Monday, June 2, 2008

Smoking Onstage

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There was an Associated Press piece in the Encore section of the daily yesterday by Sean
O’Driscoll
about the New York ban on actors smoking onstage. Evidently it’s okay to smoke onstage in New York if it’s not tobacco, which is kind of weird. You can light-up onstage in New York so long as you’re smoking some kind of legal herbal cigarettes. (Director Catherine Hardwicke got around the legal smoking age with precisely the same type of herbal cigarettes when she was shooting the Academy Award-nominated film Thirteen with a couple of underage actresses a few years ago.) With bans on smoking in public places being raised in different parts of the country, there has been some question as to whether or not smoking should be allowed onstage by actors in character.

Laws involving smoking actors vary from state to state. Evidently in some areas of the country, there is a ban on smoking cigarettes in public places unless they are being smoked by actors onstage. This has prompted some bars in places like Minnesota to host “theatre nights” where everyone is declared an actor by virtue of their entrance into the venue. This strikes me as kind of an odd way to crack open the third wall . . . suddenly EVERYONE is performing and there is no script. How very post-modern. (But go to any bar on say . . . Water Street here in Milwaukee and you’ll run into a countless number of uhh . . . players . . .many of whom are particularly bad actors.) This makes me wonder how people at a “theatre night” might react to a group of actual actors going-in to perform some sort of guerilla theatre at these venues. I understand Insurgent Theatre is going on tour this August . . . hmm . . . I’m picturing something with an anti-smoking theme . . . it might be an interesting discord . . .

As there is yet to be a ban on smoking in public places in Milwaukee, smoking onstage is perfectly legal here. Locally-born actress Sarah Sokolovic had the opportunity to do so in a string of different productions a few years ago. It was an interesting way of connecting with her as an actress from the audience. There she was—the only person onstage at the Broadway Theatre Center’s main stage in a scene from Homebody/Kabul. As she spoke into the ether, the delicate smell of tobacco smoke from a single cigarette wafted into the auditorium. The rather abrasive smell of tobacco in such a classy environment made a lasting impression.

As with anything, onstage smoking can be overdone. A recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove quite nearly ran the risk of doing precisely that. People were constantly lighting-up, which made a lot of sense for the play’s milieu and added an indescribably grimy feel to the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1940’s. It was interesting to hear the Elm Grove audience complain about the smoke . . .I guess for some people it’s okay to see a woman play a character who becomes completely unhinged over the course of two hours before being carted away to a mental institution, but smelling tobacco smoke while it watching it? That would be unpleasant . . .


Lest smoking tobacco onstage in Milwaukee turn off a certain potential audience from seeing live theatre, I feel compelled to point out that every production company that performs with live tobacco will clearly state as much the same way they warn against loud noises, strobe lights and such. Most theatrical runs include a show or two where the cigarettes aren’t lit as well. For the time being, however, there is the option of smelling the tobacco from another era coming off local stages for those interested in doing so in Milwaukee . . .

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