Greening Theatre Practice part three: travelling

Blog Post by Sophie Gee, May 7, 2018

In this last instalment of the Greening Theatre practice blog series, I speak to colleagues about travelling: how do we reduce the carbon footprint of cross-national and international collaborations and presentations? 

Recently, I booked a ticket to a residency I’m heading to this summer. I was brought to a screen asking me if I wanted to off-set my carbon – I hesitated, thinking it was going to be a lot of money, but it was less than I thought – $45.52 (now I’ve never tried this – but I’m sure this would be a cost admissible to the Canada Council for touring grants). But this summer, I’m just going by myself. When travelling with a large production, buying carbon offsets adds a lot of costs to a budget. And there’s a line of thinking that it’s better to “on-set” rather than off-set.

But beyond off-setting/on-setting the effects of travel, something not every company or host organization is willing to spend their usually meagre travel budget on, there are values in our community that run contrary to sustainability. International touring and residencies are seen as prestigious and a measure of success in our field: we place a high value on activity that is damaging to the environment. Writer and performer Talya Rubin of Too Close to the Sun splits her time between Australia, where she mostly presents her work, and Montreal, where she lives. A lifelong environmentalist, she is also a member of the Zero Waste movement. “At the moment I am entirely obsessed with environmental themes.” Talya says. “I think at this stage I am just bringing a great deal more awareness to the physical impact the work I make is having or has had. The show I made recently, The Bluebird Mechanicals, is at its core about climate change.” Referring to the travel she does for work, she admits, “I feel deeply guilty about it… I would love to see more works that can happen with less impact and less travel miles behind them. I have a long way to go towards that reality,

Bluebird Mechanicals

Talya Rubin in Too Close to the Sun’s The Bluebird Mechanicals. Photo: Samuel James

seeley quest is an American trans disabled performer, writer, curator and environmentalist who moved to Montreal last summer. Sie has toured extensively in the United States and into Canada, often flying to and from start and finish points and travelling by car in between. Would sie continue to tour this way? “Truthfully, no” sie admits. “I would not choose to tour that way again, my priorities have shifted.” Sie prefers to take the train now, an easy option for those of us travelling between Montreal and Toronto, or up the West Coast in the US, but it is a lot more difficult to go east west by train in both the US and Canada. And of course this option adds time and money. The location of North American cities makes me envious of Europe, where one can travel between major cities within hours. seeley might arrange stagings in Calgary and Edmonton next year, and train travel would involve a three-day journey as opposed to a flight of around five hours (although Via Rail has an artist programme which is worth looking into if you are a musician – maybe the company can  extend this programme to theatre artists?).

And of course not travelling by plane makes for headaches for organizers in terms of scheduling but some artists do it anyway. An artistic hero of mine, Tino Seghal, is a performance artist, or rather an artist who creates encounters. He’s well-known in the contemporary art world for his refusal to undertake any unnecessary air travel. An internationally exhibited artist, (Seghal presented work at the Musée d’art contemporain here in 2013) he travels often – but chooses trains and ships rather than planes. I wonder if this is the kind of demand an artist can make when they have a certain level of success and whether it is “reasonable” for all artists to follow suit (a trans-Atlantic journey by ship is around the same price as a first class plane ticket). But if we all do it, the practice would change. When I workshopped a play of mine in Toronto a few years ago, the company offered to fly me from Montreal to Toronto. I said that I preferred the train, but they said that they had a sponsorship agreement with an airline so it was actually more expensive for them to have me on the train than the plane. So I took the plane, without making a further fuss because frankly, I was grateful for the opportunity and they were already very accommodating as I had to bring my son with me. But maybe we should all make a fuss, established or emerging.

seeley notes that “everybody now has to come up with a decision framework: how necessary is it to travel distances by air, unless they are in a critical situation of having little time to reach loved ones.” Indeed, I remember hearing an environmentalist on the radio saying that one day with a proper carbon tax in place it’s possible that the cost of plane travel will be so prohibitively high, that we would pity the people who had to fly, because it meant that the person had a family emergency and they had to arrive at their destination as quickly as possible. What a shift that would be.

But how about not displacing ourselves at all in order to present and share our work? Our practice traditionally relies on the gathering of people around a performer/performers and we want to share the work with as many people as possible. As we all know, seeing a video is nothing like seeing a performance live. Although this is slowly evolving with new technologies and performance models, the live aspect is still an essential element to the art and I for one don’t want it to disappear. seeley thinks new technologies need developing: “I’m interested in how we can access the human connection that is needed while not being human bodies in the same time and place that theatre depends on.” Talya would like to create works that can travel without her and she told me about a show about weather she saw at Vancouver’s Push Off in January, Pathetic Fallacy by The Chop Theatre, where the actor/creator is on a screen or present via audio and they use green screen technology in such a way that the entire show is re-made each night with a new audience member. That way, no one in the show needs to travel but it can still tour. As screens mediate our interactions more and more, perhaps this way of performing will become normalized in the future.

Encouraging international and national presentations is important as it also brings with it the possibility of collaborations with artists from outside of our community, which in turn brings fresh perspectives to our work and pushes our practice further. Is there a way to collaborate nationally and internationally remotely? seeley’s collaborators back in the US are looking at options on how to work together long distance through technologies such as Skype or Zoom. There are other options, but they come with a cost (seeley kindly shared a bunch of options in the resources below). Bringing together collaborators through live video also requires more labour on the participants’ end, patience in dealing with glitches, and a certain technical knowledge and equipment. Closer to home, Michael Wheeler and Sarah Garton Stanley at Spiderweb show are developing Cdnstudio, a non-proprietary platform for collaborators across the country to work together, with no extra cost to the artist or organization. The project is still in development and is only an internal tool right now but it sounds very promising. Spiderweb show is organizing a festival of live digital art in June, FoldA, where the public can see Chemical Valley Project, which was created using this technology. As technology moves forward, perhaps as theatre artists we can attend prestigious Banff residencies without actually travelling to Banff and bring together actors from across the country to rehearse and perform without anyone clocking up air miles.

Cdnstudio

CdnStudio in action.

Over the last three weeks, with the help of many colleagues, I’ve touched on some changes theatre practice can make at the venue, production, audience and touring level. And of course there’s a lot more we can do. But despite this, artmaking will never be completely impactless. During my exchange with Ian Garrett, Associate Professor of Ecological Design for Performance at York University, he made a very crucial point – if we’re going to use up resources in the work we make, it better be good. I’d like to share his words: “There are a lot of practical things you can do to reduce the environmental impact of a show in many areas, and that’s all good, but my honest response is that the most important thing is to make engaging work that people come see.

“And I’ll extend this to other sustainability metrics as arts events have big impacts on social identity and local economies as well. And when you think about the arts in the greater context of society (as opposed to the typical North American approach to segment the arts on the periphery as a leisure time activity instead of a vital part of society) then you also have to think about what someone would be doing if they didn’t go to a show. A full house at many theatres will result in up to 80% reduction in environmental impacts compared to if people stayed at home… plus the local economy impact and the impact on social identity and cohesion.

“But where the arts have the greatest impact should be obvious to most… it’s as a place to share, converse about, and challenge ideas. Be it through modelling or the conversation a piece creates, the best thing a show can do is to get people in and get them to think. Yes, touring is carbon intensive to move people around, and yes plastics are generally bad for the environment, and there are any number of things that have impacts that we could chose to do or not to do. But, I tend to offer the idea that, if you had a show which had a design that consisted of a pile of burning tires, which is objectively bad for the environment, but it somehow convinced the audience to change key aspects of their actions and thinking about the world, than there is a value balance that makes it impossible to say that the burning tires in that context is wrong. We will always have an impact, but we must think of these in the context of ideas and society.”

To go back to Pluck’d, the show with the plastic wrap I mentioned in the first part of this blog series, it’s still hard to weigh the reaction of the audience against all the waste the show produces. I’m torn between wanting to share the work with more audiences, but that means more waste. If anyone has suggestions for alternatives, please contact me. I’m all ears as we’ll be doing the show again in July in New York (and hopefully we will all be going down by train…).