Clearing the Air Over the Toxic Weed
Onstage Smoking Raises Legal, Administrative and Artistic Issues
Tobacco. There’s been a huge shift in the American way of life over the past half century regarding the once ubiquitous weed that gave us the cigarette and its various cousins. A sea-change in public attitudes has created its own difficulties— legal, administrative and aesthetic—for practitioners of the theatre arts.
Today as many as 18 states have legal restrictions on indoor smoking, without exemptions for theatrical smoking. As a result, in many states it's patently illegal to have the cast of a show smoke tobacco or even herbal substitutes.
Smoking on stage is explicitly called for in many scripts and is sometimes integral to a play's action. Non-burning alternatives to actual smoking range from going through the motions without actually lighting the cigarette to using plastic or metal cigarette look-alikes with or without the ability to puff a cloud of powder. Herbal substitutes for cigarettes are available, including brands such as Ecstacy, which can be had for about $7 a pack, but they, too, are not allowed.
In 2006 the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, a prohibition against indoor smoking in public places throughout the state, went into effect; it contained no exemption for onstage smoking in theatrical performances. Three Colorado Theatre Companies—Curious Theatre Company, ... and Open Stage (Note: As originally published the Denver Center Theatre Company was erroneously included)—pursued the matter through the courts, maintaining that the ban was an unconstitutional abridgment of freedom of expression. They lost in the state courts and tried to take the matter all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but this year the high court declined to take the case, allowing the state determination to stand.
At each level, Theatre Communications Group filed “friend of the court” briefs in support of the view that the issue is one of freedom of artistic expression, pointing out that theaters “rely on actors’ expressive conduct, including smoking, to convey meaning in tandem with a play’s dialogue, movement and other symbolic expression.” At the Supreme Court level the briefs argued the importance of a nationwide standard that would eliminate the confusion now existing on a state-by-state and even community-by-community basis.
The confusion engendered by inconsistent and unclear legal situations around the country can complicate the world of touring shows and of transfers from one jurisdiction to another. The production of the rock-and-roll musical Million Dollar Quartet, which found sufficient success in Chicago to engender a Broadway production, is a case in point. Its director, Eric Schaeffer, said that there was no smoking on stage in Chicago due to concerns over enforcement of the local statute, even though there were scenes where the characters “take a smoke break.” He remembers that when the Broadway engagement was announced, Robert Britton Lyons, who plays Carl Perkins in the show, excitedly asked “Can we smoke now?”
In this play, mannerisms used by cast members, including smoking, give the audience clues about the characters. Lance Guest’s Johnny Cash draws on cigarettes as if they are a lifeline to which he clings, while Elizabeth Stanley, as Elvis Presley’s girlfriend of the moment, smokes as if she doesn’t really like the taste, but finds smoking a way to gain acceptance in a man’s world. On the other hand, Hunter Foster’s record producer, Sam Phillips, uses smoking to establish an aura of power.
Stage smoking in New York, whether of tobacco or herbal alternatives, requires a permit from the fire department—not because it is smoking per se, but because it constitutes a flame on stage. Stage manager Tripp Phillips says obtaining the permit is a routine matter and he’s never had any delay in getting one. “For Finian’s Rainbow, we had Christopher Fitzgerald as Og lighting a candle, so we applied for the permit. We cut the bit, however—because it didn’t quite work, not because of any problems with the permit.”
Maria Soma, spokesperson for Actors Equity Association, says although the AEA contract has a provision about backstage smoking, and "dressing room assignments require consideration of smoking habits," the contract is silent about onstage smoking, leaving the issue to be resolved as artistic decision.
The law and contract requirements aren’t the only things clouding theatre’s approach to the toxic topic. Audiences have varying levels of tolerance for representation of smoking. These can range from physical reactions to second hand exposure to smoke, to emotional responses to the actions associated with smoking. And some audience members may have strong reservations over perceived romanticization of injurious behavior.
Poorly performed imitations of smoking can be a distraction, whether they are actually lighting up or performing some sort of non-combustion mimicry. One might expect that drama schools across the country would include onstage smoking techniques in their curricula, but this is apparently not so. Even a review of the advertisements of acting schools shows an almost complete absence of pictures of onstage smoking. NYC's Atlantic Acting School is one of the few to buck that trend, with an ad that shows co-founder William H. Macy puffing heartily. (Ironically, Macy appeared in the independent film Thank You For Smoking playing a U.S. Senator who wants to stamp out smoking altogether.)
Neither the Atlantic nor any other academy we checked with offers explicit training in smoking techniques. Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Washington D.C.’s Theater J, points out that “theaters have fight choreographers and dialogue coaches, but no smoking consultants.” The Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory in the same city once included an exercise for first-year students involving mannerisms and actions related to a character’s smoking. Studio’s founder Joy Zinoman, declares that it is insulting to the trade of acting to suggest that a non-smoker can’t portray a smoker on stage. “Its called acting!” she insists emphatically.
A few blocks away from Studio Theatre, an actor who has a personal history of what he terms “on-again, off-again smoking,” Karl Miller, recently lit up in the Theatre J staging of Itimar Moses’s play The Four of Us, which required him to smoke in character. “We used fake herbal cigarettes,” Miller noted. “We cut a lot of smoking before opening in part for the comfort of the audience. Sometimes I think audiences would start coughing if you just had a hologram of smoking.” Miller has used on-stage smoking as a means of character representation even when it wasn’t actually required by the script—his well-received performance as Hamlet at Maryland’s Rep Stage in 2007 had him smoking because “it seemed to fit for a rebellious youngster.”
Many plays, of course, specify onstage smoking as an integral aspect of a character or an event. From Jean Kerr’s comedy Mary, Mary, in which the title character desperately searches for a butt in the morning, to the dramatic use of chain-smoking in John Pielmeire’s Agnes of God, tobacco use has been a playwright’s and and actor’s tool. It goes back farther than you might suspect—TCG’s amicus brief pointed to smoking in older works such as George Farquhar’s Beaux-Strategem and John Gay’s The Beggars Opera. Smoking was “an integral plot component,” the brief points out, of Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln attended at Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated.
Moving forward in time introduces the issue of copyright. Given that smoking is a factor in many of the best-known plays of the 20th century—cigarettes (and martinis) fairly define the suave world of Noel Coward’s Private Lives for example—copyright protections may well make a performance modified to fit smoking restrictions a violation of the licensing agreement. And playwrights have not stopped turning out scripts that call for, or could beneficially use, onstage smoking. Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics is fully atmospheric in its portrayal of the cigar-making world of 19th century Florida; Tony Kushner's Caroline or Change features a cigarette scene between the titular maid and the young leading man; Moses uses the onset of the smoking habit and its eventual addiction as “a core symbol of immaturity” in his time-spanning play The Four of Us. The later author says he never considered the impact of including smoking in his script on the possibility of getting it produced. “You can’t start asking that kind of question at the start—you just ignore it and write your play,” Moses believes.
Actors, directors and theater operators have not forsworn smoking completely either. Laurence Fishburne still lights up in character as Supreme Court Justice Marshall in Thurgood, although there is no dialogue linked to the act. At California's Berkeley Repertory Company, men of the Victorian era puff on cigars during Naomi Iizuka’s Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West. The Arizona Theatre Company’s Glass Menagerie had narrator Tom smoking tobacco cigarettes in both Phoenix and Tucson. At Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia, Steven Cupo's atmospheric, ever-present cigarette, its smoke back-lit for maximum effect, added to his performance as the warden in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
But relying on the cloud doesn’t work everywhere. In Colorado last March, as the Colorado Clean Air Act case was working its way through the courts, actor John Hutton participated in a reading of Caridad Svich’s The House of the Spirits, portraying a patriarch who took his pleasures seriously. When he pulled out a Ticonderoga Yellow pencil and used it as a “cigar,” no one had any difficulty believing that his character was enjoying that cigar. As Joy Zinoman will tell you, “Its called acting!”