Phelim McDermott © Rod Morata
Phelim McDermott
© Rod Morata

On first presenting Yesterday to John Lennon, (sung at this point to a refrain of "Scrambled Eggs"), Paul McCartney assumed this “good little tune” had been written by someone else. The melody, so the story goes, came to him in a dream, and it was only after he’d received multiple assurances of its originality that McCartney went on to write what is now the most recorded song of all time. Adding a 21st-century twist to this concept of somnambulant creativity, actor and stage director Phelim McDermott – born two years before Yesterday was recorded – has put together a brand-new work for the Manchester International Festival, created in collaboration with Philip Glass – and conceived in a flotation tank.

McDermott is no stranger to Glass’ music. The native Mancunian has been at the helm of various critically acclaimed productions with the ENO – Anknaten, Satyagraha, The Perfect American – and although he had some conceptual input with the latter (“I worked with a designer, and there was definitely a point where he [Glass] responded to our drawings”), this latest project – entitled Tao of Glass – is their first direct collaboration. A combination of story-telling, puppetry and music, this comparatively miniature show will explore McDermott’s creative debt towards the American minimalist – and the origins around how each artist creates. “On one level the show will be about the creation of the show…” he tells me cryptically when we meet at the National Theatre. “And on another level it’s about the disappearance of another project.”

The pair had originally planned to adapt Maurice Sendak’s children’s novel In The Night Kitchen, but Maurice passed away before the project took off, and in searching around for another story they might use, McDermott hit upon an idea. This is where the flotation tank comes in: “It sounds corny but it’s the best place to think! I got this image. It was me on stage doing what we’ve always done in our shows – using materials and objects as puppets – and there was someone else there… 'Oh! It’s Philip playing the piano!' I thought. And of course, it was a dream about me and Philip on stage together. I went to John McGrath [Artistic Director of the Manchester Festival] and told him about the idea, and he said: ‘well go and ask him!’.”

So McDermott, armed with his vision and a few creative obsessions (the Tao de Ching, puppetry, and this idea of Glass as a creative mentor), pitched the idea to the composer. The response he got was tepid at best. After their first meeting Glass declared: “The great thing about this project is that neither of us know what it’s going to be!” McDermott cheerfully describes this moment as “just about the biggest non thumbs up you can get”, but Glass’ faith in the director clearly trumped any doubts he may have had in his vision. Workshops were set up at the La MaMa Rehearsal Space in New York’s East Village (just a few streets over from where Glass lives), and again in the UK with a troupe of puppeteers. By the end of the sessions Glass turned to McDermott and said “you seem to have a thesis for a show here” – to which McDermott thought “OK – getting there!”.

The next set of workshops in New York were a mad dash of creativity. McDermott had been told beforehand that the 82-year-old might only be able to do an hour or so each time, but on the first day Glass burst into the room and said “Come on we’ve gotta get going! I’ve got lots to do – I’m doing King Lear! [Glenda Jackson’s recent Broadway production]”. So McDermott acted out the various stories he’d been working on whilst Glass sat at the piano – and by the end of week the composer had produced ten pieces of music. The session was taped, and incredibly, the next time McDermott saw Glass he had orchestrated them for a small ensemble of percussion, cello, violin, clarinet and piano.

Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott © Rod Morata
Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott
© Rod Morata

I ask McDermott whether Glass had seemed to relish this looser, exploratory approach to writing – something he had perhaps missed when working on large-scale commissions like The Perfect American. “I think he was enjoying hanging out in a rehearsal room at this wonky, broken-down piano,” he confirms. “It was in that space that he was artist in residence way back. That was his world. Obviously somewhere he has been hungry for that kind of collaboration.” The final stage, in which McDermott must take these musical fragments and turn them it into a living, breathing show, will take place in the UK over the next five weeks. Talking to him it is clear he cannot wait to get started. “It’s strange, because you’re almost talking it into being”, he tells me. “We’ll have to create a narrative that holds these pieces of music together and communicates some of the ideas.”

One of these ideas – something McDermott describes as a sense of “what could have been” – ties in closely with his interest in Taoism. The ancient Chinese philosophy places great importance on predestination: “You might have a plan of what’s going to happen – but the Tao has another plan”, McDermott explains. “One of the stories is about what would have been the second piece of theatre I ever saw – a show called Billy’s Wonderful Kettle. I was so excited about going I made myself sick and didn’t get to see it, and in my head it’s the best piece of theatre I never saw. I told that story whilst Philip was banging away on the piano – and there’s now a piece of music that goes with it!”

His enthusiasm is indicative of a deep trust in the narrative power of Glass’ music. I ask him if it’s minimalism, or something more specific to Glass that he finds so enchanting: “When I first heard the music I thought ‘that’s extraordinary’ – but I didn’t know what it was. ‘Minimalism? What’s that!?’ I thought. It has something theatrical about it. It helps you to watch in a certain way – to receive performance in a certain way. If you do a certain kind of performance or puppetry, where you’re playing with objects or materials, that music is the aural version of that visual vocabulary, and vice versa.” This reverence goes some way to explain the enormous success of productions like Satyagraha, which has been revived multiple times since its premiere in 2007. There is, clearly, a deep creative understanding between the two artists.

<i>Tao of Glass</i> © Christian Sturm
Tao of Glass
© Christian Sturm

That Tao of Glass will be staged at the The Royal Exchange – somewhere McDermott spent many of his formative years – is equally significant. The theatre first opened its doors in 1976 when McDermott was 13, and he was witness to some of the very first shows that were produced there. Sat engrossed on the front row seats, or “banquettes” as they are known, McDermott had hoped that one day he too might be part of the action. “As a child you have dreams about performing or directing there, and you give up on that dream”, he says. “Then it comes back in another way. The last thing I ever imaged is that I’d be there performing a piece about Philip Glass.” And so the Tao works its way back into the narrative, and McDermott’s opening gambit – that “the show will be about the creation of the show” – begins to make sense.

When we part ways he tells me excitedly that he’s off to meet Glass over on the other side of town, where together they are being introduced to the show’s musicians. It is touching to see how much working with the composer still means to him. Indeed, one can’t help but feel a sense of destiny in their collaboration – a narrative set in motion when McDermott first stumbled across old video tapes of Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha as a student in his university library, through to his first piece of professional theatre, in which he used music from Glassworks, to the latest revival of Anknhaten with the ENO earlier this year. McDermott’s own words come to mind: you might have a plan for what’s going to happen, but the Tao has a different one. Clearly a little faith in the Tao is no bad thing.


This article was sponsored by the Manchester International Festival.