‘What if we stopped?’ How Australian arts tours are changing to save the planet | Stage

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‘What if we stopped?’ How Australian arts tours are changing to save the planet | Stage

WWhen Chloe Leong goes on tour with her Sydney Dance Company colleagues, the environmental impact of her work is always close to her mind. “I believe art is about touching the now and that’s a massive topic in the world,” she says. “Everything we have now is not going to be what we have tomorrow.”

Leong had just come off a five-week regional tour in Australia, and before that four weeks in France. “We travel with KeepCups and water bottles and take our own shampoo and soap so we don’t use single-use items,” she says. “We book apartments and turn off the air conditioning or heating and we cook our own meals. We reduce waste by sharing a suitcase full of olive oil or coconut oil, salt and pepper and breakfast cereal so that we don’t have to throw it out and buy everything again in the next town.”

The dancers try to eat less meat, but when they do, Leong seeks out a local butcher sourced from regenerative farms; in Rockhampton, “the beef capital of Australia”, she found “an incredible butcher and organic farmers markets”. In France, the dancers traveled by coach to minimize flights and stopped for frequent stretching breaks. “We walk back to the apartment together or, if it’s too far, we drive together,” she says. “If we’re in a hotel, I keep my Do Not Disturb sign on to minimize cleaning.”

Company dancers even pulled in their sock budget. “We wear little, skin-colored socks and we’d get through five or six pairs on a tour. Now we ask the wardrobe lady to fix any holes we find around the toes instead of buying new ones. It all counts.”

Sydney Dance Company dancers in rehearsal in 2020. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Individual actions do count. But the fact remains that art touring is a carbon-intensive business, especially in Australia where venues are often hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart.

According to Sydney Dance Company’s figures, during an 11-week national tour, each member of the company was responsible for approximately seven tonnes of carbon emissions. The average emission per capita in Australia over a year is, according to OECD figures, around 21 tonnes (well above the world average of 4.5 tonnes). In those 11 weeks, each company member has already reached a third of the average.

And touring internationally from Australia boosts those numbers into the stratosphere: one person on a return economy flight to the UK is responsible for around 6.1 tonnes of carbon.

But as tours resume after the pandemic hiatus, many companies and live music tour organizations are working to reduce their carbon footprints. Bell Shakespeare, which has undertaken annual national tours for decades, is one example. His production of The Comedy of Errors arrived in Sydney, a major stop in a four-month tour to every state and territory capital and more than a dozen regional centres. Company staff, crew and actors rack up hundreds of thousands of kilometers of driving and flying each year; in 2019 they traveled 650,000 km.

“We’re still far from being the poster child for carbon reduction,” admits Bell Shakespeare’s executive director, Gill Perkins. ‘But the pandemic has been a circuit breaker in many ways. It gave us a break in which we could think more laterally about what it means to be a national company and maintain that profound live theater experience in a responsible way to our audience.”

Bell Shakespeare's 2017 production of Richard III, starring Kate Mulvaney as Richard
Bell Shakespeare’s 2017 production of Richard III, starring Kate Mulvaney as Richard. Photo: Prudence Upton

Sydney was traditionally the last stop for a Bell tour, says Perkins. “This year we re-evaluated the tour structure to reduce transport-related emissions. We are actively reducing the number of flights we take and the short hops we would do by plane, we now do by bus and shared car.”

Where possible, cast and crew share driving in hybrid vehicles and stay with accommodation providers with established green policies regarding energy, recycling and waste minimisation. The company uses long-wheelbase trucks, rather than semis, because they are more fuel efficient. The entire production is designed to fit in one load and the set requires no change between venues, further reducing costs and the potential for waste.

“From the beginning of the production process, we looked much harder at what materials we use, what we can recycle and how we dispose of them at the end,” says Perkins.

But the geography of Australia for a national tour company is a challenge. Australia lags behind much of the developed world in terms of high-speed rail (“that would be such a game-changer for us,” says Perkins) and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in regional areas.

Despite the problems, all companies and artists need to consider their carbon footprints, says Perkins: “The costs of climate change are already becoming clear. We usually perform in Lismore.” But not this year, with the venue out of action after this region’s worst flooding in decades.

Net zero by 2030?

Critical Stages Touring, a Sydney-based organization that tours productions intercity and regionally, is one of several organizations – including Arts on Tour, Bell Shakespeare, Monkey Baa Theater Company, children’s theater group CDP Theater Producers and Flying Fruit Fly Circus – which has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Furthermore, according to Critical Stages Touring CEO Chris Bendall, it hopes to steer a path towards “net positive” touring.

“When you take a show to Port Macquarie, for example, it can save hundreds of people getting in their cars and driving into Sydney to see something at the Opera House,” says Bendall.

At the moment, the industry’s focus is on sustainable construction for stage productions. “No one can really see a way forward for sustainable travel yet,” says Bendall, who sent The Listies’ Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark to the Edinburgh Festival. “We cannot rent an eco-friendly catamaran, it is not feasible, so we are looking at deviations. But the bigger question is should we fly to the Edinburgh festival at all? Should we? What if we stop to save the planet?”

Flying Fruit Fly Circus performs
Flying Fruit Fly Circus, one of the companies committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Photo: Wendell Teodoro/WireImage

For now, national and regional touring is the easier solution, says Bendall. “The key is to fly less, but it’s a big country. So this means tours will have to take more time and it becomes more expensive. All companies will have to accept carbon offsets and this will again cost more.”

Will this mean an increase in ticket prices? “We don’t know yet,” says Bendall. “My feeling is that we cannot pass on the extra cost to audiences. We need the funding bodies to help us.” The Australia Council, he adds, has just added a budget line making carbon offsets a recognized expense in applications for federal funding.

There’s also the Green Touring Toolkit: developed by New South Wales touring body Arts on Tour, it’s a practical, step-by-step guide to reducing emissions – not only during touring, but also during the creation stage . A “green rider” may include the requirement to adjust air conditioning levels, use energy-efficient LED lighting fixtures, provide recycling bins, remove single-use items from locker rooms and kitchen facilities, and obtain meat-free food options.

The toolkit includes access to an online emissions calculator created by Arup, a London-based sustainable development firm. “The calculator helps a company decide whether it is cheaper to build two duplicate sets in Sydney and Melbourne or Perth, or cheaper to transport them,” says Arts on Tour’s executive director, Antonia Seymour. “We’re going to need two budgets for everything: a financial budget and an emissions budget.”

For live music tours, Green Music Australia has unveiled its own blueprint, funded by Creative Victoria: Sound Country: A Green Artist Guide, which addresses performances and has been developed with input from artists including Allara Briggs-Pattison, Missy Higgins, Jessica Cerro (Montaigne) and Regurgitator.

But the classical music sector – orchestras and opera – is “miles behind in green initiatives”, according to one source who wished to remain anonymous. “We still fly musicians and conductors around the world every day. We have a long way to go.”

Efforts to tackle carbon footprints in the arts may be in their infancy, but Seymour says it only takes small changes to make a difference: “Four people driving in a hybrid car, instead of flying, reduces emissions by more than 70%. Using a 3.5-ton truck instead of a 7.5-ton truck for cargo reduces emissions by more than 40%.”

In the end, Bendall believes, those who do address their carbon emissions will be rewarded: “We’re already making choices to use a greener sofa or to buy greener products. I think audiences will follow suit. They will choose the greener art companies to support and there will be backlash for those who are not on board.”

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