The Stages of Sin

Is smoking onstage a free-speech issue?

Wooden O recently got uninvited from performing its summer production of Romeo and Juliet by the city of Everett. The company, which produces free productions of Shakespeare in area parks, had extended its touring schedule this year to include new cities. But after the Everett Parks Department received a description of the production from Wooden O artistic director George Mount, officials cancelled the show's visit.Mount's modern-dress production is set in a war-torn Eastern European city where the Montagues are an occupying police force. Both sides carry guns instead of swords, and the show includes pre-recorded sounds of gunfire. According to Mount, this made Everett officials nervous—as did the fact that the production includes a priest who's Eastern Orthodox (scary Russians!) and women wearing headscarves, as is traditional in the culture (scarier Muslims!). (Teens having sex and committing suicide apparently were not seen as a violation of Everett's community standards.) Representatives of Everett parks did not return several calls for comment."Performing outdoors means that you're in public," says Mount, "and you want to be sensitive to the concerns of a larger community. We make a point of contacting local police at each of our venues to let them know that there will be actors walking around with prop guns and recorded gunfire." But while he appreciates Everett's issues, like the perceived presence of Russian gangs and fears of terrorism, he believes that this is all the more reason to stage the play. "You might think that a city that has problems with culture clashes of a violent nature would find this show appropriate. After all, it's a play about the futility of violence, where rage only subsides after a series of tragic deaths."Wooden O offered to substitute its other summer show, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is set in Vegas but doesn't feature any firearms. But after reading a plot summary and production description, Everett declined, says Mount. Maybe it was the gambling—or that steamy scene between the Queen of the Fairies and the guy with the donkey's head.What can't you do on a local stage? Depending on who you talk to: smoke a cigarette, brandish a replica firearm, or take all of your clothes off while someone in the audience holds an alcoholic drink. This odd and seemingly arbitrary list is the result of a series of legal issues which have nothing to do with artistic expression but a lot to do with how lawmakers want to protect us from ourselves. And seeing as people have been writing plays in which characters do any or all of these things for quite a few years now, it occasionally creates a few problems.The nudity-and-booze issue, the result of laws attempting to limit activities inside Seattle strip clubs, rarely comes up. Few local theaters allow audience members to bring drinks inside the theater, regardless of how undressed the actors onstage might be. (Though this is changing, and not just at the fringe level—Intiman allows patrons to bring drinks in paper cups into the theater.) There's also a general consensus that "artistic expression" would probably protect the theaters. But the other issues are more complicated.A ban on smoking on stage is an inadvertent result of the smoking ban which took effect in 2006. Roger Valdez, the guy who masterminded Initiative 901, says he had an uncomfortable experience soon after the initiative passed with Seattle Rep's production of Noel Coward's Private Lives. The ban, which covers places like bars, clubs, and restaurants, clearly also applies to theaters—despite what Valdez had heard from King County Executive Ron Sims. "An attorney who serves on the Rep board took it upon himself to preemptively contact the Executive's office and tell us that smoking on stage is protected by the First Amendment. Ron agreed, saying that 'it's clearly First Amendment, it's protected.'" But Valdez respectfully disagreed. "There's no connection between smoking and free speech. This argument's been tried before in other places, and the court's never upheld it. So when I heard that there was smoking on the stage, I thought: What if we have a complaint?"Of course, it's impossible to imagine the play's romantic duo, Amanda and Elyot, delivering their brilliant quips without long draws on their cigarettes between each line. ("Very flat, Norfolk," Amanda says, taking a healthy bite of her hero sandwich.) Similarly, in Intiman's recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire, cigarettes are part of Blanche's charm arsenal in her pursuit of the hapless Mitch. The actors in Streetcar smoked both real and herbal cigarettes, depending on preference—and the second-hand smoke that drifted out to their fellow actors, stagehands, and audience members was real too.Thankfully, no one's seen fit to lodge a complaint against a local theater production—yet. If they do, Valdez thinks there will be trouble. "Look, you can't engage in illegal activity on a stage just because it's called for by the script. You can't inject heroin, for example. Thus far, no one's complained. But the fact is, if they did, it would be sustained. I'm sure of that."John Longenbaugh

 
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