Montag, written by Kate Tarker and directed by Dustin Wills, is a play about two women in a German basement awaiting Death. There’s a lot of bickering, there’s a lot of reminiscing on better times, and there’s a lot of smoking — to pass the time, and also to gesture and convey plot and wrap the audience in a disturbingly sensuous haze. Wills spoke to Vulture about all those Marlboros-as-mise-en-scène, the choreography of cigarettes, and the special goo lurking inside the play’s ashtrays.
Melvin Backman: They’re not actual tobacco, right?
Dustin Wills: They are herbal cigarettes that are only ever used in stage performances. I have never seen one smoked outside of a theater. When I cast Ariana Venturi as Faith, one of the big things I called her about before the show was to make sure she was comfortable smoking approximately six to eight of these herbal cigarettes a night. That was a requisite.
The playwright, Kate Tarker, is such a beautifully specific writer, so I really wanted to honor the character as written, using cigarettes in many ways. Personally, I was a smoker for … I am a smoker; I’ll probably start again. I’m 39 now and I have been smoking since I was 15. It feels like I haven’t totally betrayed my people — I tried to do the smokers justice. I haven’t had a cigarette in almost a year now.
Congratulations! Wait, is it a congratulations thing?
It’s two years on and then I quit, and then two years will pass and then something will happen and it’ll be like, Oh, I would like a cigarette, and then suddenly I’m smoking again. But, as someone who has lived as a smoker for the majority of my life, I understand that in moments of high stress it becomes not just a crutch, but something that brings you joy — even though it’s pretty deadly. So much of this play is about finding joy: There’s something about the association with smoking around the table and conversation and gossip — this play is really trafficking a lot in the sensuality of complaining, the sensuality of gossip, the sensuality of conversation. Because when you’re trapped in a basement with one other person, that’s that’s really that’s what you have: Talk.
When you first read the script, did it strike you just how many cigarettes Faith’s character was smoking?
No, it felt true. There were in the script pretty specific moments where it says, “Faith lights a cigarette.” It probably started at four, but as we rehearsed we were doing a lot of cigarette choreography: Do we want to light the cigarette exactly to punctuate this line? When does the cig need to go out because you need your hand for this other thing? Where is the ashtray? As we were rehearsing, we were trying to use the cigarette-smoking to punctuate certain lines or certain moments. There’s a moment when Novella (Nadine Malouf), the character who doesn’t smoke, is dressed as her abusive partner, Clifford; Faith hands her-him the cigarette, and she rips the butt off of the cigarette and throws it in the trash can. That comes from my history — I used to roll my own cigarettes and smoke them filterless — and I think that’s a more European way of smoking. Novella, who is a Turkish immigrant in Germany, and Cliff, as somebody in the military, would smoke more filterless versus an American, who tends to rely on filtered cigarettes. We probably got up to about eight cigarettes a show.
And from a design perspective, too, there’s a stage direction at the beginning of the play that says something to the effect of Novella turns on the overhead lamp, it creates a protective circle around them, and everything else fades into the dark beyond. The smoke itself shows you that beam of light, so you can feel that protective circle only when the smoke is present — that’s a metaphor you can read into.
And when Death enters, there’s a transition from the main smoke that you’ve had, the cigarette smoke, and the smoke coming from a smoke machine.
You can read into the idea of smoke and mirrors; what is real, what is not real; what is known, what is unknown. That’s a journey that we’re asking the audience to go on: Can you be curious about the unknown?
Do you just have cartons of them backstage?
In the script, Marlboro Lights are the cigarette of choice, so the props designer, Patricia Marjorie, and her assistant, Juliana Suaide, found out about someone selling 40 empty packs on eBay. Then we bought cartons of the herbal cigarettes, and Juliana put them into these Marlboro cigarette boxes. And then, because the cigarettes are opened onstage, each performance she resealed every cigarette pack. There are three packs in a pile that the stage-management team meticulously designs to look the same every night.
Plus some more in the ashtray.
At the start of the play, probably like seven or eight. Also: We bought a very specific type of ashtray that has an outer section and then like a little inner section with a gel inside so that when she puts the cigarette in the ashtray it always goes out — so it’s never actually a fire hazard.
But it is, definitely, real smoke. You can smell it.
I think something that is woefully underrepresented in the theater is smell. Those cigarettes give you a kind of odorous, stale smell because they’re herbal cigarettes, so it smells kind of funky. Which is maybe a turn-off, and that’s fine, but here’s the reality of these women’s situation: They’ve been stuck in the basement for a week, and this woman has been smoking with no windows or ventilation.
I will add this, too: If I ever got stressed out, in instances where I would want a cigarette having recently quit, I went and smoked one of the fake herbal cigarettes. I guess you can add three cigarettes for myself.
How’d that work out for you?
I think it did what it was supposed to do. I still haven’t smoked a real one.
Montag will be at the Soho Rep through November 20. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.