Minnesota lawmaker wants smoking banned in theater productionsA bill by Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Centerville, would bar actors from puffing away as part of plays.
By: News Tribune staff and news service reports, Duluth News Tribune
The curtain could soon fall on smoking as part of theatrical productions in Minnesota, under legislation introduced Thursday.
The bill by Democratic Sen. Barb Goodwin would bar actors from puffing away as part of plays.
The theatrical loophole is one of the rare exceptions to Minnesota’s ban on indoor smoking in public places. Since the ban took effect in 2007, people aren’t permitted to smoke in bars, restaurants, arenas, nursing homes, the common space of apartment buildings, meeting rooms and other indoor public places.
State law permits smoking in performances as long as patrons are given notice in advance and it is noted in performance programs.
Goodwin, of Columbia Heights, said the bill was inspired by a constituent with an allergic reaction to smoking who has worked on theatrical productions and often attends them. But the senator said it goes beyond ambiance issues.
“If they can’t do it in any other places, why should they be able to do it there?” Goodwin said. “The influence on young people or others in the audience of them smoking is not a good influence you want, anyway. It glamorizes smoking, especially when it’s on stage like that.”
Duluth’s Renegade Theater Company produced a few shows this past season that included characters smoking cigarettes on stage. “A Steady Rain,” which played in April, is the story of two veterans of a Chicago police department. “Summer and Smoke” and “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” both by Tennessee Williams, were performed in repertory this past summer.
If the bill passes, Renegade’s executive director Andy Bennett said the company will be OK.
“It would hamper things, but it’s not like they’re telling us we can’t use stage lights,” he said. “When we use it, it’s for a reason and not because it’s ‘cool.’ The main reason is atmosphere. The smell and the haze add to the feel of the show. In those instances, we feel it is a valuable part of the show. There are shows like ‘Talk Radio’ where the smoking is almost another character in the show. There are some roles where smoking feels like an extension of the character.”
The theater company has worked around smoking in the past. In 2008, Renegade produced “The Pillowman” and substituted heavy smoking with Twizzlers licorice and coffee drinking.
If there is going to be smoking onstage, they let audiences know.
“We’re diligent about putting up signs and letting the consumer make the decision and deciding whether it’s worth being in the audience,” Bennett said.
In situations where characters are smoking, Bennett said they use cigarettes, herbal cigarettes or e-cigarettes, which have water vapor as smoke. So far: no complaints.
The Duluth Playhouse stopped using nicotine cigarettes in shows around the time the original ban went into effect, executive director Christine Seitz said. They’ve sometimes cut smoking if it wasn’t crucial to the character or play. They’ve also used e-cigarettes.
“Long ago we stopped using nicotine cigarettes out of respect for our audiences and our actors,” she said.
Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, said he views a potential ban as unnecessary and unfortunate. The Walker occasionally features plays with smoking, and Bither said he doesn’t think it would be the same with fake cigarettes or other substitutes.
“The sense of authenticity and realism is often important in the theater,” Bither said. “In certain productions it would be lost.”
He said one of the most memorable shows the Walker presented was a solo performance of Roger Guenveur Smith doing “A Huey P. Newton Story”; in one scene, smoke from his cigarette swirled around him onstage.
“That visual effect added to the metaphor of this complex character,” Bither said. Newton co-founded the militant Black Panthers civil rights group in the 1960s.
The proposal against smoking in plays would fully seal off what had been a loophole exploited after Minnesota’s bar and restaurant smoking ban was enacted.
Some bars started holding theater nights where customers cast themselves as actors so they could smoke. That practice stopped after legal setbacks.
In 2009, the state Court of Appeals upheld a fine against the owner of a Babbitt bar. Tank’s Bar owner Thomas Marinaro was challenging his petty misdemeanor citation for violating the state smoking ban.
Marinaro had posted a sign on his door for an improvisational performance of “Gun SMOKE Monologues” that was being held every day from 3 p.m. until closing time. Smoking customers wore badges identifying themselves as “actors.” Appeals judges agreed with a lower court that the theatrical production was a sham and not exempt under the law.
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