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Interview with The HandleBards for Earth Day 2022

We sat down with with Tom Dixon, Artistic Director of The HandleBards – an environmentally sustainable company, touring the work of Shakespeare on bikes and asked him about The HandleBards and the sustainability of their tour.

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Hi Tom, it is great to chat with you on Earth Day! Could you tell me a bit about yourself and your role within the company?

I’m one of the founding members of the company and share the role of Producer and Artistic Director with my best friend, Paul Moss. Together we plan and organise our mammoth summer cycling tours, oversee our workshops and outreach work and steer the vision of the company both artistically and practically.

Wow, cycling and Shakespeare tell us more?

We are a cycling theatre company who bring irreverent and entertaining Shakespeare plays to audiences all over the globe. During the summer we cycle our shows across the UK, covering over 1,500 miles and perform at outdoor venues. In the winter months, we host performances and educational workshops in theatres, schools and international arts festivals.

Cycling from venue to venue is quite a commitment! How did it all start? And how do you transport all your costumes and set? 

It all started with a group of friends with a sense of adventure, a love of Shakespeare and a nifty little pun… For the first seven years, we would cycle with all of the set props and costumes on the back of our bikes and in bicycle trailers. It was hard going (particularly in the Yorkshire Dales) but also an incredible adventure.

Over the years as the reputation of the company grew so did the size of our audiences and we started to think about how we might need a raised stage to improve sight lines. This need was exacerbated further when we wanted to tour in 2021 but wanted our audiences to be able to socially distance.

So, we teamed up with Studio Polpo (a Sheffield based architectural social enterprise) and created a beautiful wooden stage! Only problem was that it wouldn’t fit on the back of our bikes or in trailers. So we solved that by getting a 100% electric van!

So now the actors continue to cycle from venue to venue and the electric van follows as a support vehicle with the stage, props and costumes in tow. This new touring model works remarkably well and keeps our carbon emissions very low.

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is ‘invest in our planet’, thinking about how we can combat the threat of climate change. Why is environmental sustainability important to consider when touring?

I don’t think there’s ever really a time when environmental sustainability isn’t an important thing to consider. When you tour a show in a van it’s easy to consider driving just that little bit further to another gig and before you know it you’re driving from Newquay to Newcastle in one day and accruing a huge amount of mileage and guzzling through a huge amount of diesel.

When we’re cycling we have no choice but to go 30-50 miles a day, so even the electricity that our van consumes is tiny. This slow method of touring, (along with all that fresh air and exercise) is also better for the mental health of the company so all-in-all the environmental option ends up being better for both people and the planet.

What a great way to look at it. So, what’s the furthest venue you’ve travelled to?

Last year our all-female company cycled Macbeth from the Isle of Wight to Inverness. Maybe in future years, we’ll cycle from John O Groats to Land’s End…

I imagine travelling that distance requires training. How did you initially prepare to cycle such long distances? Do you have to maintain training?

If I’m honest cycle training is minimal. We make sure all of our actors have cycle proficiency and feel safe on the road but otherwise, you just get stronger as the tour goes on! The first two weeks can be a bit hellish but your body very quickly adapts and gets used to the clockwork marathon of it all. 30 miles – show – rest – repeat. I have to say you do feel incredibly fit when the tour ends, it’s just quite difficult to maintain after the tour!

It sounds exhausting just talking to you. How do you manage the effects of both cycling and performing on your bodies?

Lots of stretching, lots of sleeping and lots of food. I have never eaten as much as when I was on a HandleBards tour, but I have also never felt as healthy and strong – I was also very good at napping at any opportunity.

Have there been any challenges along the way?

Too many to count. I think anyone who has ever toured with the HandleBards would agree that it had its challenging moments and a lot of them based on the weather – cycling and performing in a tempest, or a heatwave… or hailstones! But I also think that none of them would change anything about their experience of a HandleBards tour. It’s a wonderful adventure that leaves you with plenty of stories and lifelong friends.

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday tomorrow, and we love the play on words for your company name. When did you first experience Shakespeare and was it love at first sight?

Year 9. Macbeth. And no, I hated it. It was taught in a way that made it feel boring and made me feel stupid. As I got older and performed his plays it all started to make a lot more sense. One of the reasons that I’m so passionate about taking the HandleBards shows into schools now is that I don’t want students to feel the way I did, I want them to see that Shakespeare can be funny, silly, accessible and that a lot of his stories are still relevant! He wrote plays, not novels, they were meant to be read out loud and on their feet and not read quietly in a classroom.

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare character?

All of the minor characters. The servants, the messengers, the Friar John’s… They are often the most fun to play and can steal the show.

You’re bringing Twelfth Night to the Playhouse on 27 May, where will you be cycling from?

Well, the company will be starting in London cycling to Edinburgh and then cycling back to London. 1500 miles and 100 shows. But on that day we’ll be cycling 30 miles from Castle Acre in Kings Lynn.

What can people expect from this show?

The Stage gave this show 5 stars and called it “an exceptional touring production”. Expect music, frivolity and cross-dressing a plenty.

Before we go, what one tip would you give to people who want to help combat climate change and reduce their carbon footprint?

To them, I’d say – the little things make a big difference. It’s a cliché but it’s true. Turn off that light. Remember to take that bag for life to the shops. Shop local. Eat seasonal. Vote. Hop on the bus. And maybe hop on a bike?

Thank you, Tom, for your time. You have certainly made me want to get on my bike and come to a performance.

You can see The HandleBards perform Twelfth Night at the Playhouse on 27 May below. No bikes necessary!

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Twelfth Night