Post image for Smokers’ Theatre

No, not the sort where the characters, true to their author’s intention, communicate through the cigarette’s singularly expressive  mix of smoke and gesture (though our work on protecting that right continues.)

Rather, the kind of smokers’ theatre called for by Bertolt Brecht and referenced in Virginia Heffernan’s New York Times essay, The Attention-Span Myth. Given that Heffernan not only references Brecht but our National Conference Keynote Speaker Jonah Lehrer, I thought her Sunday essay was worth some Monday morning quarterbacking.

In the essay, she argues against Lehrer’s thesis of the central importance of being able to strategically allocate our attention – revealed by the Marshmallow Test – and instead celebrates the “autonomy, exuberance and versatility” of distractability.

Her quote about Brecht is especially interesting:

“Bertolt Brecht made the case for a “smokers’ theater,” which encouraged the audience to light up cigars during plays. Condemning his fellow Germans for being “uncommonly good at putting up with boredom,” he hoped that by smoking during a play — or pacing, talking, walking out — they could also cultivate individuality and ideally an immunity to tyranny. A healthy fidgetiness would keep them from sitting silently, sheepish and spellbound.”

Contrast this to Lehrer’s belief that the focused attention required by the layers of meaning in a “17th century play may be the ultimate 21st century cognitive workout.” But then again, Shakespeare’s groundlings sound a whole lot like Brecht’s pacing smokers.

As Diane Paulus said in her Fall Forum panel, “We ask performers who want to work at Oberon (A.R.T.’s non-conventional space) if their work can compete with the sound of ice poured behind a bar.” And with theatres increasingly braving the distractions of outdoor/site-specific theatre, or bringing the buzzing connection of tetxs and tweets inside; it may be that plays that can thrive in a smokers’ theatre will best survive our distracted times.