Hissing ‘Fire’ in a Crowded Theatre

Municipal smoking bans are red hot right now, not just in the U.S. but all over the globe — and live performance theatres everywhere are finding themselves caught in the middle of the brouhaha. Last fall, a Denver District judge refused to exempt Colorado’s theatre companies from the statewide smoking ban that took effect the previous spring, sending actors, directors, and producers of live theatre into histrionic hissy fits. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without a chain-smoking Martha? Ridiculous!” they screamed. “The Odd Couple without Oscar’s stinky cigars? Preposterous!” they moaned, shaking their fists at the sky.

The New York ban, on the other hand, allows for onstage smoking as long as it’s “integral” to the plot, as does Britain’s new public smoking restriction that went into effect July 1. But don’t try it at the Edinburgh Fringe — Scotland’s ban is comprehensive, the world’s largest arts festival be damned. Producers in America’s second city also haven’t been lucky; in May, Chicago’s city council rejected an exemption for stage plays. If companies in the nation’s second biggest home for live theatre want to comply with the existing ban and avoid possible fines, they either have to use herbal or prop cigarettes — or mime the action. In Pennsylvania, state legislators are about to go down the same strict road.

Bans in Louisiana and North Dakota disallow the burning of any kind of plant matter in any public space, including theatres — so even cloves are out. Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, and New Jersey define smoking vaguely or broadly enough that it could be stretched to include the burning of pretty much anything — letters, books, undies, you name it (though desire, for the moment, seems to be safe).

Chalk it up to luck, foresight, or a soft spot for free expression and the arts, but Charleston’s ban on smoking in public places, which goes into effect Monday morning at 12 a.m., includes a very pointed exception for smoking in live productions. Section 1 (F) of the ordinance reads, “Exceptions: Notwithstanding the provisions of Section D herein, smoking may be permitted in the following places and/or circumstances: (5) Performers upon a stage, provided that the smoking is part of the theatrical production being performed.”

“It’s always been common courtesy for theatres to inform audiences when actors will be smoking on stage,” says League of Charleston Theatres director Emily Wilhoit. “And I don’t know of a single director that would have an actor smoke during a performance unless it was specifically called for in the script and vital to the portrayal of the character.”

In other words, no coughing at the actors. That’s art, not smoke. —Patrick Sharbaugh

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