sir Ian McKellen.
And, as it happened, Sir Ian had a connection to the theatre where my friend was performing. On the flight over, my friend, let’s call him Steve, told me that his theatre had given him a press kit and wondered if I knew how we could get it to Sir Ian. (I was working as a theatrical press agent at the time — or as NPR’s Bob Mondello once referred to me in an article: “theatre flack Mark Blackmon.”)
I looked at the information; press kits being a particularly weird specialty of mine. I took out about half of the information and rearranged the rest of it. I handed it back to my friend.
“Do you want to meet Ian McKellen?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “How?”
“Leave that part to me,” I said. “But if I get you in, you’re taking me with you.”
A few days later — the afternoon of the 31st — we were taking a tour of the National. I made sure my friend had the press kit with him. During the tour, I made him give it to me and dove out of line. Then I did the thing that always works in the movies: I kept looking at my watch, looked harried and confused and walked up to a lobby attendant.
“I’m terribly late for a meeting,” I lied, prominently holding the folder as if it contained life-altering information. “Can you point me to the stage door?” He did and I thanked him profusely. (Seriously, I don’t know why I don’t have a Tony Award for Ballsiness!)
I ran outside, around the building, and to the prominently marked stage entrance. Once inside, I thanked the gods that the desk attendant was a little old lady. I was always better at chatting up grandmas than I was at chatting up cute boys, I’m sorry to say! I told her my story, she promised to leave the material in Sir Ian’s dressing room and told me to return after the show and she’d let us know if we could go back to meet him.
That night after the show, Steve and I left our group as soon as curtain call began and ran around to the stage door. Oh, Ian would be delighted to meet us, I was told, just as soon as he dressed. An interminable 10 minutes later, someone came up and escorted us through the rabbit’s warren that is backstage at the National to Sir Ian McKellen’s dressing room.
I’ve met a lot of famous and near-famous folks over the years, but Ian remains in my Top 5 all-time nicest list. We spent about an hour backstage with him. He cracked open a bottle of wine, which the three of us consumed. He and Steve traded Peter Pan stories and Steve tried on Ian’s hook. Ian kept glancing out of the window — just as Lithgow described it — and finally apologized, telling us that it looked like an elderly actor was waiting to meet him in someone else’s dressing room. “I was secretly hoping he expired during the performance,” he said wryly.
We were shown the door and we giddily walked back up the Thames, crossed Waterloo Bridge and caught the Tube back to our hotel, arriving just in time to grab something overpriced from the mini-bar to toast the New Year and recount our adventures to the rest of our group.
Since that time, Sir Ian has starred in some of the biggest blockbuster motion pictures of all time. Often, when someone begins a conversation about Gandalf or Magneto, I’ll ask the question, “Have I ever told you about spending New Year’s Eve in Ian McKellen’s dressing room?”