Handlebards: The cycling Shakespeare troupe geared for success
When it comes to design, a tour stretches not only the imagination of a designer, but also their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Set and costumes may have to be completely re-imagined to suit all the venues, and the logistics of a succession of rigging and striking can take its toll on the hardiest of structures. So imagine taking your show out around the country on little more than four or five bicycles. That’s exactly the challenge facing the Handlebards, the five-year-old theatre company that specialises in touring Shakespeare productions on bikes around the UK, and more recently internationally.
Founder and producer Paul Moss thought of the idea after graduating from university. Together with a few friends, he was looking for something to do during the summer and between the Olympics of 2012 and the Tour de France in 2014; a cycle tour in 2013 seemed like a good idea. A communal passion for theatre led to the idea of making it a theatrical tour and this was how the Handlebards was born.
“So far, we have 10 plays in our repertoire,” Moss explains, “including Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. Then we started an all-female troupe as well. We did The Taming of the Shrew and an all-female Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III.”
When it comes to the physical restrictions of touring on bikes, there are two elements that Moss feels are vital to the artistic decisions he has to make.
“Weight and weather. We can only carry what we can carry on the bikes. Every single thing that goes into putting on the tour has to be considered in terms of how much it weighs. All the sets, all the props, all the costumes.
“Everything that we carry for front-of-house, every single thing that you see in the show is carried by us on the bikes. So there’s often a question in rehearsals if something is incredibly funny, and something weighs quite a lot, like a prop; to make that joke funny, we really have to consider the weight-to-humour ratio of every single prop that we carry. The weight limit means we’ve actually been so innovative with our design.
“Nik Corrall has been our major designer for the past couple of shows. He’s been amazing at using recycled materials. A lot of the stuff that we use is from camping shops, because it’s built to be lightweight, and it’s built to be resistant to the weather. We build sets out of tent poles, lightweight, durable materials and fabric. As for the weather, everything has to be waterproof. Everything has to be windproof. The actors as well as the set, props and costumes. It’s a typical outdoor tour in that we just have to make sure everyone is as hearty as they can be for the ride.”
This combination of innovation and using recycled materials led to the Handlebards being shortlisted this year for the sustainability prize in The Stage Awards. However, this isn’t a theatre of gimmicks and Moss is adamant that most of the cycle-related props and effects are generated directly from the text.
There is a constant search for new things to incorporate into the plays. It’s all evolved from the text, but the company actively seeks out innovations in cycle-powered technology and gadgets.
“There’s a lot of new lighting on the cycle market at the moment: LEDs within bike wheels, that sort of thing. We’ve been thinking about how to play with that within the show. It all starts with the text. We sit down, do a table read, and work out how our world and the model that we’ve created can enhance the text that has been put on our tables by Shakespeare.”
For all the new technology, the company does suffer the occasional cycle-related setback. Flat tyres are a regular problem but, so far, there have been no human accidents with the company.
“We’ve had all sorts of stuff happen to every prop, costume and bike that we’ve ever owned. Even just cycling around London, very recently we’ve had a saddle stolen from one of our bikes. Cycling anywhere, without even putting on a cycle tour, is a risky business anyway,” says Moss.
“We get all of the typical problems, plus the fact that we’re carrying about 40kgs of weight on the back of the bike, which makes things even more difficult. When you’re cycling down a gravel cycle track somewhere in the country, and suddenly your wheel gets stuck and decides to tip the whole thing over, that’s a common occurrence for us.”
Designing sets that can fit on the Handlebard’s bikes
Nik Corrall’s first shows as designer for the Handlebards were Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2015. Last year, he designed the company’s productions of Richard III and Romeo and Juliet.
“The first thing to factor into designing for the Handlebards is that everything has to fit into four 60cm-squared boxes. Each of these has to weigh under 10kg, as they are all towed on the back of the cycles. When you start doing two shows back-to-back, the characters suddenly start to rise in number, so you have to be really quite economical.
“You’re having to create a set that can withstand the winds and any kind of weather, and be incredibly permanent, last the two hours or however long the performance is, and not take out any of the audience. But at the same time, it has to be up in 10 minutes and down in even faster, so that they can cycle to the next venue. So you’re constantly playing with the temporary nature of the performance and creating structures that will last and serve the performance.
“We worked with a company called Electric Pedals. I think it mainly creates outdoor cinema experiences, where the audience cycles and they generate power for the projector. In my first year Electric Pedals created a set that was essentially based around a washing line that was cycled by the actors, or by the audience, depending on how tired the actors were. It kind of had quite a practical function along the way as well, in that it charged the guys’ iPod and their laptop, which are intrinsic to the tour.”
Recycling and sustainability are key qualities to Corrall’s work with the Handlebards, reclaiming costumes and fabric from charity shops and more specifically raiding the bins of a cycle cafe near the rehearsal space in Battersea, London.
“They let me go in and rummage through the throwaway bin box where usually they gather bits and pieces for bike repairs, so they’re no longer needed. We created a claw hand for Richard III made out of two brakes that had the pistons and the tendons on them, which were completely recycled. I’ve made crowns from the reflective, spoke lights that come from bikes.
“When the company is cycling 1,500 miles each year, they go through an awful lot of bikes. We keep a lot of those elements, so you’ll often get a bent trailer wheel, or a broken saddle, or some handlebars. I was particularly pleased with the donkey head for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The production was set in the 1930s and I used a period cycle helmet and brake lights, along with a seat, to create this helmet. For me, it was the epitome of the Handlebards ethos. It should feel like it was created on the road by the actors themselves.”
The Handlebard’s all-female troupe will tour As You Like It in June, and the all-male troupe will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream in July