Greening Theatre Practice part two: Patrons

Blog Post by Sophie Gee, April 27, 2018

In the second part of our three-part blog series on how theatre practice can be revisioned to be more environmentally friendly, I take a look how theatres can reduce the environmental impact of our patrons.

I was thrilled to get a free drink ticket when I went to an opening recently. But I noticed that to bring your drink into the theatre, you had to have it in a plastic (single use, disposable) cup. Multiply that by the potential 200+ seats at the theatre I was heading into and that’s potentially a lot of cups going into the recycling/trash (and there’s no guarantee that what we put in our recycling bins actually gets recycled). Of course, theatres want to sell drinks as part of their revenue stream and that’s important. And bringing glass into a theatre is obviously a safety hazard. 

And given for every presentation, there are 200, 800, 1000+ audience members in attendance, working to reduce the environmental footprint of our patrons can make a big difference. Ian Garrett, Associate Professor of Ecological Design for Performance at York University says “The biggest impact is typically audience transportation. Here in Toronto, it’s like 95% of the impact of the Harbourfront Centre. They could cease to do anything at all, but if people still came to the site, it would only reduce the environmental impacts by 5%.” That’s a big incentive for theatres and festivals to partner up with public transportation agencies, or offer discounts for patrons who use public transport to get to their shows, although I can’t think of any theatres in Montreal that do this (please correct me if I’m wrong!).

And once the patrons are at the venue, they often consume, and that’s great. Having a drink and a conversation about the show you’ve just seen is an important part of the theatre-going experience. If you’ve been hanging around the Fringe Park at the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival, you might notice that drinks are served in reusable cups. Amy Blackmore said that one of the first things she said when she became Executive and Artistic Director of the Fringe was to adopt a sustainable practices policy. In 2012, the Fringe worked with a group of environmental sciences students from McGill to do an environmental impact study. After the Fringe Park closed in the wee hours, the students would open every garbage bag that was filled that day, dump out its contents and study it with flashlights.

The same year the Fringe brought in composting as a disposal option in Fringe Park. But the study showed that their biggest waste was beer cups. The Fringe worked with Ecocup to create branded, reusable plastic fringe cups and they have replaced all single-use plastic cups for the last two years. Patrons pay a $2 deposit for the cup and can decide to keep it or return it for their deposit. The Fringe produced 6,00 0 of the cups and they work with a company that takes used cups off-site to wash and sterilize for reuse. Since then, the number of plastic beer cups going into the garbage or recycling has gone down from 20,000 to zero. Amazing. On top of that, since 2012 plastic water bottles have not been for sale in Fringe Park. The festival brings in large containers of water which visitors can use to fill up their bottles for free or they can use one of the festival’s reusable cups for the $2 deposit. So – has anyone complained about the changes? “Nobody has complained, well maybe two people” admits Amy. “Someone was not happy that we didn’t have any water bottles for sale but it leads to a nice conversation why.” I have to admit when I first encountered reusable cups at the Festival Transamérique’s Quartier Général, I grumbled because I had to scrounge for the extra $2 and then wait to get my deposit back when I wanted to leave the bar. Change sometimes isn’t easy but after the first time it becomes the new normal. And change often happens for good reasons.  

fringe cupsReusable St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival cups in action at Fringe Park

And what about costs? Is the cost of ordering the 6K cups and washing them far more than buying 20k single-use cups every year? “We see it as an investment,” Amy says, “ it’s a cost that’s worth it to us. Sustainability is a practice that our main sponsor is interested in as well”. And dreaming further ahead? Amy would love to have an outdoor site that is entirely solar powered.

Do you know of any initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of our patrons when they come to see shows? Please let us know and share your resources!

Next week: touring and travelling