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Solutions to Smoking Onstage

Jean Schiffman • Feature • October 1, 2007

Laws, theatre policy, patrons and the plays themselves all have competing demands when it comes to lighting up.

These days, to smoke or not to smoke onstage is a thorny issue. With increasingly tobacco-averse audiences and actors, plus clean-air acts in some states that outlaw smoking in all public places, including onstage, what’s a theatre to do? It’s particularly problematic regarding plays of a certain era, culture and genre. Try to imagine a smoke-free Tennessee Williams production, or Noel Coward, Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh, or plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Charley’s (cigar-puffing) Aunt.

Laws aside, when smoking does occur onstage, audiences get agitated. Coughing commences and programs flutter like fans. Even theatre critics have been known to complain in print.The options: smoke herbal cigarettes, if permitted by local law (some laws reference only tobacco products; others all plant materials); mime smoking, using a real cigarette and lighter; use magic-shop trick cigarettes; cut all references to the dread weed; or avoid actually lighting up, and/or substitute a parallel, nonsmoking action.

Herbal Cigarettes
TheatreWorks, in the San Francisco Bay Area, has tried just about all of the above, according to Production Manager Steve Mannshardt. If deleting references to smoking, or miming it, would undermine the play, actors smoke herbal cigarettes, usually choosing Ecstacy, which has fewer chemicals than others (advertised ingredients are wild lettuce, catnip, passion flower, skull cap, mint, natural flavors). “We cut it to a couple of puffs,” says Mannshardt, “and it’s crushed out in water or wet sand so it goes out completely.” Herbal cigarettes light easily and burn fast.

But, as Artistic Director Michael Halberstam of Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Ill., notes, herbals smell suspiciously like marijuana. His theatre has always had a no-smoking-anything policy. Patricia Olive, prop manager for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (where theatres are exempt from the statewide ban), says herbals can taste harsh; the Guthrie varies between real and herbal smokes, with actors mostly requesting Carlton or American Spirit, respectively. At the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, director Simon Levy plans to start rehearsals for The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore with Ecstacy because their scent isn’t as intense as some of the other brands. In Atlanta, says Alliance Theatre Production Manager Rixon Hammond, the actors seem fine with herbal cigarettes, but the Alliance, like the other theatres, always posts a notice in the lobby about it.  

However, David Zak, artistic director of Bailiwick Repertory in Chicago, says it’s like splitting hairs to compare herbs to tobacco: If the audience doesn’t know the cigarettes are herbal, the reaction could be just as negative. Bailiwick’s choice is to mime. “People totally buy it,” says Zak. In any case, Chicago theatres receive no exemptions from state antismoking laws — which, according to Ralph Sevush of the Dramatists Guild (in an e-mail to reporter Kerry Reid of Chicago’s trade paper PerformInk), are defined vaguely enough to include the burning of pretty much anything.
Fake Cigarettes

In a production in 2000 of The Weir at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., which was performed in a tiny space, at least one audience member (ahem) was fooled when the cast smoked trick cigarettes. So apparently even in small houses, these fake cancer sticks can suffice. Purchased in magic shops or online, they are plastic tubes filled with powder. When an actor blows into them (as though inhaling) they emit the powder, which resembles a stream of smoke. The ember is a bit of red tinfoil that picks up theatrical light well. The actor can blow into the cigarette once or twice, then casually put it in an ashtray full of real butts.

But not everyone vouches for these ersatz cigarettes. Mannshardt says sometimes, if they’re poorly made, the powder falls directly to the ground, looking absurd. Olive says that if the character is supposed to be smoking for some time, it’s clear the fake cigarettes are not burning down.

Besides, they only come two or three to a pack and are expensive. Tom Ross, artistic director of Aurora, has had the crew try to refill used dummies with fresh powder, but that’s difficult. (eBay advertises them at $2.09 for two cigarettes, plus shipping fees.)

Harmless as they are, magic cigarettes can still rattle audiences. Ross says that after The Weir, one subscriber accused the theatre of glamorizing smoking. And when a character lit a magic cigarette in Aurora’s production of The Homecoming, two patrons frantically fanned themselves and whispered to each other in annoyance.
Unlit Cigarettes
In many theatres, actors pretend to light a real cigarette and then mime smoking — or find con-vincing ways to avoid actually lighting up altogether. Mannshardt says that at TheatreWorks, so far no audience member has complained that this tactic ruined a play’s realism. Similarly, in Private Lives at Writers’ Theatre, nobody remarked on the fact that the actors never actually got around to lighting up: The characters couldn’t find their cigarettes, or else they couldn’t find a lighter, and Halberstam made sure that thwarted desire to inhale added to the tension in the scene. He opened the second act with the lovers lying on a sofa, putting out their cigarettes. In his production of The Glass Menagerie, some piece of stage business would always distract a smoker from lighting up. “I’ve never had them pretend to smoke; that draws attention to the fact they’re not smoking,” says Halberstam.

At Chicago’s Victory Gardens, Artistic Director Dennis Zacek instituted a smoke-free policy 10 years ago in response to subscribers’ requests; actors mime with a real but never-lit cigarette. An exception: For Anna in the Tropics, set in a cigar factory, they smoked real cigars.

No Cigarettes
Halberstam looks for ways to replace characters’ obsession with smoking that serve both text and character. In Private Lives, when stage directions (but not the text itself) indicate that one character throws a box of cigarettes at another, Halberstam substituted chocolates. In The Puppetmaster of Lodz, when the puppeteer asks for a cigarette, he horded it instead of smoking it, consistent with his character. “Writers don’t put smoking in casually,” Halberstam says, so you have to find creative ways to reframe the moment. “The elegance with which you deal with the solution comes down to the specificity of the moment,” he adds.

Real Cigarettes

Some, like Artistic Director Martha Lavey of the Steppenwolf Theatre, argue that the right to smoke onstage relates to artistic freedom. In any event, smoking happens. In Anna in the Tropics and Charley’s Aunt, TheatreWorks found the brand of cigar with the least amount of smoke and scent. The Guthrie recently staged Private Lives with two nonsmoking actors willing to smoke the real thing. Liev Schreiber smokes ’em in Broadway’s Talk Radio. (New York City theatres are tobacco-free, as Reid reports in PerformInk, though they may apply for waivers.) And in Denver, writes Denver Post theatre critic John Moore, Miners Alley Playhouse defied the state’s smoking ban in Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (rather than break their contract with Simon, whose plays must be performed as written).

An audience-friendly option: R. J. Reynolds says its Eclipse cigarette heats the tobacco rather than burn it, emitting a vapor, thus producing significantly less smoke than normal cigarettes (and no ashes).  

Actual smoking onstage may eventually be as unlikely as a prop gun shooting real bullets. In the meantime, it’s up to individual theatres to find ways that work for the characters — and that cause a minimum amount of disruption all around.  

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