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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Up in Smoke

I expect that most of my Denver-area readers caught Denver theatre critic John Moore's recent column, in which he looks at the ongoing battle between theatre companies and the state smoking ban. However, I know from some of your comments here and the personal messages that you have sent to me that many of you who drop by this page are not in Colorado, so I thought I'd bring it to your attention.
Now, I'm not a smoker myself. I don't particularly care to be around smoke, and I have enjoyed the freer air quality in and around town even if the ban itself triggers my libertarian gag reflex.
I also think that actors and especially singers who smoke are basically OUT OF THEIR FREAKIN' MINDS.
However, none of that has anything to do with these theatre companies who are simply championing the right of artists to portray smoking on-stage as part of character development and storytelling.
John Moore has detailed the argument quite eloquently, in my opinion, so I will direct you to read his column here.
I would like to bring particular attention to one paragraph in John's column that gives you some idea of just what theatres in Colorado are up against:

"[Assistant Attorney General Lisa Bremmer] Freimann actually predicted a performance exception for smoking would inevitably lead to exceptions for underage drinking and firing real guns. Among the many flaws in her logic: If a play calls for underage (or of-age) drinking, the actor drinks colored water. If a character fires a gun, it fires blanks. And if a character lights up, it's not a real cigarette."

Theatres: if your city, state, province, country or district is considering a smoking ban, make sure that you know what that means for you. What provision is provided for artistic expression on-stage? Can you smoke non-carcinogenic tobacco alternatives? In Colorado, at the moment, you can't.
When it comes to legislating smoking, I'll admit I'm torn. I think Wayne Dyer put it best when he said (I'm paraphrasing) that your right to flail your arms around wildly ends where my right to keep my nose in its current shape begins. Second-hand smoke stinks in every sense of the word, and, even the non-carcinogenic alternatives have their drawbacks. I have a friend who is allergic.
However, I know people who are allergic to a lot of the fog machines in use in theatres. People with asthma and emphysema have often claimed to have issues with even water-based foggers. Not being a doctor, I'm inclined to take those claims at face value.
We've learned to work around these things: minimizing the effects where possible, providing warnings, directing audience members with these issues to sit in less-exposed areas of the theatre, etc.
But an outright ban?
Run through your list of favorite plays. How many include smoking onstage? How many could be performed without it? Probably quite a few, sure, but how many absolutely could not? Imagine those plays never being performed live again.
Scary, isn't it?


Ekwoman said...

As I argued this point with my mom I asked her why there had to be actual smoke coming from the cigarettes. She said because it was more believable. I said, "Pretend. It's called acting." I don't see why you have to have real smoke coming out when you're okay miming opening and closing cupboards on the fourth wall or talking to someone who isn't there out a front door or whatever. If the audience is fixed on whether or not smoke is coming out of that cigarette, then you're not doing your job very well.

I don't mind seeing cigarettes everywhere, if that's what is needed for a character (or simply the actor feels it will add to the character)...I certainly am not of the "ban cigarettes from movies" campaign. They just don't need to be smoked. But in a theater where there are other people on stage or in the audience that want to also work in a smoke free environment as protected by law, I don't see why actors feel they deserve an exception. Oh, and don't even get me started on certain actors who feel they need to use real guns and straight razors on stage for authenticity!

Brady Darnell said...

For the most part I'm inclined to agree with you, but there are certain shows like TempOdyssey where visible smoke is central to the plotline.
Or one character blowing smoke in another's face sends a powerful message -- unless there's no actual smoke there.
In other cases, there is simply a "liveness" to smoke billowing on-stage, such as in Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight that adds (arguably) necessary set dressing.
Should theatres take measures to be respectful to their audience members, making sure that any smoke is seen and not smelled? Absolutely.
It just gets my ire up when someone starts saying, "You cannot ever under any circumstances."
I'm completely on board with you about the real guns and razors thing, though. That's just stupidity on parade.

Ekwoman said...

As much as it pains me...I suppose if smoking (and having real smoke) truly was central to the plot or major component of a show there could be a sort of compromise. But, like other restrictive measure for safety concerns, there would have to be some benchmark a show/theater/actor would have to meet. Like in the case of TempOdyssey...if you had to get some sort of permit on a case-by-case basis and criteria had to be met...prominent notification of use of smoking listed in ads, promotion, signs at the box office, whatever. That way, actors, patrons, and ushers and stagehands alike would know about it and could decide if they wanted to be in such an environment.

That way, you'd have to really prove your point in the necessity of real smoke from real cigarettes (or cigars, or whatever)...kind of like if you want to set something on fire or's a safety concern. I still think that certain theaters here in town have decided to do shows that contain smoking and insist on using real smoking...simply to make their point. If it truly is for one's art, then going the few extra steps to make it that much better shouldn't be a problem. Let's face it...there are several things that aren't against the law, but the law says I can't do them onstage in front of an audience!