Touring Sustainably: How to conduct a National Theatre tour with the climate in mind 

Touring is a big part of the theatrical experience. In order for artists to gain more traction and visibility on their work, they must look abroad, traveling to new cities to bolster fresh audiences and popularity. But with the growing concern of our emissions and plastic pollution, creatives must take a deeper look at how they’re touring, what considerations can be made and what actions, given the scope of how these systems work, are out of their control. 

Touring Sustainably 

How to conduct a National Theatre tour with the climate in mind 

by Emma Bartolomucci 

Touring is a big part of the theatrical experience. In order for artists to gain more traction and visibility on their work, they must look abroad, traveling to new cities to bolster fresh audiences and popularity. But with the growing concern of our emissions and plastic pollution, creatives must take a deeper look at how they’re touring, what considerations can be made and what actions, given the scope of how these systems work, are out of their control. 

I am a performing artist and choreographer that has been creating theatre for over a decade. After graduation from the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, I spent my twenties living out of a suitcase, touring the globe with various musical theatre productions. A common challenge I faced on tour was plastic waste and excessive meat consumption because fast food was usually our only option. Always inclined to practice the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), I found that while on these tours, I had to bury my head in the sand everytime I wasn’t able to properly recycle or compost. I have been a nature advocate since I was a child so this reality never sat well with me. In some places it was better, like Europe for example. A quiet elation would erupt in my chest everytime I walked through the hotel halls and set the motion detection lights on and off, an amazing display of energy conservation. Or when I would return my glass water bottles for euros on our days off.  Unfortunately, these were not the majority of experiences I had while on tour. Performing through the States led to an excess of plastic ending up in landfills from company members and driving by factory farms with cows up to their elbows in dung. Or that time I performed on a cruise ship and asked the training officer, “So where does our garbage go?” only to smell a horrendous stench at the back of the ship during soundcheck. Leaving the stage to head to the back deck, I would see enormous amounts of food scraps being pushed out into the open water, thinking, “this can’t be good for marine life, right?”. These experiences contributed to why I put my commercial touring days behind me. Sustainability and working in circularity are not a focus in the performing arts just yet, and it must change.

Recently, I have started my own company called Dance Fachin and our latest work, The Fourth R: reduce, reuse, recycle, Revolutionize conducted a Canadian summer tour. While putting together my team, a big question that came up was how can we pull this tour off sustainably. Our first stop was Charlottetown, PEI where the province amazingly has a Green Party Minority Government. How cool, the first in North America! Flying was deemed too expensive and no one owned an electric car, so we opted for my petrol powered KIA Rio. Throughout the summer, my mileage would exceed 15,000 km and the emissions from those long drives definitely weighed on my conscience. The only way I could come to terms with it was to accept the fact that we were four people, with all of our belongings and show equipment. We were transporting a lot of cargo to deliver an important message and that in itself made the drives worth it. Where we could actually make an environmental difference was in our food consumption and waste. Everyone agreed to bring reusable cups, bottles, tableware and cutlery, and many businesses accommodated us using our refillables for takeaway. On our way to PEI, we had produced only a handful of garbage which mostly consisted of food wrappers. Although there were a few snacks that were packed beforehand for our road trip, naturally, we all got a little hungry during the 18 hour drive. We were really proud of ourselves for only producing a small handful of landfill the whole drive to the island. Once in Charlottetown we noticed that the city put a great deal of effort into environmental awareness. At the end of each street in the city, there’s a garbage, recycling and compost bin. How fantastically accessible! 

Charlottetown has amazing seafood and the cast definitely indulged in that. I really do try to avoid seafood (and most animal products) while I am at home in Toronto, knowing how carbon intensive the whole seafood/meat industry is. Intervertebral animals (lobster, crab, mussels, oyster, shrimp, etc) are essential for ocean and planetary health as they sequester carbon (suck excess carbon out of the atmosphere and ocean). The overfishing, and overconsumption of these precious species is like shooting ourselves in the foot because we desperately need to decarbonize and these types of creatures are a free resource to help us do just that. However, while on the east coast of Canada, it’s hard to opt out because it’s just so local and a part of the culture there. I’d say over our week-long trip, 10 seafood dinners were had which were a combination of lobster, scallop, shrimp and oysters. It was nice to support these local businesses who thrive on the summer season to carry them through the year. From the reading I have done, eating food that is native to that particular region is a big part of circular economy and carbon neutrality. If you’re going to consume animal products, the best way to do it is by eating it close to where it was raised. When on tour, taking advantage of the local food and the small businesses who supply it, is a great way to lessen your environmental impact, making you feel a part of something bigger. 

Back in our accommodations, we created separate bins for each category (landfill, recycling and compost) and at the end of our stay, we drove our waste to an all-in-one bin to discard. Easy. We were all staying together and had a lot of fun doing this as a team. We were close to the venue, walked almost everywhere and only took the car for beach trips or load-in days at the theatre. By our standards, touring sustainably in PEI was very doable.

Our next leg, Edmonton, proved to be a bit more of a challenge. For the initial drive up, we kept a big garbage bag in the trunk which all waste went into and for the 34 hour drive, it really worked. Recycling, food scraps and landfill all went into this one garbage bag which I used over and over for the whole 21 day trip. As for accommodations, a case of Covid within the cast scrambled up our plans. Two cast members bunked together and had access to a car, our stage manager was within walking distance to the venue, and I stayed with college friends, driving myself to a workshop I was teaching at and also to the performance venue. Due to varying schedules and locations of everybody, carpooling never really made much sense. The Edmonton Fringe is a huge festival with amazing food vendors all throughout the grounds and the cast would frequently show up to the venue with treats encased in plastic from the many food trucks. It was becoming apparent that throughout our show run our standards had slipped. I realized that as the leader, this green initiative was an endeavour that I had wanted to take on and without my direct influence the cast wasn’t as inclined to partake. It was upsetting because our initiative had gone so well in PEI and in Edmonton it was as though the sustainability goal had never even been a thing! It was difficult to approach the cast about this as I would never tell someone how to live. It’s not like the food trucks were super accommodating to us using our refillables either. The Edmonton Fringe Festival really needs to think about this in its future programming. The festival produced an enormous amount of waste which just isn’t acceptable in these times. And let’s not forget how emotionally taxing it is to always be the “radical” one. It comes with a lot of eye rolls, weird looks and “well it’s not really going to make a difference anyways.” Honestly, just cut the noise and keep going strong, the planet’s future generations will thank you. Looking ahead to our next touring season, one way to improve in this area is within the contract. I will implement a sustainability clause adding legitimacy to the endeavour right from the start of rehearsals. 

Instead of driving home altogether, the three company members were flown back to Toronto. It felt wrong to ask them to do such an extensive drive twice as funding for this whole operation was quite low and company members weren’t making real wages, instead they received honorariums. I also wanted to take advantage of the camping opportunities on the way and had my eye set on Thunder Bay’s Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. A couple of friends had just finished working in Edmonton and wanted to take the journey back with me. This was great as I was able to carpool and help them transport cargo to Toronto that would normally need shipping. This reduced emissions and made the journey home feel all that much more worth it. Opting out of hotels and staying in Sleeping Giant was absolutely stunning and definitely a big highlight of the whole tour experience for me. In our camp, we had that same garbage bag which eventually traveled all the way back to Toronto with me to be sorted out at home. It was a little gross but worth it. 

My final stop of the tour was Halifax. This show was unique because I performed it as a solo and the run was super short. I brought two friends along to help with the show who are all onboard with my sustainability pledge, so reusables were in full swing. This group was all plant based, so animal products weren’t consumed much at all. Like Charlottetown, the city is set up for composting, so we made a big effort to buy from businesses that use biodegradable packaging and discarded our waste appropriately. We stayed all together in the heart of Halifax so walking was accessible and the car was only used one time for a beach trip. We took full advantage of our accommodation’s kitchen, bringing tupperware for lunch and snacks. Reflecting back, it was definitely a low impact leg of the tour. 

Touring sustainably is doable but it takes some real effort. It’s an easy thing to accomplish in places where cities are already plugged into reducing waste and efforts are made to decarbonize. However, it proves difficult in places where the environmental standards are low. When the status quo (voters, governmental policies and corporate entities) do not consider climate change as a real threat, it can feel disruptive to always be the one to speak up. However, it felt satisfying to conduct a low impact tour and although it didn’t always go to plan, I think some great environmental considerations were made. For me, this is the only way I can tour with joy and purpose, otherwise it ends up feeling negligent and irresponsible. For next summer (we’re going to Edinburgh!!), the people I decide to take with me must reflect these values and care about them on their own personal levels. Perhaps more training and education sessions are necessary to help the cast further understand why it is so important to do things this way. My advice for anyone looking to make less of an impact while touring is this: room together to keep standards in check, support each other through the process, communicate about what’s doable and what’s not, take transit or carpool, use bins to divide up waste right from the start, be apparent with with environmental practices in the contract and stick with it!! If you choose to make less of an impact while touring, congratulations! The world needs more artists like you.

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