Published in The New York Times
"Hand me a cigarette ... lover,” Martha says to her conquest Nick in the second act of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The stage directions then read: “He lights it for her. As he does, she slips her hand between his legs.”
This scene cannot take place as written in Lincoln, Neb.; Colorado; Scotland; or, starting April 2, in Wales. Smoking bans are so strict in these places that actors cannot legally light even herbal cigarettes onstage.
In Colorado three theater companies — the Curious Theater Company and Paragon Theater, both in Denver, and Theater13 in Boulder— have gone so far as to sue the state, arguing that smoking in the course of a play is a form of free expression. The claim echoes the arguments once made to defend the nudity in the musical “Hair” against indecency laws. “It will deny residents in Colorado access to great prior works, and cutting-edge new plays as well,” said Bruce Jones, the lawyer representing the theaters.
In October a judge ruled against the theaters. The companies are now awaiting an appeal, although they have not decided what they will do if it fails. Paragon is committed to staging “Virginia Woolf” in July, though it has not decided whether to follow the antismoking law or not. A spokesman in the Colorado attorney general’s office said he could not comment on an active case.
Not all smoking bans are quite as rigid. In Ireland herbal cigarettes, which do not contain tobacco and which actors frequently use as an alternative, are permitted. England’s ban, which begins July 1, allows actors to smoke only “if the artistic integrity of the performance makes it appropriate for them to smoke.” In New York City theaters, which fall under a statewide smoking ban in place since 2003, actors may smoke herbal cigarettes. If they want to use the real deal, the production has to apply for a waiver from the city.
Many productions, like “Chicago” on Broadway, use herbal cigarettes instead of bothering to get a waiver.
Abbie M. Strassler, the general manager of the 2005 Broadway revival of “The Odd Couple,” in which Oscar Madison is constantly chomping his cigar, did decide to apply for a waiver. The entire process, starting from when she first inquired, took four months, she said, calling the procedure “absurd.” But she admitted that she did not get approval for a three-week Broadway run of Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight!” in June 2005. “I figured I’d take my chances,” she said. No legal action was taken.
Actors aren’t technically allowed to smoke onstage under the ban in Chicago, but when they do, the law is simply not enforced. Tim Hadac, a spokesman for the Chicago Public Health Department, said that the enforcement was complaint-driven, and that he had not heard of any complaints about actors puffing away onstage.
In Colorado, where no version of a lighted cigarette is permitted onstage, aggrieved producers argue that tobacco is an integral part of the work of playwrights like Mr. Albee, Henrik Ibsen and Noël Coward. The company Next Stage canceled planned productions of the musical “A Man of No Importance,” by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, which takes place partly in a smoky Dublin pub in the 1960s, and Stephen Belber’s play “Match,” in which a pivotal scene involves characters smoking hashish, causing the revelation of crucial information.
Theater13 — which has a bigger budget and can risk a fine — defied the law by staging “Match” with herbal cigarettes in September. “We put up signage, it’s written in the programs, and then we make an announcement before the show,” said Judson Webb, one of the company’s founding members. “We give people four or five chances every step of the way to make their own decision. If they walk out of the room, we’ll give them a full refund.” In 10 performances no one did, and no charges were brought.
When the touring production of the Broadway revival of “Sweet Charity” visited the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in December, Molly Ringwald, playing the title character, used a special cigarette that doesn’t light but emits a cloud of powder. But Randy Weeks, the president and chief executive of the center, has had to cancel “Mark Twain Tonight!”
“Samuel Clemens had a cigar in his mouth 99 percent of his waking hours,” Mr. Weeks said. “It is part of our history that people smoked.”
In Scotland, Keith Richards famously flouted the law in August by lighting up at a Rolling Stones concert in Glasgow. Since the local authorities are in charge of enforcing the ban, the city council simply declared the hall exempt. That same month in Edinburgh, where the fringe festival presented more than 1,800 shows, all performances had to be smoke-free. The festival had lobbied the Scottish Executive, Scotland’s governing body, for an exemption, but to no avail.
“If you start to make exceptions, you start to have loopholes and so on and you start to have a debate over what is or isn’t covered,” a spokesman for the Scottish Executive said. Regarding herbal cigarettes, he said, “We wanted to ensure that the law was as comprehensive and enforceable as possible, even if new products come onto the market.”
The actor Mel Smith got some attention for defiantly smoking a cigar during one of his performances as Winston Churchill in “Allegiance: Winston Churchill and Michael Collins.” But Paul Gudgin, the director of the festival, said that to his knowledge no other performer knowingly disobeyed the law, and the ban didn’t prevent any shows from being performed.
“Opinion was very divided amongst performers,” he added. Some were unfazed, arguing that “it’s acting, and you work around it,” he said. “They feel there’s very few plays, really, where it’s absolutely fundamental to the plot.”
Molly Ringwald, a nonsmoker, said of her Broadway role of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” “At that time every woman who’s cutting edge, a little bit fashionable, unconventional, is going to smoke, and that’s Sally Bowles.” Of her one smoking scene in “Sweet Charity,” she said, “This whole thing that I do lasts all of 10 seconds, and the theaters that we’re playing are so huge that it’s not realy affecting anyone so much except for me.”
As for Theater13, it is planning to produce “My Life Is My Sundance,” based on a memoir by the Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who comes from a culture in which tobacco plays a large spiritual role. It is unclear if smoking will be involved.
Still Mr. Webb points out that his company is not blindly pro-smoking. “We’re a bunch of non- or ex-smokers,” he said. Other than his one complaint, “I think the smoking ban is fantastic.”