Ella Langley: Interview with Callum Cheatle, The HandleBards
“Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier, over park over pale, thorough flood, thorough fire, they do cycle everywhere.”
The HandleBards are a touring company that promise to pedal “extremely energetic, charmingly chaotic and environmentally sustainable Shakespeare plays across the globe”, literally. We spoke to them about their environmental trail so far, and the path ahead.
Evolution: where did it come from, where has it gone?
Four of us wanted to continue doing theatre after uni – but also do something fresh and travel, and have adventures. We thought, let’s tour in a way that feels environmentally sustainable, and closer to the communities we visit. Shakespeare used to do it on a horse and cart, playing for food and accommodation, and a close modern-day equivalent was bicycles.
Cycling can be gruelling. There’s days when you wake up and go: this is gonna be hell and I don’t wanna do it and I’ve got 30 miles to cycle and it’s raining and I’m upset. But I can’t really describe the feeling when you’ve lugged a 25kg trailer up a gigantic hill in the Yorkshire Dales and you finally get to the top and look over and go, I made it.
Six years on we’re still very close knit, almost like a family. So even though we’ve been able to grow and incorporate new company members, everyone is very much embedded with this sense of what is a HandleBard thing to do what is not a HandleBard thing to do. Having new energy means we don’t stagnate.
Challenges: what has been hardest about staying sustainable?
If you’re a sustainable theatre company and you’ve made your name by cycling from venue to venue - I think in our first year we saved 20.1 tonnes of CO2 compared to the tour if it had been done in a van - then as soon as you then start flying internationally and performing in India and Malaysia everyone goes “oh well what happened to the sustainable angle what about all that air travel”.
The way we got around that in the short term was through off-setting the carbon financially online, to at least make those air miles neutral. The longer-term plan is a project, that’s not officially been launched, to grow trees that are all named and planted by people to offset their own carbon when they come to our shows and ours when we go to venues.
We’d accumulate this forest of trees which are not necessarily sat together but are all part of the same project and tracked online so you can see the story behind each one. It’s mixing that element of storytelling and theatricality with the tree planting. For us, the most important challenge is how do you get people to come along on the journey with you.
Focus: what do you think about sustainable content vs management?
Both are useful but I think they’re very very different. I’d be the last person to say that to be successful in sustainable practices you need to make your content about sustainability. Surely the most important thing is that you’re creating theatre that is actually sustainable.
When we won the Edinburgh Fringe Sustainable Theatre Award from Creative Carbon Scotland - that was not so much for the fact that we were doing a play about environmentalism but because we had a tangible impact on not only the way that we were producing theatre but the way that the audiences got to our shows. We promoted that they could also do their best to carry out sustainable principles.
Responsibility: where does it lie when it comes to making sustainable theatre?
With everyone – theatre producers and theatre audiences. We’re in an industry that’s known for being progressive and known for being liberal and known for leading the way on conversations.
The most data driven answer is that the greatest responsibility lies with the greatest contributor. I think every venue should be aiming to become carbon neutral in the next 2-3 years.
Specifically, at the Edinburgh Fringe, there are two major obstacles to sustainability that immediately spring to mind: the way marketing is done at The Fringe (this knee jerk reaction of printing out as much marketing collateral as you possibly can) and then the plastic cups used by the bars.
Tips: what can people starting out do?
Figure out what it is that is your biggest carbon footprint contributor and try and solve that. Crucially, don’t just think of sustainability within the arts. The fact of the matter is we could cycle around and then go back and watch TV and keep the central heating on for 8 hours. If you do want to make a difference, then make a difference in the rest of your life as well.
Inspiration: whose work do you admire right now?
The Arcola has always done a really good job - they’re often signalled as front runners in terms of sustainability in the London theatre scene.