Making fire in a crowded theatre

If realism in theatre is so important, why doesn’t smoke go away when the scene ends? Why isn’t the smoke instantly smellable throughout the theatre rather than wandering here and there according to the vagaries of physics and the ventilation system or lack thereof, turning up in ones nostrils several minutes later, taking this audience member out of the current scene and back into the previous one, and sometimes out of the theatre?

I am sensitive to both tobacco and herbal smoke. Aside from that, I dislike their respective smells. I recently had to leave my second show in as many months because I did not get accurate information about smoking in the performance. What’s worse, I was totally enthralled by the show; instead of being disappointed at not being able to attend a show that sounded interesting, I had the playgoer’s hell of knowing exactly what I was missing when I walked out.

Actually, I had to leave during the scene, so I don’t know whether the smoke did in fact go away at the end of the scene, but at that point it didn’t matter. The magic was gone.

Some states have banned smoking on stage. The Dramatists Guild, of which I am a member, considers that a copyright violation and a violation of artistic rights. I am not suggesting we go that far here in California, although quite frankly I would not be disappointed if we did.

But I plead that theatres proactively make information about smoking, including herbal smoke, available in their promotions of shows and prior to ticket purchase. And I think that if there is to be a law, one requiring this prior disclosure would be a good alternative to a total theatrical ban.

In the case of three recent shows:

1. A theatre’s website said that smoking was not permitted anywhere in the building. It turned out that this only applied to companies renting the theatre, not to the company itself. They compounded the issue by posting the smoking notification on doors such that the signs could not be read when the doors were open to admit theatregoers.

(Upshot: I wrote and complained. They comped me to another show. Good customer service, and now I know I have to contact them if I ever want to see something there again.)

The remaining two shows violated the “you could always call the box office and ask” argument:

2. A box office responded when I inquired that there was no smoking in the show. I then purchased tickets. They then wrote back that, oops, there was smoking.

(Upshot: They offered a refund. The promised refund never arrived, even after a follow-up. They are off my future attendance list for poor customer service.)

3. A box office responded when I inquired that there was minor smoking in the show, that the actors lit up but “moved on.” It turned out there was quite a bit of smoking. They did have a sign, but it was out of the way, and I might have ignored it given the information I had from the box office.

(Upshot: I complained, they called to discuss, and they gave me new seating further back to a later performance. This worked because they were a large house with positive air pressure; I got at most a brief, thin wisp. It would not work in a small house. Great customer service (thanks, A.C.T.). I would still not go to a play that had a lot of smoke, and there’s still the issue of choosing whether to always get far-back seats on the offhand chance a show might have smoke or to wait to buy tickets until smoking information is available.)

On two other plays where I arrived at the theatre — two different theatres, actually — I was confronted with a sign that there was smoking in the play. I requested and got a refund. Of course, I was still out the service fee, the time getting to and back from the theatre, the option to choose some other play for that evening, and my anticipation of the play itself. Not good customer relations. And one of the two theatres would not have refunded my ticket had I bought it from a half-price vendor.

This is no way to encourage me to take a chance on a play.

Being proactive means getting accurate information and proactively getting it out in all show materials, for example putting on the poster in a small but readable box at the bottom “There is smoking in this show.” It means at the very least putting it on your website in a place the customer will be likely to see on the way to purchasing a ticket. It does not mean leaving it to the patron to randomly discover it or leaving it to your box office to get the message wrong.

But we have subscriptions to sell, you say. We may not know when smoking will be a big deal and when it will be a small deal. Then disclose that your theatre sometimes uses actual tobacco or herbal smoking and let the patron decide whether they want to get a subscription under those conditions.

As I have previously mentioned in my post Ticket Purchasing Web Sites, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park does excellent pre-purchase disclosure through a content advisory page for each play. For example, on the advisory for Yasmin Reza’s God of Carnage (click the Content Advisory tab), they state “cigars are brought out, but not smoked.” Brown Paper Tickets offers presenters the option to indicate whether or not there is smoking.

Indicating smoking or non-smoking allows the potential audience member to make an informed choice as to whether they are an appropriate audience for that play. It avoids misunderstandings and is excellent customer service.

“You could always call the box office”

1. So now I have to be on the box office’s time schedule?
2. I therefore e-mail. One local theatre is notoriously bad at getting back to me and I wind up having to follow up (and typically find there is no smoking).
3. As noted above, I sometimes get inaccurate information from the box office. By putting it on the website, they are committing to getting out accurate information.
4. That’s an extra contact to the box office for every play I consider seeing.
5. That’s extra work for staff to get back to me, not just if the play has smoking but if it doesn’t.
6. The delay in getting the information may result in my being able to get only less desirable seats, or no seats at all due to being sold out in the meantime.
7. I get tired of doing this roundabout process over and over again, which may result in my seeing fewer plays.

The above points apply whether or not there is smoking in your play. Proactively disclose non-smoking just as you proactively disclose smoking.

I recently had a conversations with a local theatre over non-disclosure on their website. They reasonably pointed out there are a lot of things patrons could object to, that their audiences expect to see adult content, and that if the theatre discloses one thing then they leave themselves open to complaints that they didn’t disclose other things. My point was that I see a lot of adult content at theaters that mime or otherwise fake smoking, and that smoke is a medical issue. Ultimately they decided they would disclose in the future, for which I thank them. Now only 299 Bay Area theatres to go.

A few months later, I happened to talk with a staffer at a major Bay Area theatre. They were oddly surprised to learn that I would not attend virtually any performance with smoking. They said they are getting a lot of grief from various customers over smoking in their plays and that they are wrestling with the issue. They then advised me not to see a particular play in their upcoming season. Advice taken.

One other reasonable point is that some people react negatively to even the portrayal of smoking, even if there is no actual smoke. I’ll cop to a visceral reaction at seeing even the presence of an unlit cigarette. But I recognize the difference between a psychological reaction and a physical one, and I accept faked smoking as part of that adult content.

One objection about not using real cigarettes or cigars is that it alters the playwright’s intent. But actors use alternatives all the time, as for stage fighting, slaps, killing a chicken onstage (August Wilson’s Seven Guitars), or impossible stage directions, for example, “The Romans climb the Alps.” Why is smoking so special?

Another objection is that fake smoking looks fake. Well, then don’t use the fake-ier alternatives. I’ll take a good mime over bad fake smoke any day.

I want a play to challenge me mentally and emotionally, not physically. But if you must have the real thing, at least have the courtesy to let me know before you take my money so I can make other plans. It’s courteous to me as a potential audience member. It also increases my positive associations with your theatre and increases the likelihood I’ll be showing up at your non-smoking shows.

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