Where there's no smoke, there's ire
After Tribune theater critic Chris Jones reported on Monday that Broadway in Chicago’s production of Jersey Boys had been forced to go smoke-free after a patron reportedly complained about the use of cigarettes on stage, 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly (whose ward includes the BIC theaters) introduced an amendment to the city’s smoking ban in this morning’s City Council meeting that would allow waivers for live theater. I spoke to Alderman Reilly, who supports a waiver, and with Alderman Ed Smith (28th), an opponent, about smoking on stage.
“I just want to state very clearly for the record: I do support the smoking ban, and this is not an attempt to erode it,” says Reilly. “Obviously the Jersey Boys controversy is what prompted me to take a closer look at how our ordinance is drafted here. So I’m fully on board with the smoking ban and protecting public health, but I don’t think it was intended to limit freedom of artistic expression…The way it’s being interpreted currently had the city on the verge of censoring the kind of plays and productions we bring to Chicago.”
The city’s smoking ban, along with the Illinois smoking ordinance that went into effect at the beginning of this year, are among the strictest in the country. Reilly points to New York City, which he calls “a pioneer in municipal smoking bans,” and the exception its ordinance makes “to keep their theater industry booming. I think Chicago would be wise to do the same.”
Under Reilly’s proposed amendment, theater companies would be allowed to apply on a show-by-show basis for an onstage smoking waiver; the Department of Public Health would review the request and then approve or reject the theater’s case that smoking is intrinsic to the performance. “This is not creating a loophole where taverns can suddenly declare themselves theaters and they’re excused from the ordinance,” he says.
Theaters would also be required to disclose in programs, posters, advertising and at the theater entrance that smoking is an element of the show, so patrons who are especially sensitive to smoke will be fully aware. The Illinois statute would also have to be amended to allow a change; Reilly plans to lobby Springfield to adopt language that mirrors his proposed amendment.
The first-term alderman's predecessor, Burton Natarus, attempted to pass a similar waiver for theaters, but was soundly defeated last May. Alderman Ed Smith (28th), the chair of the City Council’s Health Committee and one of the waiver’s most vocal opponents, suggested last year that producers should just change lines or strike references to smoking. That’s what Jersey Boys has done for now, but as both last month’s Ragtime-gate in Wilmette and About Face’s undies affair in January illustrated, most playwrights and their licensing agents don’t cotton to theaters altering their scripts, for reasons PC or otherwise.
And it's hard to imagine a certain blockbuster play that started here last summer, for one, without cigarettes; the cancer sticks are such an intrinsic part of Deanna Dunagan's character that she's pictured with one in hand on the Broadway marquee. Not to get too excitable, but if a Steppenwolf patron had complained to police about the smoking during previews of August: Osage County, Tracy Letts might not have a Pulitzer and a Tony, and Mayor Daley might not have been holding a press conference a few weeks ago celebrating the nationwide acclaim for Chicago's theater.
Smith says he'll remain in opposition to any waivers. "We certainly want all performers possible to come to Chicago and perform," he told me. "We will support them any way we can support them, as long as it has nothing to do with the adversity of our people. And smoking would be an adversity…We just don't want people hurt, because cigarette smoke has all kinds of carcinogens in it. We just think it would be the wrong thing to do."
“I’m assuming we’ll see a committee vote in September at the earliest, and assuming it passes committee we’ll see a full council vote in either September or October,” Reilly says. Though Natarus couldn’t get his waiver passed—“We couldn't get anywhere with it. The Cancer Society and all of the non-smoking people prevailed. Everybody was afraid to vote for it,” he told the Sun-Times’s Fran Spielman—Reilly thinks the public outcry (the dozens of comments on the Trib’s blog seem to be skewing pro-waiver) could make a difference this time. “I already have 18 sponsors on this, so we’re ahead of the curve.”