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Aisle Seat 

Wednesday, Jun 12 1996
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Smoke Gets in My Eyes ...
... make it stop. You're in a theater, lost in an extraordinary performance, and then you spot it, far upstage, a hint, the merest whisper: fog. You freeze, waiting for the inevitable in-house cacophony. As the fog thickens, sending its first tendrils toward center stage, the coughing begins. At this point, no fog has actually reached the audience; this is anticipatory coughing. As the fog rolls in, the apprehensive coughing begins to sound like death rales. The non-coughers in the audience begin to clear their throats, certain something must be terribly wrong, or else why would all these people be coughing? As the fog begins drifting into the auditorium, hacking takes over, interspersed with wheezing, gasping, and enough huffing and puffing to blow the house down. At a recent performance I attended, people in the house began calling out: "This is awful. It's making me sick. Make it stop." The hope, I suppose, was that a stagehand would come in with a large vacuum and suck the offending mist away. All that happened, of course, was that the coughing continued, and the actors' lines were unintelligible. Whatever the director's reason for employing fog, the effect for the spectator is that of being at a coal miners' convention or at an open audition for Camille.

And the coughing may not be all in the head. The fogs most theaters use are a combination of propylene, triethylene, and butylene glycols. A recent article in Chemical Health & Safety, the journal of the American Chemical Society, said that "[None] of the primary glycols used in fog production is harmless." Actors -- who take a hit every night -- are worried. Says Brannon Wiles, business rep for Actors' Equity Association: "Equity wants to limit fog to dry ice and liquid nitrogen. We want glycol fog gone."

Wiles says that there are no studies that establish acceptable levels for the combination of chemicals that make the fog. Combination is the key word here; chemicals that are safe alone may be harmful when mixed together. A final twist: Wiles says that glycol vaporization -- the chemical is essentially boiled and released into the air -- is a new process, and an untested one. So Bay Area theater companies: No fogging, please.

An Absurd Note
Exit Theater closes its annual absurdist series with Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson, a tragic farce of education and domination, which runs on Tuesday nights through July 23. According to Managing Director Richard Livingston, the juxtaposition of Exit's production with the recent performance of The Lesson by the San Francisco Ballet is purely coincidental. Livingston suggests, however, "that people who saw the ballet might be interested in seeing the original." Call 673-3847 for tix.

By Deborah Peifer

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Deborah Peifer

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