To smoke or not to smoke on stage?

Smoking on stage
In this Jan. 29, 2013 photo, Vanda, played by Anna Sundberg, smokes during a dress rehearsal for the play "Venus in Fur" at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. Minnesota lawmakers are trying to amend the state's smoking ban to eliminate an exemption for theatrical productions.
AP Photo/Michal Daniel

By KYLE POTTER, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - During a key scene in the play "Venus in Fur'' the lead actress lights up a Marlboro from her purse and takes a drag, tilting her head backward while exhaling a long stream of smoke.

Vanda smokes for only about a minute before dropping the cigarette into her coffee mug, but it's a pivotal moment that begins the character's transformation into an assertive woman. And some theater employees say it wouldn't feel nearly as raw if the actress couldn't smoke an actual cigarette on stage.

"If you're going to be authentic to that aspect of a play, it's essential,'' said Bain Boehlke, artistic director at The Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, where "Venus in Fur'' currently is playing. "Just the smell of the cigarette smoke is part of the world of the play.''

Those moments of authenticity could become harder to pull off in Minnesota if lawmakers amend the state's smoking ban to eliminate an exemption for theatrical productions.

Now that alternatives exist, a state senator says there's no reason actors should subject the audience to tobacco fumes or glorify smoking on stage, and she has introduced a bill that would ban the practice.

"It's so much easier to use e-cigarettes, or to use something else that doesn't have all the carcinogens in it,'' said Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights.

Minnesota is one of 11 states, plus Washington, D.C., in which smoking bans don't apply to actors lighting up on stage.

Goodwin said she proposed her bill on behalf of a constituent, a frequent theatergoer with a severe allergy to cigarette smoke. The senator also worries that actors smoking onstage glamorizes tobacco for children.

Her constituent, Joan Gilmore, said cigarette smoke makes her throat tighten and her head pound. Gilmore, a 53-year-old sailing instructor from Fridley, said she has had to leave three plays early and skipped others after learning that actors would smoke onstage. She doesn't see why it's a big deal for actors to use pretend cigarettes.

"Theater is all about illusion,'' Gilmore said.

But Boehlke and other directors worry that the "clink'' of an electronic cigarette on an ashtray or the smell of burning herbs will pull the audience out of the action of the play.

The Minnesota Opera already chooses not to use tobacco cigarettes, in part because it's bad for a singer's voice.

Actors at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis' drama kingpin, rarely light up real cigarettes. An actor smoked an electronic cigar in the recent performance of "Long Day's Journey into Night.''

But theater spokesman Quinton Skinner said the Guthrie wants to keep tobacco cigarettes an option, especially for plays set in a time when smoking "was part of a fabric of society.''

"In order to realistically depict that, you need to have some onstage smoking,'' Skinner said.

Minnesota's exemption dates to 2007, when a group of theaters asked lawmakers for a pass as they put the final touches on the statewide smoking ban. Larry Redmond, a lobbyist for Minnesotan Citizens for the Arts who led that push, said his organization will fight against any change. He called it a matter of artistic freedom.

Goodwin rejects that. "What's going to happen if they don't smoke in that production? Really, how is that going to have a good bearing on the way people feel about the play?'' she asked incredulously.

Goodwin said she's open to allowing actors to smoke herbal cigarettes, but some directors aren't sold.

Joel Sass, who directed "Venus in Fur'' at the Jungle, said most actors and audiences have hated the herbal alternatives when he has seen them used.

He doesn't believe the real thing must always be used but said it's important to have the option.

"We can't go in and cross out every stage direction in a Tennessee Williams play with smoking just because we have a moral objection to it now,'' Sass said. "It's about those people in that time.''

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