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To smoke or not to smoke, that is the question

December 15, 2009 |  4:41 pm

Estelle The Jersey Boys do it. Estelle Parsons does it regularly in "August: Osage County." Practically every actor who's been in a Noel Coward play has done it too.

Smoking onstage by performers is a commonplace occurrence that most theater professionals don't think much about -- that is, until that right is taken away.

This week, the Colorado Supreme Court handed down a decision that effectively upholds a ban on onstage smoking in the state. The ban applies to tobacco cigarettes as well as herbal cigarettes, which are often used as a substitute by theater companies.

"It's hard to say that you ban smoking in public places and still allow this," said John Suthers, the state's attorney general.

Suthers said that if a theatrical exemption to the law were allowed, businesses like bars and restaurants could try to lure smoking customers by putting on theatrical productions and including everyone in the staging.

The plaintiffs in the suit -- which included three small theater companies in Colorado -- argued that a ban on theatrical smoking would be an "unconstitutional infringement on their freedom of speech," according to court papers.

In its decision, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with the state's Department of Public Health and Environment. The court's ruling stated that the "ban does not impermissibly infringe on the plaintiffs’
constitutionally protected freedom of expression."

Kent Thompson, the artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, described the court's decision as "regrettable." (The company was not one of the plaintiffs in the suit.)

"There's a whole canon of drama in which smoking plays an integral part," said Thompson, citing the works of Coward and Tennessee Williams.  He added that his company has already instituted the use of artificial, or mechanical, cigarettes that emit a white powder instead of smoke.

"The smaller the theater, the less credible the substitutes are," said Thompson.

Smoking rules differ state by state. In California, theatrical smoking is still legal.

A spokeswoman for L.A.'s Center Theatre Group said the company's policy is to use herbal cigarettes, a policy that was introduced by artistic director Michael Ritchie. For touring productions, the company said it strongly recommends the use of herbal cigarettes but does not mandate it.

South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa also uses herbal cigarettes in its productions, according to a  spokeswoman. The company said it always posts notices that alert audiences that onstage smoking will occur.

"We also try not to keep cigarettes lit for very long," said the SCR spokeswoman.

-- David Ng

Photo: Estelle Parsons in a scene from "August: Osage County." Credit: Joan Marcus / Center Theatre Group

Comments () | Archives (17)

These idiot legislators can't balance a budget, and yet they keep telling *us* what not to do.

No smoking on stage but grass is voted legal in Breckinridge. And we have the Christians in Colorado Springs. Great to see another state compete with California for "most weird".

Yes, I'm quite certain if Estelle Parsons were allowed to smoke an herbal cigarette onstage in Colorado, every bar and nightclub in the state would be filled with musicals starring chain smokers. Idiots.

Yet another example of PC horse manure infringing on personal freedoms.

How terrific that the Colorado Supreme Court has banned onstage smoking, but that is the tip of the iceberg. It's great to protect the health of actors and the audience from second-hand smoke, but the most important issue here, has been overlooked. Actors are role models. People adore and mimic them. Actors who smoke on stage, even tho they are smoking a placebo or "pseudo cigarette" still serve as role models. When they smoke, others follow.

Until somehow, all smoking is banned, we will not have really made a difference.

Next they'll reinstate prohibition.

OH for god's sake will someone PLEASE put the health-nazis out of their misery!

How will they portray Sherlock Holmes? Have him suck on a lollipop?

Colorado is really one messed up state.

It's not until we stop glamorizing a nasty, disguising habit, that is the cause of major illness, hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and creates a major and unnecessary burden on our health care industry that we can even begin to prevent children from taking up the habit and becoming addict in the first place. Bans on smoking on film and television should be next.

Bravo Sue McPhail for telling it like it is. Actors are role models to many.

And really, these theaters are creating an artificial dramatic situation inside a constructed space with banks of lights, music, and often amplification. But oh it's not going to be "realistic" enough if we can't light our cigarettes. Please. Get over it already.

I have yet to see a play where the smoking was a critical central character. I'm sure there are a few, but in general it's a LOT less important to the play than the directors tend to think it is.

The "bars will put on plays" argument was used in Minnesota last year with little success (READ THE COVERAGE http://www.startribune.com/local/15859722.html , http://www.startribune.com/18710494.html and the conclusion? http://www.startribune.com/local/19412459.html)

Good for them!

I attended an Off-Off Broadway play last week in which actors smoked onstage in a very small theater. The smoke make my sinuses get congested and irritated my throat.

Why not just hold cigarettes or substitutes without lighting them? We'll get the idea that they're smoking. Audiences are asked to suspend disbelief for much more major things (when's the last time they actually stabbed someone onstage, or that someone flew without a harness?). They should be able to make the mental leap to imagine smoke curling up from a cigarette.

Easy way around it - when Minnesota enacted its smoking ban, several bars/taverns put up signs claiming that you were entering a "performance art space" and that patrons may be smoking. The courts there simply ruled that if your primary type of business is a theatre (especially non-profits), then you are allowed, but if your primary type of business is as a bar or tavern, you must adhere to the ban. Why Colorado couldn't follow suit, I don't know.

One of the plays in this suit is called TempOdyssey. In it, the main character knows he is dead when he can no longer exhale smoke from his cigarette... it signifies that he is no longer breathing. In this play, there is no way to "fake" it. Therefore, this play can no longer effectively be produced in the state of CO because the state passed a law which has banned the theatrical conceit which allows the plot to work. That is the definition of infringement of free speech. Yes, often smoking is considered far more important than it actually is by directors and actors. I know of no producer, however, who doesn't take smoking onstage seriously. No one wants people to walk out when someone lights up and that happens regularly in the theaters I have worked for. To have a state ban however takes it to another level and takes away choices and yes, it means some plays will not be able to be produced in CO. That's a shame and in my view, a problem.

I'm for banning smokes anywhere I can smell them, but it seems herbal smokes in a performance setting is acceptable for arts sake. I'm against any law that don't have a reasonable human sensibility in it. Laws shouldn't be fair and balanced.

I recently saw Spring Awakening in Denver...and in one scene, there's a line specifically directed at smoking...and I remember the actors doing it on Broadway. I was wondering why it wasn't there! While I do see it as a potential hazard, if a play calls for it, I say do it. It really limits an important expression of realism.

I live in denver. And with all due respect to Mr. Suthers, I think he is really stretching this a lot! The whole notion that bars and restaurants "could try to lure smoking customers by putting on theatrical productions and including everyone in the staging" is absolutely absurd! Our ban on smoking in public places has been in effect for 3 years. The citizens of Colorado have adjusted to it and moved on. But go past an office building in Downtown Denver or walk past the front of a bar or restaurant and you will walk past smokers. It is evident that neither he or our Supreme Court are knowledeable about the theatre and the shows that require a character to smoke. They need to sit with Mr. Thompson for a quick education! This is not about "glamorizing" smoking or actors being "role models". For the most part, you have adults attending theatre. Does a 35 or 45 year old still need a role model?! )What about the violent shows on TV? Why are we not going after the CSI's and other violent cop shows on tv? I guess it is ok to watch a violent crime in prime time. No, that won't influence our kids. Oh, wait! It already has!) This is about the ongoing crusade against smoking that has now gotten out of hand. There are people who just don't like it and will not rest until they get their way. You have no chance of experiencing second hand smoke at a large venue like the Buell or even in the Stage Theatre. Colorado has now become the leading "green" state. Well if the Supreme Court cares SO much about cigarette smoke then ban people from smoking outside of buildings and restaurants. I would think they would be worried about the air quality as well as the peopl who walk past these smokers and through their smoke.

I have lived here because I have enjoyed the laid back way of life and clear thinking by the people we put in office. But this coupled with the latest cell phone laws that ban phone use and texting while driving for teens but just bans texting for adults makes me scratch my head. Our law enforcement even said it will be hard to catch adults texting. Why not, like other states, ban hand held phone while driving. I just wonder what this state that I have come to love and call home is coming to.


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