The Playgoer: Smoke Smoke, Bang Bang

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Smoke Smoke, Bang Bang

Colorado theatre folk--particularly Denver's Paragon and Curious co's--continue their quest for some smokin' theatre in spite of a state court ban.  LA Times is on the case.  The "case" being the one Denver's Paragon & Curious companies hope to bring to appeal the state ruling, all the way to the plantation of "Big Justice", the US Supremes, if needs be.

But aside from the legal tanglings, what about the aesthetics?  Paragon claims the supremely, laughably lame fakeness of blowing talcum powder through some rolled paper is ruining their production of Agnes of God, in which smoking is referenced regularly and explicitly. (I don't know if real cigarettes is all you need to save that play today, but okay, go on...)

The Colorado law is especially strict (as opposed to other states with public places smoking bans) in not allowing a theatrical exemption, not even for herbal substitutes.  In the article a spokesperson for Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights argues against the need for such unusual standards of realism in theatre: "They aren't allowed to use real guns. There's no reason they should be allowed to use cigarettes."

To which Curious Theatre's Chip Walton has a pretty good reply:

"No, you don't shoot a gun, but you don't shoot a toy water pistol from Kmart, either."
Well actually, I'm sure we've all been in some shows that resorted to water pistols, painted black of course.  But he's right:  that would be silly.

But now that we're talking about guns, isn't it worth saying that (and I'm sure I'm not alone on this) that the effect of gunplay on stage is very much like nudity--you've suddenly punctured the illusion, the ol' suspension of disbelief.  When the character strips down, it's immediately apparent you're looking at the actor's body. (And no matter how sophisticated, most in the audience have a first response of: oh that's what he/she looks like naked.)  When the costume comes off, so does the "mask."

Okay, the analogy may not be exact.  But with guns, my problem is when they go off.  I'm going to admit something very sissyish of me.  Whenever a gun is pulled on stage, I brace myself for one of those really loud scary blank-shots that deafen you in a small space especially.  So the whole scene I'm now waiting for that and only kind of listening to the dialogue.  It's not only the sound that takes me out of it, though: it's the realization that suddenly comes to you that, well obviously any shot that comes out of that gun is fake, they're not going to shoot real bullets into that actor!  If a shot doesn't go off I'm terribly relieved.  If it does, then all I'm hearing is a blank, not a bullet.

Hey, I'm not saying don't get naked or don't shoot blanks onstage.  (And I'm certainly not saying, don't smoke.  Fight the power, Denver guys!)  It's all about "illusion" and the game you're playing with your audience regarding that.  And the productions that most effectively employ guns and nudity are more expressionist or epic.  So it is fascinating to me the effect these acts have on the naturalist aesthetic.  (And I say this as a fan of Naturalism.)  Perhaps things like this are why Naturalism is kind of an unattainable goal in the theatre: the most intimate moments expose it.

Back to smoking, I must say someone lighting up a real ciggy on stage never takes me out of the illusion.  But when one of those "herbals" come out you can smell it.  And while I can get past that myself, what ruins it is the reactions of folks around me who start sniffing away and whispering amongst themselves it must be pot!

1 comment:

Sean said...

I couldn't agree more, absolutely. There is something about nudity and violence (both things, by the way, that I like, probably way too much, in film) that can really ruin live theater. *Especially* on the level of independent low-pay theater, where I not only realize that I'm looking at an actor's body, but that he/she wasn't even paid very well to be naked.

Even worse than *bad* stage combat (which has its own problems) is really *good* stage combat, where I worry that the actor was actually punched in the face.

It's impossible for us to produce scripts and circumnavigate these things entirely, but it is really, really tricky to do them well