Life On The Road: Revealed
So, What’s it like being a HandleBard?
LM: A strange mix of joy, endurance and frustration. I’ve caught myself in the midst of some of the funniest times of my life; and then in the next moment you’re pushing yourself to the height of your endurance to get to a venue on time. The frustration comes in fits and starts as you realise this is not an easy job; and then I remember the baffled faces of friends and family who said “you’re doing what?!” when I first told them about the HandleBards and I can’t help but think they were right to be confused.
SP-C: Ha, yep. Being a HandleBard is a bit like being part of a cycling, hive minded über mensch that is governed mainly by the need to consume food at an alarming rate and perform Shakespeare; we really believe in feeding both the body and the soul.
I assume you were all avid cyclists before?
LM: You would be wrong.
MM: I’d only ever cycled around the neighbourhood as a kid; I had to go into training, finishing rehearsals every day and heading straight to London’s Victoria Park for a 30-mile session of laps. I’ve got totally addicted, and am already planning buying my new bike when I have to very reluctantly return my beautiful Pashley to the HandleBards….
SP-C: I think I was the least prepared bard cycling-wise. I mean I knew how to ride a bicycle and I had decent cardiovascular fitness- but that’s about it. I had to do two cycling safety courses in order to convince myself that London drivers weren’t out to mow me down… I’m still not 100% convinced.
How did you feel going into rehearsals for the shows? What were you most excited about? What were you most nervous about?
MM: Rehearsals were extraordinary – I’ve never had to learn to play a bass guitar made out of a mop, whilst dancing at the same time and playing 21 characters across two shows. There was so much to learn – each of us learns 1/4 of the lines for each show, as well as trying to nail each ping of a bicycle bell, harmonised song, dance sequence, costume change and slapstick routine. Just keeping it all in my head at once was a huge challenge – I came home most nights with a brain that felt like soup…
LM: HandleBards rehearsals are not as you’d expect from a regular acting process. Ignoring the script for a moment, as Matt says, there are a hundred other things to get your head around, whether that’s learning how to best transform from one character to another in the ding of a bicycle bell or working out how best to have a conversation with a floating hat, you quickly learn that no character decision or physicality is too much.
PH: Yeh, I was definitely nervous about getting the style correct – when you see a HandleBards show, you’ll know what I mean…
What’s been the biggest challenge of the whole adventure so far?
MM: Rain is the HandleBards’ greatest enemy. We’re outside from 9am, when we start cycling, until 10pm, when the show finishes – and on a day when it rains for all those 13 hours and you’re grinding up a mountain, keeping positive can be hard. You’ve got to enjoy the challenge; being a HandleBard is so much about being the sort of person who actively wants to be out in the rain on that 6th hour of cycling. Some of our best shows have been in thunderstorms, because we and the audience have all pulled together and decided to just have fun.
LM: Cycling across the Pennines, from Preston to York, we meandered our way up and down near vertical peaks; sometimes through thunderous rain and later in blazing sunshine. That week was exhausting.
PH: Cycling yes, but also having the endurance to remain a nice person 24 hours a day when you spend it in such close confines.
SP-C: Ha. Yes, especially when it’s impossible to convince Olly to let us sleep past 8:00 am – we’ve tried everything. I like to think I’ve grown a lot as a performer and as a human being while doing the Handlebards.
Have you met many interesting characters en-route?
PH: Many. Too many to remember. There’s one bloke called Olly Jacques who claims to be employed by the HandleBards and follows us around.
LM: Oh yes! My personal favourites were a couple who described themselves as “accidental exorcists” and had recently cleared spirits from the house we were staying in. They were very lovely, but having seen a video that they took of a witch found in the back garden, I am, needless to say, slightly sceptical.
MM: Some of the biggest characters we’ve met haven’t been human…we’ve had peacocks, sheep, dogs and macaws desperate to make their mark on the show. The peacocks at Larmer Tree Gardens contributed at least 10% of the dialogue for Much Ado that night – it’s a rare occurrence that you find yourself talking to a big blue bird in blank verse…
SP-C: The Handlebards always seem to attract the most interesting people around. But in all seriousness, we’ve been really lucky actually – all of the people we stay with are absolutely lovely. I’ve never seen such an openness from strangers. I definitely take solace in the fact that despite all of the political uncertainty we’ve seen this summer – there are still so many good people out there.
MM: I totally agree. Getting away from London and seeing the whole country has been really liberating – an opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. You find yourself having dinner with the owner of a castle you’ve performed at one night, followed by breakfast with a homeless man we met in Durham the next day. Our Pay-What-You-Can shows at social enterprises are my favourite – whole communities come, and you see businesses making real differences to the people around them. Andy, who runs ReCycle Bikes in Sheffield, and Alastair, who owns Monkey Park in Chesterfield, were just incredibly impressive – kind, dedicated people, going above and beyond to create real change.
What are you enjoying most about the trip?
MM: I love the variety – you never know what each day will hold. We’ve slept in 5-star hotel rooms but also surrounded by vegetables on the floor of a portacabin; we’ve cycled 50 miles in the Peaks in one day, then spent the next day wandering around Manchester; we’ve gone bee-keeping, met a witch, fed alpacas and slept under the stars. I never know what to expect, and the surprise is always a good one.
PH: I’m loving seeing the UK. Warts and all. Being on a bike allows you the time to inspect an area in more detail than when you wiz past on a train or in a car.
SP-C: I’m enjoying getting to find more in the shows and the characters – having so much time is a gift when it comes to exploring characters and finding challenges for yourself. I’m also really enjoying making new friends and seeing the country transform before my eyes. As an American this is really the best way to see the UK and experience it in its full cultural and historical richness and variety. It’s been really cool hearing accents change as we cycle along, and seeing just how much history there really is here – did you know Constantine I was made emperor in York?! Pretty cool.
LM: For me it’s the company – these boys have been hilarious fun and all the people we’ve met along the way have made this experience truly memorable.
Have you had any disasters yet?
PH: Realising Olly Jacques ACTUALLY IS employed by the HandleBards.
MM: All of us remember the cycle to Manchester. Broken wheels in the morning meant leaving 4 hours late, and after hauling the trailers up the mountain, we met a 2-hour traffic jam. We took a detour, which included yet more hills, and it poured with rain for 5 hours. We arrived in Manchester at 10pm and had to carry the bikes up 3 flights of stairs – sleep was the only option at that point.
SP-C: That was the worst…
MM: Onstage, disasters happen all the time – whether the tents in our set collapse in the rain, or confused Bards arrive wearing the wrong costume. One particular HandleBard, who I will not name, has an unfortunate habit of forgetting to bring letters onstage with him – so I now have emergency letters in my pocket at all times. Come to see the shows and try to work out when they’re for…
What’s it like being in each other’s company 24 hour a day? Lots of in-jokes?
LM: It’s ridiculous! I’ve forgotten how to have conversations with ordinary people because everything we say to each other is an in-joke. I’d try to explain one to you, but it won’t make any sense and it won’t even be funny.
PH: “Jokes” is generous word. We tolerate each other at best.
MM: This is an incredible group of guys – to spend all day together for 6 months and still want to go for a drink at the end of the day shows you a lot about how much we value each other. In-jokes have a shelf-life of two weeks; I heard Paul sing “that’s the eftest way” (a line from Much Ado) every day for two weeks. I considered actual bodily violence. Then suddenly, one day, it was gone. Every time a new joke appears, I remind myself that one day it’ll go the same way as “the eftest way” – unless, of course, it’s my joke, in which case I repeat it endlessly.
And finally, what can an audience expect from coming along to your shows?
LM: Insanity, and a lot of fun. The shows are ridiculously fast-paced and will whip you through the plays in a hilarious whirlwind of characters, with the audience often up on stage playing characters themselves.
SP-C: There’s something for everyone in our shows, and they’re great for families as well. Ultimately, we like having fun on stage – and that seems to be doing the trick!
PH: Shakespeare’s humour plus our energy and a sprinkle of HandleBards absurdity means the plays are like you’ve never seen them before – a madness that will certainly stay with you.
MM: We enjoy being in the shows so much – nothing beats coming together with an audience and having just the best time. In a year where the news seems to want to ruin every hour of every day, escaping with us for 90 minutes of fun isn’t something you’ll regret.
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The boys will be performing at Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month and will finish their adventure with a week run in London. You can check out all of their dates here.