Monday, May 7, 2007

Smoke 'em If You've Got 'em

Daley Says Smoking On Stage Should Be Snuffed

Mayor Richard Daley said Saturday that there should be no exceptions to the city's anti-smoking ordinance or a proposed statewide smoking ban, not even actors in Chicago's bustling theater industry.

…Daley said that if actors wanted to maintain the artistic authenticity of the performance, "they can always use fake ones."

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

Use fake ones? Um, no.

I don't smoke. Never could. I tried. I tried hard. I hung out with some sketchy juvenile delinquents when I was thirteen and embarrassed myself immensely trying to keep pace with them on the Marlboro's. I hacked and wheezed my way out of ever being cool with these guys. Even today, I'm unable to smoke. My body just seems to reject the notion of allowing smoke in my lungs. I have dated smokers, lived with smokers and know many smokers. I do not defend them. It's a disgusting habit. Smokers are litter bugs and walking fire hazards. I hate how my clothes smell after spending time in a smokey bar. I support the smoking ban, if only for that last part. But I don't support it on the stage. Smoking is dumb, but that's even dumber.

In 2003, I was fortunate to be involved as an actor in the WNEP production "...Let There Be Light!" It's a play written by Jen Ellison and Dave Stinton based on a documentary by John Huston about WWII soldiers being processed through a mental hospital before being allowed to return home. If these soldiers weren't smokers before the war, they certainly were afterwards. It was a part of the time. The director wanted my character - the Colonel in charge of the hospital (another asshole) - to smoke. I tried. But couldn't even fake it without having a coughing fit. I had better luck with some cheap tiny cigars called Al Capone's that had a pipe tobacco scent. The play stood on it's own, but the aroma and the clouds of smoke hanging over the stage transported us and the audience to a different time and place. We took the play to New York where smoking is banned and it wasn't the same. I can't say that it ruined the play, but it didn't feel right and didn't seem to have the same magical effect.

Use fake ones? If we were doing the play today in Chicago and the grizzled war vets had lit up and the audience smelled herbal tea, we'd be laughed off the stage. Cigarettes, cigars and pipes can all enhance an actor's performance and express many unspoken aspects of their character. If you fake it, it breaks the illusion your audience has invested in.

If theaters need to post warnings, great. Let's do that. We already do it for gunshots and strobe lights. Let the consumer decide if they want to be exposed to the dangers of a smoking actor.