Back in acting class the ‘70s, I was treated to the idea of rigor. Of avoiding easy choices, of inhabiting a world, not just my character’s emotions. There were shorthand choices, sure, but also crutches, of which cigarettes were one shining example. In The Seagull, Chekhov has Nina talk about her first experiences as an actress, how dreadful it was until she got some chops. She says, “I couldn’t control my voice, I didn’t know what to do with my hands,” A cigarette was the ’70s go-to crutch for covering that level of inexperience or ineptitude. Nowadays I see a lot of actors who don’t know what to do with their hands – or the rest of their bodies, different rants I’ve already written – which is why I’m writing about cigarettes.


A lot has changed, societally, since the ‘70s. For one thing, we know much more about the correlation between lung cancer and tobacco. For another, our current fear-based climate makes using even tamed-fire onstage financially prohibitive. Enter electronic cigarettes.


I’ve recently seen a number of plays in which characters “smoked.” Aside from the impossibility of suspending my disbelief when they puff away on a prop whose size remains stable for more than 7 minutes (the time I’m told it takes to smoke one down to the nub), I’m bothered by two things. First, not one of those actors “smoked” the cigarette like it was a habit, and second, not one of those actors handled a cigarette like they’d ever before had one in their hands. I know that the characters had smoked before, many times, in part because of the way the scripts were written and in part because of the types of characters being played.

I wish cigarettes – and guns* – would forever leave the stage, for reasons which would constitute a major digression so I’ll just say, here’s a tip: If you think a character will be well-served by smoking a cigarette, in production please ensure that the actor playing that character is trained to do it believably. If that character fought with a broadsword, say, somebody would ensure that training ensues. (Kind of like walking in very high heels, another skill missing from quite a few actors I’ve seen lately.) Teach them – and make them practise til their muscles understand the movements – how to hold it, how to inhale, how to exhale, what happens to the body during inhaling/exhaling, how to gesture with a cigarette in-hand, how to justify crushing it out without it being any shorter than it was 7 minutes ago. And make the other actors/characters physically respond to the smell of the smoke, the proximity of fire, please.

Today’s actors are all pretty great at controlling their voices and manufacturing emotions. Now, actors and directors, please pay some attention to the rest of the body, and the world it inhabits. Including, if you still think you find that ridiculous crutch necessary, how to “smoke” a “cigarette.”



*On guns onstage: I saw a very fun production of Little Shop of Horrors, recently. The cast was having fun, the band was having fun, the audience was having fun, until Seymour pulled the gun out of the bag. The entire audience sagged. I mentioned this to my best friend, who said that when she saw it, the same thing happened. I’m a playwright. When attending a play, I read audiences first-and-foremost. This is the clearest sign I can offer that theatergoers are over seeing guns onstage, guns are oversaturated in film and TV anyway, not to mention life, and theater-makers have millions of more creative ways to signify danger in the 21st century. Millions.








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