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Gone in a puff

November 30, 2004

Peter Cahalan, President of ME/CFS Australia (SA) Inc, sent a quick email contribution on chemical sensitivity of theatre audiences to a national e-forum on the arts. Rod Lewis, the editor of the amateur theatre network’s magazine in SA, picked it up.

And so the result is an article by Rod Lewis entitled Gone in a puff, and is about the need for theatre companies to be thoughtful about people with allergies to cigarette smoke, fragrances, and chemicals.

Peter says: “I urge all of our members to take every opportunity to send messages like this to politicians, administrators, the media and anyone who has the power to change things for the better. That goes for any issue affecting the health, education, welfare and comfort of people with CFS.  There’s a lot of us. We’re articulate. We have power! Get started!!”

Gone in a puff

Do you sometimes unthinkingly create barriers to otherwise willing ticket-buyers? Have you ever had someone in the audience collapse into a sudden or violent attack of coughing and have to leave in the middle of a scene? If so, read on…

In a recent Australia Council-sponsored discussion on risk-taking and the arts, one correspondent noted that theatre companies can put a lot of effort into making first-timers feel comfortable in the strange ambience of their theatre – only to have their committed patrons do everything possible to make the newcomers feel that they are not really welcome!

And then “Lyn”, from South Australia, broached the subject of smoke machines. Lyn is a serious asthmatic and she has had more than one bad experience in the theatre. She asked companies to be cautious about using smoke machines and to advertise the fact if they were intending to use one.

Peter Cahalan is State President of the ME/CFS Society for people suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. There are between 3,000 and 7,000 CFS sufferers in South Australia. In a survey of its members which the Society conducted several years ago, 60% of members indicated that they were chemically sensitive. Some have experienced that near-total collapse of the immune system which puts them into the category of the multiply chemically sensitive. For such people, going to the theatre can be fraught with risks.

Peter endorses Lyn’s comments about reducing unnecessary risks to vulnerable audience members from smoke machines and the like, but dares to go one step further.

“We now know that there’s been a substantial increase in the numbers of chemically-sensitive people and that the rates of asthma and other respiratory problems are also rising,” he says. “So it’s both foolish and unethical to do something which will pose a barrier to people’s right to spend money at your performance. I don’t think, therefore, that it’s good enough to advertise that there’ll be smoke effects in a performance – it’s like saying ‘Sorry, our venue was nice and flat and very accessible to people in wheelchairs. But for artistic reasons we’ve created a maze of raised platforms and so you needn’t bother to come.’ Just try that one and see how long it lasts before there’s a complaint to the relevant human rights or disability discrimination authority!”

There are related issues: cigarette smoke as part of a performance and the overwhelming use of perfumes and colognes by patrons.

On more than one occasion Peter and his arts-loving daughter Elizabeth have had to leave performances early because she is highly reactive to cigarette smoke. The argument from the companies has been that smoking is sometimes necessary for verisimilitude, but when it comes to sex, companies are not likely to present full-on copulation as a means of achieving dramatic effect. Most cigarettes smoked on stage are there simply for characterisation and not an integral part of the plot.

This issue seems to rate pretty low in the consciousness of arts companies. In a checklist on disability access for arts venues developed a year or two ago in NSW, there was no reference to chemical sensitivities as an issue. There was one about cigarette smoke, asking venue managers to locate bins in a place near the entrance convenient to people in wheelchairs – i.e., in the worst possible place for anyone who reacts to cigarette smoke.

At times, Elizabeth has had to sort out special arrangements to be let into a venue early by a side door – to avoid being trapped in a queue with smokers.

Similar to smoke and smoke machines, many women and some men douse themselves in perfumes and deodorants, causing similar reactions from those with a chemical sensitivity. Even Encore Editor, Rod Lewis, has been known to dive out of an elevator or change seats in the theatre because of difficulty breathing near someone wearing too much fragrance. But what can be done? Not banning, as is increasingly possible with cigarettes. But increasingly we can expect that there will be moves to raise people’s awareness that to wear perfume is not the private act that people commonly assume it is. To send someone reeling from a much-awaited performance before it’s finished – or to send them home sick for a week – is to unintentionally commit violence upon them.

Chemical sensitivities are becoming the next big issue in terms of disability access and public health. Arts organisations which ignore it are charting an unnecessarily risky course. For most of the population, awareness is all it takes. Educating patrons and participants alike about the effects that their everyday behaviour or directorial choices may have on others is usually enough to make them think twice. A steady program of awareness-raising might improve things over time and make our theatres safer for more people, which means more tickets sold to people like Elizabeth.

Here’s to an accessible amateur theatre scene in Adelaide for everyone!

Rod Lewis
Editor, Encore Magazine
Theatre Association of SA Inc
PO Box 181, Unley BC SA 5061
Phone: 0402 027 891
Fax: (08) 8293 3030


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