If Chicago were a planet, it would orbit its own sun--such is its sense of itself among America's major cities. While the country's other big towns put stock in their world profiles, Chicago's carved out lots of its own renown playing things close to home.
The Cubs. Michael Jordan. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Roger Ebert, God bless him. Oprah. The late Ann Landers. Mr. Kelly's nightclub and The Billy Goat burger haven. A legendary Democratic political machine. Even the 1968 Grant Park police riot and right on down to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. These are the unique symbols of a unique metropolis, one whose theater scene has rocked the universe for almost the past 40 years.
In fact, Chicago government thinks so much of the city's theater climate that it's decided it wants to play, too. In support of Illinois' ban on smoking in all public places statewide (effective Jan. 1), the city voted last May to prohibit actors from lighting up onstage--no exceptions. The city outlawed puffing in most public areas in January of 2006; the theater community had defied the action since then, often facing uphill battles with patrons favoring the restriction.
Whatever. We're talkin' Chicago, for God's sake, that brilliantly self-made, kick-some-serious-ass hometown to two-fisted playwrights David Mamet and John Logan, freewheeling inspiration for the freewheeling musical and movie of the same name, site of roughly 200--two hundred--theater companies, at least seven of which are world-class (one, Chicago Dramatists, garnered nearly 700 awards, commissions and other citations last season alone!). To ban smoking from Chicago stages, especially amid the city's very public self-image, is like asking Rhett Butler to watch his mouth.
Back there, the matter's an exercise in discretion. 'Oh, Gaw-wd,' groaned one official at the city's renowned Goodman Theatre before declining comment; several other big venues followed suit. San Diego companies won't be in that position soon--our municipal code's health and sanitation section exempts onstage performers from city-ordered smoking bans.
But Alan Ziter, NTC Foundation executive director and once top man at the San Diego Performing Arts League, is a former marketing director of the League of Chicago Theatres--and many of Chicago's venues, he said, feature the kinds of close quarters that may have caught the eyes of safety-minded public officials.
'A lot of Chicago's theaters,' Ziter told CityBeat, 'are only about 40 or 50 seats. And we certainly know more about the hazards of secondhand smoke than we did years ago, when it was even acceptable for people in the audience to smoke. As far as artistic integrity: If they were to break asbestos tiles onstage in an effort to demonstrate artistic freedom, would it be allowed despite the health risk to the audience?'
Good point. Asbestos is a known carcinogen. But it's also not the subject of the legislation, which Ziter conceded amounts to overkill. 'I can't see,' he concluded, 'where a few cigarettes every eight months is going to endanger people's health. But I guess now we'll see how creative the companies get in using noncarcinogenic smoke.'
Accordingly, groups will craft ways around the ban, like opting for cloves; maybe some will simply ante up the damage (scofflaws face a $100 fine for the first offense and $500 for a second offense within a year of the first, with assessments of up to $2,500 or loss of license for consistent infractions). Or folks could try to effect some legislative change on their own (Goodman's 'Oh, Gaw-wd' lady hinted as much before she clammed up). New York, after all, now issues exemptions to companies in similar straits, and those are reportedly easy to get.
But theater people don't draw their images based on fake tobacco or fines or free passes. Nudity, displays and use of deadly weapons, instruction manuals for civil insurrection, physical threats to life and limb, even yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater: They've used them all and more in their quests to explore where we've been, where we'll go and just what the hell we think we're doing here. Chicago's action may center on a commonplace item, but that item is as telling to its character as anything else in that litany.
It's also the centerpiece in a de facto but striking blow to freedom of expression. That affront is all the more ironic amid its genesis in the greatest theater city in America--by a government that could have, and clearly should have, left well enough alone.