‘We never looked back!’ Filskit’s fabulous 10-year adventure in theatre

When they began staging shows for children, the all-female Filskit theatre company commonly heard two questions. But what will happen when you have babies? And wouldn’t you rather be making proper theatre? Ten years on, the award-winning trio are busy presenting two new productions this month: an interactive online jamboree, Margot’s Magical Winter Wonder Party, and a new film adapted from their penguin tale, Huddle. With one Filskit baby born already, and two more due next year, the company is adapting to their changing lives, but that’s always been part of the process for this nimble operation co-run by best friends Victoria Dyson, Sarah Shephard and Katy Costigan.

The “proper theatre” charge still rankles. “We’ve heard that phrase more times than we’d care to remember,” says Shephard, when we all meet on Zoom. “I think it’s a lack of understanding of the sector.” In the last decade, the quality and status of work for young audiences has significantly improved, but many still base their assumptions on their own childhood experiences of theatre. That might have been a trip to the panto or a “theatre-in-education company coming to your school to do a show about highway safety”.

Filskit make hi-tech, playful, multi-layered and thoroughly researched productions about complex issues including how the human brain works (Bright Sparks), light pollution (Stella) and the climate crisis (Breaking the Ice). On one level, explains Shephard, some of their shows look like they’re about “cute, cuddly animals”, but in the case of Huddle, which finds an emperor penguin in a flap about new fatherhood, “actually it’s about isolation and single-parent families”. The research for each show, says Costigan, is “the bit we all get really excited about – how you turn what could be quite a dry subject into something colourful, exciting and engaging”. Dyson adds that for Huddle, the way emperor penguins behave – “the mum going to sea and dad sitting with the chick” – provided a readymade dramatic arc. Once the research is in place, they mix in their own mischief and theatrical surprises.

The Filskit team met while studying European theatre arts at Rose Bruford College in Kent. Their course included a spell in Barcelona, which led them on to a residential theatre retreat involving “intense Grotowski-style training” in Toulouse. Waiting at the airport for their flight back to the UK, they resolved to start their own company to have greater control over their careers. “Acting roles at the time, particularly for young women, lacked a lot of creative input,” explains Costigan. They began to put on experimental theatre, not created with children in mind, and found that their shows just happened to attract families. When London’s Unicorn theatre put out a call for companies to make their first work for children, they signed up and created a version of Snow White. “We never looked back,” smiles Shephard.

The company was founded with a fourth member, Jordanna O’Neill, who gave them their name. Filskit, a Shetland word meaning lively or cheeky, fits the frisky spirit of shows such as Breaking the Ice, in which a husky encounters a polar bear. That production, staged with their trademark digital projections and with original music by Torgeir Vassvik, ended with the young audience spilling on to the stage and splitting into two teams, wearing polar bear or husky ears. When I saw it in 2015 at the Unicorn, Dyson and Costigan expertly brought the children into the story. Neither of them are starring in the next revival: “We’ve got actors whose knees don’t hurt when they are playing huskies,” laughs Dyson.

The trio run the company together – Dyson does marketing, Shephard handles tour bookings, Dyson looks after the finances – and they have always taken a flexible approach to sharing directing and acting duties. They have all performed the baby show Kaleidoscope, but in the case of Huddle, says Costigan, “Vic was always going to make a great baby penguin!” Collaboration is at Filskit’s heart: “We want to hear our sound designer’s thoughts on a piece of movement as much as we do anyone else’s,” adds Costigan.

They have been each other’s bridesmaids and liken their relationship to a sisterhood, which can mean a disarming level of directness when working together that sometimes surprises collaborators. “We can be brutal with each other,” admits Costigan. “When you hear it for the first time, it can sound quite rude.” But there is a “lot of laughter” in the rehearsal room, adds Dyson, not to mention a “good snack table”. Touring up and down the UK with highly technical shows, some involving a get-in time of several hours, could easily lead to frayed emotions. But looking after the company, and each other, has always been paramount. Dyson’s father died when they were launching Breaking the Ice; they found out at the Unicorn where Dyson’s colleagues supported her through the first performances. “We’ve got each other’s backs,” she says.

The trio check in regularly with each other, and with their collaborators, asking: “Does this work for you?” That’s partly to do with respecting parental responsibilities, but also the working practices of neurodivergent performers with whom they have collaborated. If the industry doesn’t understand everyone’s individual needs, it will lose talent, they explain pragmatically. In the company’s early years, there was a tendency to “work all the hours” while establishing themselves, says Costigan. “We’re now in a position where we can go: does that project serve us, and can we serve the project well enough with the resources – emotional and physical – that we have?”

This year, the pandemic has hit theatre-makers hard, leading to near constant rescheduling. When we speak, the trio are preparing to put on a two-week stage revival of Breaking the Ice but those plans were scuppered by Monday’s announcement that London is entering tier 3 restrictions. The family sector brings its own particular challenges in the Covid era: socially distanced adult audiences are one thing, but for young children it’s a particularly tall order. Filskit’s shows are up close and personal: my memories of seeing them are of being, well, huddled with others as kids explore the sets, and the actors bound out among the audience, as in Stella.

When theatres closed in March, they were touring a show for babies, Kaleidoscope. “We realised that babies crawling around the set gumming the same props wasn’t going to be OK for quite a while,” says Shephard. In the no man’s land between lockdowns, they reworked that show for a Zoom audience instead. Spending increasing amounts of time at home has left children craving interactivity, she adds, even if it is just “someone, other than a grownup at home, saying their name”.

Margot’s Magical Winter Wonder Party looks back on this strange year, with its story of a girl whose birthday celebrations are cancelled – along with her summer holiday, trick-or-treating and other family activities. It brings home what a turbulent year this has been for children and ends with a call to make the best of it and conjure your own fun indoors. Next year, they plan to present it on stage, a celebration of coming together again, complete with confetti cannon. It’s that same mix of serious subject with an irreverent light touch, created with empathy for the young audience. Shephard brings up another phrase they heard bandied about when they started: “Children are the audience of the future.” That misses the point, say Filskit: “They’re an audience right now.”