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Anne-Marie Olivier, playwright and artistic director of Quebec City’s Le Théâtre du Trident, believes her performances should have the right to cause discomfort and break taboos – including the spectacle of René Lévesque lighting yet another Belvedere.Renaud Philippe/The Globe and Mail

Imagine a play about René Lévesque … sans cigarettes. The two-pack-a-day premier would look naked up there without a smouldering Belvedere to match his trademark comb-over.

In the province where he is a hero, however, such would be the fate of any actor portraying him. Smoking on stage is illegal in Quebec – for now.

In a case making its way through the courts, three theatres are trying to change that. They say the province’s anti-smoking law should make an exception for representations of the act in the staging of a play, arguing the current rules hamper their artistic freedom.

One judge has already ruled against them, but with the help of a prominent Laval University law professor, they are appealing, and are willing to continue to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The right to hack a du Maurier while performing Molière may seem like a strange cause. But the theatres see it as a free-speech issue. If the state maintains that a character can’t light up, what other gestures will it choose to forbid?

“Artists get to be oracles,” said Anne-Marie Olivier, the renowned playwright and artistic director of Quebec City’s Le Théâtre du Trident, which is involved in the lawsuit. “We get to say, ‘Careful, this or that might happen.’”

More prosaically, the case is also about simple stagecraft. Some characters need to smoke, Ms. Olivier argued; it gives them depth and life. In one of the plays that earned her theatre a fine, a self-sabotaging opera singer puffs away nihilistically, wrecking her precious voice with every breath – a succinct way to convey despair.

The actor was pulling on a theatrical cigarette made of sage, not tobacco – a common device – but the law makes no distinction between the substances, as long as they’re being smoked. While smokeless substitutes exist, Ms. Olivier believes the spell of the performance is often shattered by a plastic mechanical device, the kind that glows red at the tip – they only emit a feeble cloudlet of vapour, and you can’t dramatically stub them out.

Sometimes cigarettes on stage are just one among many colourful accoutrements. Another theatre ran afoul of the authorities for a scene in the ribald comedy Conversations With My Penis, in which an actor – playing alongside the titular member, a woman dressed in phallic costume – took an anxious drag. That bit earned the facility a $500 ticket.

In November, a Quebec Court judge rejected the theatres’ plea to have the fines overturned, arguing that smoking contains no “expressive content” and so isn’t covered by constitutional protections on free speech. Justice Yannick Couture also argued out that nothing is keeping actors from holding a fake cigarette – a piece of chalk, or some other contrivance of the prop department.

Anti-smoking organizations agree. Theatre companies constantly simulate behaviours they can’t safely stage, said Flory Doucas, spokesperson for the Coalition québécoise pour le contrôle du tabac.

Théâtre du Trident is part of a group of Quebec theatres fighting for the right to smoke on stage.Stéphane Bourgeois

“There’s a certain incoherence. … Because in plays, they take us places, they make us believe things – that people have been injured, that someone has fired a gun. We’re in the desert, we’re under the sea. That’s imagination! But when it comes to cigarettes, it has to be real.”

Resistance has only stiffened the resolve of the theatres and their allies. Laval University law professor Louis-Philippe Lampron has appealed the court’s decision and calls the case a question of “fundamental liberties.”

“It seems the judge didn’t grasp what the theatres were arguing,” he said. “It was a battle of principles in the first place, but it is even more after the judgment.”

In many countries, including Canada, the law recognizes that the stage is a charmed space that transforms certain actions into art. What would be illegal next to the concession stand becomes protected expression in front of the footlights. Exposing your genitals might get you arrested for public indecency, but actors have been appearing naked on stage for decades. Theatres could use dildos or other props to simulate the real thing, but they should have the right to choose either way, Prof. Lampron argued.

Several other jurisdictions around the world allow smoking on stage in the name of artistic liberty. New York State, home of Broadway, allows the lighting of herbal cigarettes in the course of plays. English law allows actors to smoke tobacco cigarettes if it’s necessary for the integrity of a production.

The Quebec theatres maintain that they don’t include gratuitous smoking in their productions, but only after careful consideration of its expressive value – and never in children’s shows. They would also be happy to include a warning on tickets for spectators who are especially sensitive to smoke, Ms. Olivier said.

Above all, though, she believes her performances should have the right to cause discomfort and break taboos. “The premise of going to the theatre is that things might happen, sometimes disagreeable things,” she said. “It has to remain a place where anything can happen.”

Including the spectacle of René Lévesque lighting yet another Belvedere.

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