“It’s more akin to seeing a gig, than it is to seeing a regular piece of theater,” explained Ferdy Roberts, associate director of Filter Theatre, which opens its production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on Wednesday as part of Cal Performances. “Expect a bit of rock & roll.”
Roberts and his co-founder, Oliver Dimsdale, explained Filter’s approach at the Page & Stage “book club” on Monday night at The Musical Offering Café Bistro. Dimsdale and Roberts founded Filter when they were students at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama in the ’90s. As theater students, they did a lot of socializing with musicians, but had no academic interaction with them.
“We wanted to bring acting and music together,” Roberts explained. “We’re more like a band works than a traditional theater company.”
“Traditional” actually is a loaded work for the Filter founders. In their view, some of what their group does harks back to an older theater tradition, one that might have been familiar in Elizabethan England, but it seems Filter is stuck with the label of “experimental theater.”
Many of Filter’s productions involve devising new works. Their first production, Faster, took science writer James Gleick’s book of the same title about the acceleration of modern life and became a hit at London’s Battersea Arts Centre. Filter worked the same alchemy with Water, which explored global warming, and with Silence, which explored urban noise. But Filter has also tackled classic works of theater by Brecht, Chekhov and Shakespeare.
The Twelfth Night that opens at Zellerbach Playhouse on Wednesday resulted from a collaboration with two icons of “traditional” theater. First, Filter were workshopping some ideas at the National Theatre in London and then-NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner encouraged them to work on two plays, Twelfth Night and Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Then Filter were commissioned in 2006 by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to take part in a festival of Shakespeare’s complete works. The commission came with a catch: the budget meant that Filter could only use six actors and two musicians. Twelfth Night has 15 characters.
Working with director Sean Holmes, Filter figured out ways to double up some of the roles and made some abridgments to the original text (about a quarter of the play is edited out). The co-founders are both key actors in the company. Roberts plays Malvolio – “you’ll see me humiliated, I mean really humiliated” – and Dimsdale plays Sir Toby Belch – “Belch is really an alcoholic, and there’s nothing funny about an alcoholic.”
Roberts said Filter were fortunate in their timing when they started on their “response to Twelfth Night,” because Holmes had just finished a stint directing at the RSC. According to Roberts, Holmes “felt straitjacketed by all that money” in a main stage RSC production.
By contrast, Filter is eager to try new things. Roberts said it demonstrates the different attitude of musicians compared to theater folk.
“Their approach is, ‘Why not?’” he said.
Dimsdale said Filter’s approach marks a strong contrast to the director-led style that dominates UK theater.
“You allow yourself in the midst of rehearsal to make discoveries,” he said. “At the end, you have something of a journey that everyone has come through.”
And how does the Filter approach manifest in Twelfth Night?
“Our production has a lot of heart,” Dimsdale said, “and it has a lot of tomfoolery and silliness as well.”
“Over the years, we have had quite a few people stand up and say, ‘How dare you do this to Shakespeare?’” Roberts said. “We’d rather have an audience that is divided – love it and hate it – than have people say, ‘Oh, that was nice. Where should we go for dinner?’”
Twelfth Night is at the Zellerbach Playhouse Wednesday through Friday, March 22-24, 8 p.m., Saturday, March 25, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 26, 3 p.m. Tickets are available from Cal Performances.