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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

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