All the world’s a stage, including the bike saddle. The HandleBards are a touring Shakespeare company with an eco twist, with the actors travelling by bike across the country to perform the bard’s plays, with set, props and costumes following in 100 percent electric support vehicles. From open-air theatres to stately gardens, over the last 10 years, the troupe of Shakespeare-loving actors has performed 17 different plays across 16 countries and five continents, racking up over 150,000 audience members. We caught up with two of the four founding members, Paul Moss and Tom Dixon, to look back on 10 years of the HandleBards, and look forward to a sustainable future for the theatre.
Interview: 10 Years Of The HandleBards, A Sustainable Theatre Company
Hey guys, you’re celebrating 10 years of The Handlebards – congrats! Can you give us a quick summary of who you guys are and what you do?
We’re a Shakespeare company with a difference, in that we cycle across the country (and sometimes further afield!) bringing shows to theatres and outdoor venues, celebrating Shakespeare’s stories in irreverent, comedic ways that have been entertaining people across the world for the past decade.
What inspired you to start the company?
We started off as a group of four friends with an insatiable sense of adventure and a fun little idea with a pun-tastic name. We wanted to see the country in an exciting, sustainable way, but do it slightly differently – so we decided we’d carry all of the set, props and costumes for two Shakespeare performances on the back of our bikes to keep ourselves (and our audiences) entertained!
What are the company’s sustainable aspects?
Everything we do has sustainability written into its lifeblood. Any show we produce will first start with a cycle tour, with the actors cycling around 30 miles between venues for around five or six shows a week – often for up to six months. A large majority of our sets, props and costumes are recycled – whether that’s from other people’s shows, from our own productions, or from second-hand and charity shops. And, in the past year, we’ve started picking back up with our international touring, during which we travel by train and public transport as much as possible.
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What can other theatre companies learn from you?
To be honest, we’re always learning from each other. We like to hope that we’re setting an example by touring in sustainable modes of transport wherever possible – be it on bicycles, trains or electric vans – and putting sustainability at the heart of what we do at every stage of the process.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Well, first of all, the UK isn’t particularly flat! So cycling around the country carrying everything with us can be quite the challenge. And we’ve ridden the waves of pandemics, funding cuts and some very extreme weather – but we’re still pedalling away!
When did you realise sustainability was an important cause to pursue?
We all came to the company from different backgrounds – a mix of university degrees and drama school degrees in circus, geography, chemistry and zoology – so we’ve always had a very good mix of scientific and artistic perspectives on the world around us. We have always known that sustainability was an important cause, but knew that we needed to find a way to tell the sustainability story in an entertaining way.
What makes you feel positive about a sustainable future?
When we started the company 10 years ago, we felt quite alone in the work we were making. Nowadays, we see a number of companies working with bicycle-powered sets, recycled sets, props and costumes, and constantly innovating with sustainable ideas. And for the past few years, we’ve toured with an electric van to carry our stage – and it’s gotten remarkably easier just in the past few years to find somewhere to charge it! It’s great to see the UK’s sustainable infrastructure having a strong buy-in from the government and industry alike.
How do the sets work?
It depends on the show – sometimes we carry absolutely everything in a trailer on the back of our bikes, or in a suitcase if we’re touring outside our summer season or internationally, and then for some of our larger-scale shows (like this year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) we have an electric van carry a stage that is built at each venue.
You’ve also toured internationally – how does that work sustainably?
The benefit of building shows that fit onto the back of bikes is that they also fit well into suitcases – so, rather than carbon-heavy freight transport, we’re able to tour an entire show in our luggage. We fly as little as possible, visiting any European dates by train, and travelling between venues further afield by train or bus after minimal flying. Any flights we do use, we offset, but we know this isn’t a true solution. Eventually, we’d love to complete a round-the-world tour by train!
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Why Shakespeare? Would you ever expand from Shakespeare?
There are a mixture of reasons as to why we produce Shakespeare. They’re great stories, and they deserve to be enjoyed by everyone. By presenting the shows in fun, irreverent ways, often in community settings, we hope to remove some of that feeling of elitism and show that we can all share in the joy of these stories. They’ve lasted 400 years in our western culture, so there must be something good about them!
We have expanded from Shakespeare, but by setting up a sister company called Slapstick Picnic. We’ve produced a couple of shows through that company so far – Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and a kids show called Gnora the Gnome’s Daytime Disco, and this year the company will be touring J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan across the UK from July to September.
It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer – which plays have you performed so far over the 10 years?
So many! If you’d like a list, it goes like this:
- Twelfth Night
- Romeo and Juliet
- The Comedy of Errors
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Richard III
- The Taming of the Shrew
- As You Like It
- The Tempest
Which is your favourite Shakespeare play?
I think we’re particular fans of the tragedies – Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth are some of our favourites. With our particular style, we love to have fun giving people what they least expect with those plays – not many people expect to be laughing their way through either of them, but they do!
What’s a Shakespeare play you’ve never performed but would love to?
We’ve always talked about staging Titus Andronicus – plenty of Tarantino-esque blood, guts and gore – and a few people in pies. However, it might not quite fit the bill in the summer sunshine when people are tucking into their sausage rolls…
And what’s your favourite venue to perform in?
We have plenty of favourites, but a couple that we’ve been visiting since our very first year – and have been on the bill ever since – are Painswick Rococo Garden in the Cotswolds (always a fun, raucous audience) and Heeley People’s Park in Sheffield (where we always run community-focussed ‘pay what you can’ performances). They’re always an absolute joy to perform at.
Do you share your sustainable messaging at the shows? What is the audience reaction like?
At the beginning of each show, we let people know how many miles the tour has cycled so far, and encourage people to join us on our journey by following us on our social media.
What are your top tips for people at home to live a more sustainable life?
Get cycling! For small journeys (and many long ones), it’s by far the most enjoyable way to get around. And it’s cheaper and healthier than any other mode of transport!
The HandleBards are touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream across the UK until mid-September. Find your local performance at handlebards.com and stay up to date with their journey on Instagram @HandleBards.