In Colorado, lobbying to keep smoking onstage

The Paragon Theatre’s artistic director, Warren Sherrill, has thought about staging “Agnes of God” for a while.

Problem is, one of the key characters is a psychiatrist who chain-smokes. And in Colorado -- one of 25 states with indoor smoking bans -- actors can’t light up on stage.

The state Supreme Court last month found the 2006 smoking restriction constitutional, rejecting theater companies’ argument that it infringed on their freedom of speech and stifled artistic expression. Actors, the justices noted, had alternatives to convey the act of smoking.

For Sherrill, the decision means he’ll keep passing on plays in which smoking is integral to the plot or to character development; he refuses to employ methods he considers unacceptable.


Miming is silly, he said. Talcum cigarettes are ridiculous. “The talcum lasts for a couple of puffs. If your actor sucks in rather than blows out, they’ve just swallowed a bunch of talcum,” he said. “And it’s going to look incredibly fake.”

Altering the stage direction so that the character doesn’t light up is equally distasteful, Sherrill said. “To me, that’s sacrificing the writer’s integrity.”

Instead the Paragon, along with Denver’s Curious Theatre, will pursue a legal case, hoping to win an audience with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of the states that prohibit smoking in public venues such as restaurants and bars, at least six -- including California -- provide a theatrical exemption, according to the group Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.

When Colorado passed its ban, theater companies objected. They weren’t demanding to smoke tobacco, but wanted at least the option of using cigarettes made of herbs or tea leaves, said attorney A. Bruce Jones. Such alternatives weren’t harmful, the Paragon and Curious theaters argued, and would allow them to replicate the act and ambience of smoking.

But the law banned smoking of all kinds.

While secondhand tobacco smoke is measurably harmful, particularly to those with heart disease, the risks associated with herbal cigarettes are less understood, said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer with the American Lung Assn.

However, he said, smoke from non-tobacco sources can be troublesome for people with smoke sensitivities, such as those with asthma. “Just a whiff of smoke will tighten their airways,” Edelman said.


Proponents of the smoking law argue that there is no need for actors to light up. After all, they point out, theater is all about make-believe.

“They aren’t allowed to use real guns. There’s no reason they should be allowed to use cigarettes, because there’s no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” said Annie Tegen, senior program manager with Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.

“No, you don’t shoot a gun, but you don’t shoot a toy water pistol from Kmart, either,” said Chip Walton, artistic director for Curious Theatre. While some props can appear realistic, fake cigarettes don’t do the trick, he said. And smoking often is key to the development or expression of a character, he said.

The Denver theater companies have attracted the support of 1st Amendment advocates, including the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.


Director Robert O’Neil noted that his group does not take issue with the validity of smoking bans. “But in order to serve those purposes, [states] don’t need to prohibit an otherwise 1st Amendment-protected activity related to artistic integrity,” he said.

The issue of whether actors can puff away on stage may not seem to be a critical one, O’Neil said. “But if you view it as a question of government intervention in a way that destroys artistic integrity, that’s a different matter.”

Mike Saccone, spokesman for the Colorado attorney general’s office, which defended the smoking law, praised the state Supreme Court’s findings. “We’re glad to see they sided with us,” he said. If the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to the review, “it would be a fascinating 1st Amendment case.”

Correll writes for The Times.