Smokescreen is Christopher Samuel Carroll’s new play about manipulation and greed | The Canberra Times

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What do the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have in common? Could it be that they both make products that are unquestionably harmful – and they know it – but will use any means in their power to disguise, distract and dissemble to keep their profits high? These are the sorts of issues explored in Christopher Samuel Carroll’s new play Smokescreen, in which he does triple duty as writer, director and actor. Carroll – whose recent Canberra shows include his one-man adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Stranger – began working on the script for Smokescreen in 2020 during COVID lockdown. He developed it with the help of an ACT Homefront grant and a residency at Belco Arts. Carroll only took on the acting role when the performer originally cast had to withdraw. He’s done quite a few one-man shows but this time, he’s not alone: ​​he’ll be acting alongside Canberra actor and current Victorian College of the Arts student Damon Baudin. Smokescreen is set in a nondescript hotel room in the Midwest of the US in 1977. It’s a one-act play that unfolds in real time. Glenn (played by Carroll) has worked for an oil company for 25 years. He encountered the much younger Bud (Baudin), who works for a tobacco company, at a conference. Now he’s invited Bud to meet privately. “Glenn is undergoing a crisis of conscience,” Carroll says. He’s always been a loyal company man but he’s coming across some damning data about his industry and is conflicted “Glenn needs to find some kind of answers about what he’s going to do with the information.” Will the up-and-comer Bud – in another maligned industry – be able to offer the counsel he seeks? And if Glenn wants to unburden himself, is Bud the best choice? The 1970s, Carroll says, was “a time when tobacco advertising was becoming much more restricted”. The link between smoking and lung cancer – which the tobacco industry had researched and known about and publicly disuputed for decades – had become public knowledge. Governments were starting to impose more limitations on when, where and how tobacco products could be advertised and sold. Although the number of smokers has dropped in some places, like Australia (estimates are that a little over 10 per cent of people smoke here), it’s still a huge worldwide moneymaker. As restrictions grew, the tobacco industry had to keep finding new ways to keep their highly profitable product legal and appealing – sometimes inadvertently aided by the very people who warn against it: authority figures like parents, teachers and doctors. “Tobacco can seem like an act of rebellion, starting as a teenager,” Carroll says. “Tobacco companies can be seen to be doing the right thing” – like supporting education programs and not selling cigarettes to minors – “but psychologically drive teenagers to smoking.” Also in the 1970s, the fossil fuel industry was undergoing similar scrutiny and its effects on the environment and climate change were being noted. Like tobacco companies, oil companies and the like began conducting their own research and devising their own campaigns of propaganda and methods of influence. Carroll says that one inspiration for the play was the TV series Mad Men, set in the advertising world of the 1960s. But the main idea for Smokescreen arose out of his experiences teaching business English in Paris from 2011 to 2016 between theater projects before coming to Canberra. Among the clients who sent people was a big tobacco company. Carroll says that company employees “were all quite blasé and pragmatic” about working in an industry they knew was a killer. This helped inspire the characters in the play: “I do not think they’re necessarily good people but they’re not evil either.” They’re believable human beings. “Among the other questions the play raises is: how much of a difference can one person make? And what more could, and should, governments be doing to make things better? Baudin, who’s acting in the play before returning for his third year at the VCA, say Bud, subscribes to the ideas of people like Ed Bernays, who coined the term “public relations”, and to the idea that “It’s about profit. America is being driven by money. “Bud an intelligent and ambitious character but also an opportunistic and manipulative one. Unlike Glenn, he does not smoke. Carroll says,” He and Glenn have different views of the American Dream. Glenn believes in America, progress and the decency of people – he’s nowhere near as cynical as Bud is. “While Glenn feels loyalty towards his longtime employer, Bud would happily jump ship if a better off came along. It’s a difference of generations, of attitudes, of beliefs that remains relevant today – and the tobacco and fossil fuel industries are still very much with us.


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