A dream within a dream: ‘Tao of Glass’

By Steve Dow
Theatremaker Phelim McDermott on his highly personal collaboration with Philip Glass

Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott composing Tao of Glass. Photograph by Rod Morata

A falling puppet represents a boy with a very Irish name born in Manchester, who has grown to tell his story – this story – on stage. The first tale theatremaker Phelim (pronounced fay-lum) McDermott tells in his new show, Tao of Glass, is about his childhood dream of making theatre. The production is accompanied by an original score composed and orchestrated by his hero, Philip Glass, for piano, percussion, cello, violin and clarinet.

Tao of Glass (which will play at Perth Festival from February 19 to 23) is a work about dreams that come true, and those that don’t: McDermott, for instance, had originally hoped to adapt Maurice Sendak’s children’s story In the Night Kitchen, which is about another boy falling into a surreal world. McDermott had been talking to Sendak about that idea, but the author’s death in 2012 meant the project lapsed.

“I had to let go of that dream, and there was a kind of gap,” McDermott says via Skype. He’s a founder and co-artistic director of the London-based Improbable, a theatre company known for its improvisatory approach to live productions, and when we speak he is in New York, where he is directing a fresh production of Glass’s 1983 opera, Akhnaten.

Seeking new inspiration to create a work to premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where he had watched shows as a boy, McDermott thumbed through other children’s books, but these failed to move him like Sendak’s did. So he repaired to a flotation tank, which is “useful for lots of things, not least my pelvis gets helped incredibly; it’s good for pain relief”, he says, his eyes widening now to accentuate his gift for anecdote.

A flotation tank is also “enforced meditation, because you go into an enclosed, dark space. If you’re working on something, you really can focus. I had this dream, this vision, and the image was me and Philip Glass on stage together, and me doing puppetry and Philip playing the piano. I thought ‘Oh, that’s an idea for a show – that won’t happen.’”

For decades, McDermott has looked up to Baltimore-born Glass, who turned 83 in January, as a mentor and a father figure, and that relationship, in which McDermott is still very much the fan, is the core of Tao of Glass. The falling puppet-boy also comes to represent McDermott’s own son, Ridley, whom McDermott asks in the show for advice about what he should say to Philip Glass.

The first show McDermott ever made professionally used music from Glassworks, the 1981 album Glass recorded to bring his music to a more general audience. The pair finally met in person for the first time in 2005, on the pretext that McDermott had been asked to direct a production of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. McDermott admitted he was reluctant to tackle that one, so Glass suggested another of his operas, Satyagraha, which McDermott duly directed in 2007 and 2008, followed by two more, The Perfect American and, most recently, Akhnaten. Despite this growing CV of directing Glass works, “I don’t think Philip had ever seen me on stage,” McDermott reflects. “He didn’t know that I really performed.”

A new meeting was set up at which Glass asked what McDermott’s new show would be about. Seizing on his obsession at the time, he explained it would be about the Tao Te Ching, a fundamental text for philosophical and religious Taoism. It would also be about McDermott’s relationship to Glass’s music, “an inspiration, a thread, a seam through my creative life”.

“Will there be puppets?” asked Glass, hopefully. “Yeah, there’ll be puppets,” McDermott confirmed.

McDermott went away and wrote about his memories, such as first seeing Akhnaten, in 1985. “I bought a ticket,” he wrote, “and I spotted Philip Glass in the street, and followed him.”

A workshop was set up by McDermott for Glass to attend in New York. “Then I got a message he’d been ill, and probably wouldn’t be into rehearsals. They said, ‘Oh, he might visit once or twice, but he’s not been great.’”

Glass was extraordinarily driven, however: improvising to McDermott’s ideas, within a week he’d composed 10 pieces for the show; at the same time he was committed to scoring a new production of King Lear on Broadway starring Glenda Jackson.

The next time McDermott saw Glass, the composer had finished orchestrations for all the Tao of Glass instruments.

McDermott once asked Glass what he was most afraid of. His answer was that he did not want to die with any project unfinished. “He’s an elder, he’s had this extraordinary life. He’s gone from someone whose music drove people mad – people threw things at him when he was first playing the piano – and here we are at the Metropolitan Opera, and Akhnaten is selling out. He’s obviously aware that he’s towards the end of his life.”

Glass made a surprise appearance on stage during the premiere run of Tao of Glass at Manchester International Festival in July, although others play the music: in Perth, that will include Katherine Tinker on piano and Chris Vatalaro on percussion and as musical director, as well as three puppeteers alongside McDermott as performer.

In one section, McDermott explains the influence of another mentor, detailing former quantum physicist and American Jungian therapist Arnold Mindell’s theory of three levels of existence: consensus reality, dreamland and essence. McDermott attended one of Mindell’s workshops, Worldwork, in Sydney, where attendees role-play as activists about world issues.

McDermott first heard about “Arnie”, whose approach to psychology builds on Jungian dream theory and Taoist principles, in the 1980s, and he later turned Mindell’s 1989 book Coma: Key to Awakening into a show.

The book is about people in coma states, a “deep dreaming process”, says McDermott. “The way to communicate with them is to go to where they are. Useful for yourself, if you may be going through any near-death process, and also useful when you are with people in those states.

“I talked to Philip about this work with Arnie, this exercise in pairs where you work with people in coma states. One person lies on the floor, pretends to go into a coma – acting – and the other person works on trying to communicate with them, and afterwards you feedback on whether they were contacting you. But you’ve got to look for minimal signals: temperature change, colour change.

“Philip said, ‘Stop talking about it; just do it. Lie on the floor; I’ll try and contact you.’ So I lay on the floor, Philip sat at the piano, and he basically did Arnie Mindell coma work at the piano, and he wrote this extraordinary, beautiful piece of music.

“If you’re talking about Taoism, that’s about following something where it goes … I wouldn’t say I’m a religious person, in an organised religious sense, [but] there are aspects of all religions that kind of resonate with me.

“If I’ve had spiritual experiences, that’s probably to do with theatre, being on stage at those heightened moments, where you’re connected to an audience.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott composing Tao of Glass. Photograph by Rod Morata

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