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Theater Department Should Not Use Real Smoke

By Jack Desbois

The first half of the Theatre Department’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls this past weekend was a welcome treat – a delightfully original weave of fairytale whimsy and post-Soviet Russian grit. Katie Weatherseed’s portrayal of Annie, the show’s naive and relatable Russian-American study-abroad protagonist, and Gabrielle Owens’ laughably hideous Baba Yaga offered a much longed-for respite from the edge and violation of Snoo Wilson, Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker, favorite playwrights of the Middlebury Theatre Department.

Unfortunately, though, Fairytale Lives was not completely free of inappropriate and unnecessary violation. I did not see the second half of the show, opting to preserve my lungs instead.

About halfway through the show, Weatherseed and Lana Meyer, who played Masha, a young Moscow woman with domestic issues (to say the least), played a dialogue in which Masha offers Annie a cigarette. Masha lit up first, then helped the neophyte Annie with hers. By the time Annie was choking on her first lungful, the smoke had wafted to my seat. I have severe chemical sensitivities due to an autoimmune disorder, so when I realized that these were not herbal cigarettes but the real thing, tar and all, I quietly excused myself from my row and left the theater.

Using real, lit cigarettes in College-sponsored shows is wrong on several levels – not only does it pose a health risk to actors and audience members alike, but it is an ineffective directorial choice given the intense cultural connotations cigarettes hold. Health, though, is my most significant reason for calling for an end to the use of real cigarettes in Middlebury theatrical productions.

From the actor’s viewpoint, smoking is a personal choice. We have a significant number of student smokers involved in the Theatre Department, and that is another issue entirely. But a student should never – never – feel pressure from a faculty member to smoke a cigarette in a play. It should simply not be part of the equation, should not enter the director-actor conversation. Professors should not be promoting smoking, even as part of character-building; actors have been known to develop nicotine addictions from situations just like this. True, the actor does have the ability to say no to her director, but in the Middlebury Theatre Department, as in the greater world of theatre, saying no to your director can often feel like risky business. It is easy to imagine an actor going along with a director’s decision to light real cigarettes despite the actor’s inner misgivings. Because of this, I would view such a request from a director as a breach of trust.

I should note here that I do not know the specific circumstances surrounding the decision to light real cigarettes in Fairytale Lives; it is possible that the actors involved were already smokers and even initiated the decision. However, the issue involves many more people than just the actors and director.

From the audience’s viewpoint, secondhand smoke is not a personal choice. It is an imposition, a violation of the body, which is one reason why smoking is banned inside College buildings and within 25 feet of doors and windows. It is very unhealthy for any audience member who must be subject to the cloud filling the room, and even more so for the fellow actors and stagehands who must be exposed to the smoke night after night. During rehearsals for my First Year Show, (a Theatre Department-sponsored play produced every fall in which students who are new to the Department participate) I had to ask my director to refrain from including real, lit cigarettes in a scene that I was not in. Such action was necessary for my health and necessary to enable my brother, who has a similar autoimmune condition, to come see the show.

I foolishly interpreted the printed warnings that Fairytale Lives would include smoking to mean that smoking was to be portrayed onstage, similar to previous Department warnings about shows’ sexual content. If I had known that smoking was actually going to happen onstage, I would not have bought a ticket. I wonder how many others would have done the same, and I wonder how many others reacted negatively to the cigarette smoke. My guess is quite a few, at least regarding the latter.

So why the decision to use real smoke in the first place? Because it looks more realistic than prop cigarettes or herbal smoke? It does, but at too high a cost. Realistic theatre (which Fairytale Lives isn’t) seeks realism in small details in an effort to facilitate the audience’s suspension of disbelief, to help the viewer lose himself in the story more completely. Using real, lit cigarettes, though, has the opposite effect. As soon as the smoke reaches the audience’s nostrils, the audience is immediately pulled out of the play, as thoughts such as “they actually made those poor actors smoke real cigarettes” or “isn’t that breaking some kind of law?” or even “wow, that’s awesome that they’re allowed to do that!” impede engagement with the plot. The scene becomes about the cigarettes instead of the characters smoking them. Prop cigarettes are well within the limits of an average audience’s suspension of disbelief, and, since they pose no real threat to anyone, they allow the audience to engage with the cigarettes on the characters’ terms.

At the end of the show’s second scene, Weatherseed’s character, smothered in a giant fur coat, about to embark on a journey to the homeland she’d never known, shot the audience a glance filled with palpable emotion – fear, excitement, duty, confusion, determination – and the stage went dark. I was ready then to applaud the new direction I saw the Theatre Department going in (a trend that began last semester with the uproariously funny Mendel, Inc.). No longer, it seemed, did the department only cater to those longing to be insulted, hurt or violated by their theatre. It seemed a new theatre was finding representation on Middlebury’s stages, a theatre for seekers of a more respectful, real humanity. But then the smoke came.

Jack DesBois ’15 is from Topsfield, Massachusetts.

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Theater Department Should Not Use Real Smoke”

  1. guest on April 9th, 2015 1:31 pm

    While you’re entitled to your opinions about the practices of the theater department, I thought I might offer some info about the experience of smoking in this show (from an actor’s perspective):

    I can say that I personally was never pressured to smoke, and never observed anything I could call “pressure” being applied to other actors. (Though to get their experience, you would have to talk to them. I am not the sort to make assumptions based on my own opinions.)

    While I understand that disagreeing with a director or professor can sometimes feel like a risk all its own, I never felt that pressure when it came to the cigarettes. At many stages of the process our director checked in with those of us who would smoke in the show and made sure we were comfortable doing it. Our health, comfort, and values took precedence: he made that abundantly clear.

    We used prop cigarettes until tech week. Over the course of the show I smoked six cigarettes total. One for the each of the two final dress rehearsals and one for each of the shows. I never inhaled smoke into my lungs (I puffed!) and I certainly did not get addicted. By the end of our first run, I had gained so much acting-wise from the use of the cigarettes that I feel, had the director decided to do away with them, I would have pressured HIM to bring them back!

    I am sorry you did not enjoy the show as much as we did and that you found the warnings about the show’s content unclear. I also appreciate you “looking out” for us actors, and questioning whether our experience with the smoking was totally positive. But there is the rub: you could have asked us!

    [Reply]

    Jack DesBois Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your experience – it is reassuring to hear that your director approached the situation with respect and concern for you and your scene partners. Having worked with Alex Draper before, I should not have suspected otherwise. I considered consulting the actors as part of my article, but I decided against it; my aim in writing this article was to present my reaction to the use of cigarettes in the context of my general, mixed opinions of the theatre department, rather than as a piece of descriptive reporting. I do believe that, as a general rule, and for the several reasons I explained in my article, a director/professor should not propose that actors/students smoke real cigarettes in a department play.

    By voicing my opinions, I hope to add them to the discussion on the theatre department’s future. But I also hope that readers will understand that this article represents one Middlebury theatre artist’s viewpoint. The diverse backgrounds of theatre students here at Middlebury represent a wonderful plurality of viewpoints and aesthetic aspirations. I encourage all theatre students to look for ways to add their voices to the dialogue – especially when this involves disagreement – something which I have struggled to find the confidence to do.

    [Reply]