She is reluctant to continue our conversation. “I don’t want to lose my job,” she murmurs into the phone. We are discussing an incredibly sensitive topic: smoking in the theatre. She is a nonsmoker and a playwright who makes her living in theatre administration, and she – like a number of People I spoke with while preparing this article – wishes to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal from directors, producers or bosses who would rather not bother with someone who is bothered by cigarette smoke. “This is such a tough profession to get paid in that when you do have to raise this issue, you’re taking a big risk,” she says.
One stage manager who is allergic to cigarette smoke but often spends his days painfully engulfed in it believes that complaining about smoking becomes “a deeply personal thing. It’s not about smoking, it’s about the smoker and your relationship with him or her.” Thus, many nonsmokers working in the theatre choose to suffer in silence, breathing in the secondhand smoke that the Environmental Protection Agency declared a “Class A” carcinogen last year (meaning that someone else’s smoke is as lethal to you as asbestos, radon, benzene and arsenic, all of which are illegal in the workplace).
A symbol of something else
Worse still, some actors must become smokers for the rehearsal and run of a show when a playwright or a director demands it, all the while risking addiction.
Theatre people are not alone in their discomfort and danger, of course every industry has a boss in a private office who smokes with the door open, thus rendering the “nonsmoking” outer office or public area a fantasy of local lawmakers. But the theatre is one place where cigarette smoke finds a peculiar justification in “artistic expression”; the cigarette is the theatre’s favorite prop, a shorthand for a vast array of emotions and behaviors that might otherwise require a little work on the part of playwrights, directors and actors. Alyssa Rallo, artistic director of the Column Theatre and Studio. in New York, believes that such shorthand is not only fraudulent, but also presents an ethical dilemma: “Now that we know smoking is horrible for you, we can’t as artists truthfully use it as a symbol something else. We are not treating cigarettes as a drug or as a killing substance, and that’s a crime.” Rallo has founded Actors & Directors for Smokefree Theatre, Film and Television, whose goal is to draw attention to the “silent partnership” between artists and tobacco conglomerates.
Unlike television, where nobody lit up at the Cheers bar through an entire decade, there are no industry guidelines that limit or restrict smoking on stage. Of course, cigarettes pose no immediate harm to television or film audiences but can cause considerable problems for theatre audiences, especially in small venues. Stage actors have it worst of all, smoking or breathing others’ smoke, not just through a few takes, but night after night, matinee after matinee. Actors’ Equity Association, a union famous for fussing over the health and welfare of its largely unemployed membership, offers little comfort to the actor who does not wish to smoke. While there are guidelines for nudity, getting wet and walking on a raked stage, there is no such thing as a “cigarette rider” to the basic Equity contract, although the union is aggressively looking into the health problems associated with special effects smoke.
We get letters
The use of fake (non-tobacco) cigarettes is not widespread, although the technology has been around for years and the simulation of smoking can be quite realistic, and relatively harmless. Miming smoking, or “smoking” an unlighted cigarette, is universally perceived as absurd – much harder to pull off than collapsing in a drunken stupor or injecting heroin – and the whole artifice of the stage is called to attention in the absence of smoke.
Lawmakers in many communities have stopped short of banning cigarette smoke from the stage (while forbidding it in all other public areas of the theatre building), but individuals have sometimes gone a lot further in attempting to discourage smoking in performance, a fact which makes many nonsmokers wary of being accused of artistic tampering or branded tobacco McCarthyists. Michael Wilson, associate director of Houston’s Alley Theatre, remembers being approached prior to rehearsals for his production of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart by a board member who said: “|Well, Michael, in this production you’re about to direct for us you’re not going to have anyone smoke, are you?’ It was conveyed to me that this would make everyone happy,” Wilson recalls. don’t know how far they would have gone to enforce it.” Wilson, a nonsmoker, ignored the board member but ultimately delivered a smoke-free production: “It was the choice of the process rather than the dictate.”
The Alley usually receives a number of complaints for its productions which contain smoking, according to Wilson, and Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, acknowledges the same: “It never fails that we get letters. When we did Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest we actually had quite a few comments.” Director Mark Wing-Davey felt strongly that the play, set in contemporary Romania, should include abundant cigarette smoke for the sake of realism. “We worked on a ventilation system to move the smoke out of there,” Medak says, but this was not sufficient: “What I find is only a small percentage of the problem is people really smelling the smoke. It is the perception that is all.” But what about the actors who have to smoke, or breathe in the immediate proximity of cigarettes? “I don’t believe that we’ve ever made anybody smoke,” Medak says, “but we do insist that they hold cigarettes and that they puff. In the case of Mad Forest, it was something we discussed with actors before they even auditioned.”
Such discussion is cheap currency to those nonsmokers who desire to make a living in the theatre and stay healthy while doing it. The allergic stage manager compares a smoke-filled theatre to “riding the subway and listening to someone’s panhandling speech. There’s nowhere you can go. It’s just not right that you can be trapped and forced into something like that. I think the theatre should be provocative; it should move you, it should make you angry, it should maybe make you run screaming from the theatre. But it should not endanger your health.”