‘What if we stopped?’ How Australian arts tours are changing

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

Leong has just come off a five-week regional tour of Australia, and before that, four weeks in France. “We’re travelling with KeepCups and water bottles and taking our own shampoo and soap so we don’t use single-use items,” she says. “We book apartments and turn off the aircon or heating and we cook our own meals. We’re reducing waste by sharing a suitcase packed with olive or coconut oil, salt and pepper and breakfast cereals so we don’t have to throw it out and buy it all again in the next town.”

The dancers are trying to eat less meat but, when they do, Leong looks for a local butcher who sources from regenerative farms; in Rockhampton, “the beef capital of Australia”, she found “an amazing butcher and organic farmers’ markets”. In France, the dancers travelled by coach to reduce flights, stopping for frequent stretch breaks. “We walk together back to the apartment or, if it’s too far, we carpool,” she says. “If we’re in a hotel, I keep my Do Not Disturb sign on to cut down on cleaning.”

Company dancers have even pulled in their sock budget. “We wear small, skin-coloured socks and we’d get through five or six pairs on a tour. Now we’re asking the wardrobe lady to mend any little holes we get around the toes instead of buying new one. It all counts.”

Sydney Dance Company dancers in rehearsals in 2020. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Individual action does count. But the fact remains that arts touring is a carbon-intensive business, especially in Australia where venues are often hundreds or thousands of kilometres apart.

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

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

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

“We’re still a long way 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 a lot of ways. It’s given us a breather in which we’ve been able to think more laterally about what it means to be a national company and maintaining that profound live theatre experience to our audience in a responsible way.”

Bell Shakespeare’s 2017 production of Richard III, featuring Kate Mulvaney as Richard
Bell Shakespeare’s 2017 production of Richard III, featuring Kate Mulvaney as Richard. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Sydney has traditionally been the last stop for a Bell tour, Perkins says. “This year, we’ve re-evaluated the tour structure in order to reduce transport-related emissions. We’re actively minimising the number of flights we take and the short hops we would have done by plane we now do by coach and shared car.”

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

“From the start of the production process, we’ve looked a lot harder at what materials we use, what we can recycle and how we dispose of it at the end,” Perkins says.

But the geography of Australia for a nationally touring 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,” Perkins says) and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in regional areas.

Despite the difficulties, all companies and artists must take their carbon footprints into account, Perkins says:. “The costs of climate change are already becoming apparent. We usually perform in Lismore.” But not this year, with the venue out of action after that region’s worst flooding in decades.

Net zero by 2030?

Critical Stages Touring, a Sydney-based organisation that tours productions between cities and into the regions, is one of several organisations – including Arts on Tour, Bell Shakespeare, Monkey Baa Theatre Company, the children’s theatre group CDP Theatre Producers and Flying Fruit Fly Circus – which have committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Beyond that, according to Critical Stages Touring’s chief executive, 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 into their cars and driving into Sydney to see something at the Opera House,” Bendall says.

At the moment, the industry’s focus is on sustainable builds for stage productions. “As yet no one can really see a way forward for sustainable travelling,” says Bendall, who dispatched The Listies’ Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark to the Edinburgh festival. “We can’t charter an eco-friendly catamaran, that’s not feasible, so we’re looking at offsets. But the bigger question is should we be flying to Edinburgh festival at all? Do we need to? What if we stopped to save the planet?”

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

For now, national and regional touring is the easier fix, Bendall says. “The key is flying less, but this is a huge country. So that means tours will have to take more time and that becomes more expensive. All companies will have to adopt carbon offsets and again that will cost more.”

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

There is also the Green Touring Toolkit: developed by the New South Wales touring body Arts on Tour, it’s a practical, step-by-step guide to reducing emissions – not only while touring but also during the creation stage. A “green rider” might include the requirement to adjust air-conditioning levels, use energy-efficient LED lighting fixtures, provide recycling bins, remove single-use items from dressing rooms and kitchen facilities, and source 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’s cheaper to build two duplicate sets in Sydney and Melbourne or Perth, or cheaper to freight 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 unveiled its own blueprint, funded by Creative Victoria: Sound Country: A Green Artist Guide, which addresses gigging and was 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 are still flying 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 travelling in a hybrid car, instead of flying, reduces emissions by more than 70%. Using a 3.5-tonne truck instead of a 7.5-tonne truck for freight reduces emissions by more than 40%.”

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