Veteran Broadway actress and dancer Brenda Braxton was planning on writing her memoirs until a fateful encounter with an up and comer caused her to switch gears. “I was doing a show and sharing a dressing room with one of the younger leading ladies and I asked her about the traditional tipping of your dresser every week or every month and if she wanted to kind of go in together or if she wanted to do it by herself or what and she literally had no idea what I was talking about.”

Tony award winner Brenda Braxton offers advice to new theater performers in her new book. (Courtesy photo)

Shocked at the young woman’s ignorance about something so crucial to the long term success of someone who planned on having a career in the theater, she thought the book she was planning should provide the information that newcomers to the theater business obviously were not getting. She recalls thinking, “Hmm… perhaps this should be my first book.”

That book ended up being The Little Black Book of Backstage Etiquette. A slim, easy to read volume, it is full of tidbits about surviving and thriving in the sometimes challenging circumstances of theater life. She talks about handling sensitive issues such as sweaty costumes, wigs, what to do if you must miss performances and sharing a bathroom with other performers. One of the most fascinating tips involves the lighting of matches.

A native New Yorker, Braxton says “I always, always knew I wanted to be in theater in some kind of way. I knew I loved dancing. I always wanted to dance. Then I went to the High School for the Performing Arts and pretty much everything opened up to me.” The Tony Award nominated performer who has also appeared in feature films such as “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Hurricane,” was born and raised in the Bronx and began taking dance lessons at age four at the Ruth Williams Dancing School. Even with all that extensive training she always had an attitude of humility. She says, “I never took anything for granted. I didn’t think ‘Oh I’ve got talent’. I knew I was funny, I knew I was attractive but I never took anything for granted. I’m still on that learning curve.”

Braxton was lucky enough to have a mother who was always supportive of her aspirations. In fact, on the day she got her Tony nomination for her performance in “Chicago,”’ by the time she managed to call her mother to share the news she laughingly recalls her mother, had “already changed the message on her answering machine to say, ‘You have reached the mother of the Tony nominated Brenda Braxton.’”

For Braxton, maintaining relationships is the bedrock of having a successful career in theater. She says, “If you want to have longevity in this business, it’s very important not to burn any bridges. Not to slough off someone because you think they’re young, or don’t know anything or be rude. Longevity means that you have built bridges and not burned them.” Part of the reason why she believes there are so many younger people now who lack this very important knowledge is because they tend to feel more entitled than past generations. She explains, “This generation because of TV and reality TV and dance shows and what not they see people getting things at the drop of a hat so they’re coming into this business in a different way than my generation came into this business.”

For the person who has already damaged their reputation, she believes it will be an uphill battle to reverse it.  “I think if you go three years with a bad reputation, it’s gonna be really, really hard to turn it around. It also depends on what you’ve done. If you’ve done a lot of shows and have a bad reputation, that’s gonna be hard to fix. You’ve got to be willing to recognize and know where the problem is. You’ve got to really say to yourself, let me figure out why I’m not getting hired for these things.”

For those who are bashful, it isn’t enough to sit on your laurels and say you can’t build relationships because you are shy. However, Braxton doesn’t feel that building relationships necessarily entail grand gestures. She says, “Take the first step of introducing yourself and just have a regular conversation. To say ‘hi’ sometimes is all you need. Or to remember that person’s name and say, ‘Hi Joe’. Just a simple acknowledgement of the people that you’re working with. You’d be surprised how far that will go. When I did Broadway, the musicians we had on stage with us, I would never go a day without saying ‘Hey guys, how’re y’all doing today?’ It made such a difference.”

Brenda Braxton’s Little Black Book of Backstage Etiquette is available now.