Public Comment

Yelling Smoke in a Crowded Theater

by Carol Denney
Wednesday April 07, 2010 - 07:58:00 PM

An actor lit up a cigarette near me at a recent stage performance in Berkeley, and I nearly bolted. I felt the same panic I’ve had to field for years as people without respiratory difficulties assume that their smoking won’t matter to those of us whose physiological reactions are immediate, debilitating, and sometimes deadly.  

I was relieved when the cigarette was quickly put out, and even more relieved when the first few rows of theater patrons joined me in furiously fanning the smoke away with their programs. I was too concerned that it would happen again to notice what happened in the scene, worried about how to explain my disappearance to my companions without disrupting the show, and wondering how this could be happening in the state that led the way in nonsmokers’ rights.  

Local theaters which use smoking to convey characterization, atmosphere, or theatrical plot twists, are doing so legally; California law allows smoking in performances despite the danger to the audience members, theater workers, and performers.  

Although it’s common knowledge that there’s no safe dose of secondhand smoke, and though the vascular damage it does is measurable within minutes in even healthy adults, theater directors will tell you with a straight face that only real cigarettes create the desired theatrical effect.  

The “performance” loophole is famously exploited in some states by bar owners who announce that each evening is a performance and all customers are performers. But most of the nation not only welcomes protections against secondhand smoke, the 17% drop in heart attacks which follow the first year of smoking restrictions is hard to dismiss.  

No community this serious about its theater, this passionate about its plays would abandon its commitment if local theaters adopted a smokefree policy. It isn’t simply that people with respiratory and vascular challenges shouldn’t need to put their lives at risk to enjoy a performance--¬it’s a workplace, after all, for theater staff and performers.  

I spent years playing music in smoke-filled clubs and I’m shocked to discover that it isn’t just casino workers who have been left out of California’s current restrictions on workplace smoking. I’m a cancer survivor thankful most performance spaces no longer force employees to endure the effects of secondhand smoke.  

Let’s invite our talented local theater troupes to adopt smokefree policies. A creative stage director can make a performance convincing without relying on deadly smoke, just as surely as no one would think of using a real gun in a stage play, and for the same reason. Count on us to adjust to appropriate alternatives. We can suspend our disbelief a lot easier than we can hold our breath.