An 'obsession' with Philip Glass inspires a director's memory play

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An 'obsession' with Philip Glass inspires a director's memory play
The countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, center, as the title character in Phelim McDermott’s staging of Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Oct. 29, 2019. In “Tao of Glass,” McDermott, who has directed three Glass operas, turns to his personal history with the composer’s work. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- The first piece of theater that Phelim McDermott made after college, decades ago, used music by Philip Glass. And directing productions of three of Glass’ operas has brought McDermott — and Improbable, the theater company he helped found in 1996 — glowing reviews and sold-out houses.

So it’s not surprising that McDermott’s “Tao of Glass,” which arrives at NYU Skirball on Thursday, is a loving tribute to his long relationship — what, in an interview, he called “my obsession” — with Glass’ seemingly repetitive yet constantly transforming music.

“Philip’s music has been like this river that’s gone through my creative life,” McDermott said on a video call from London, where he was completing rehearsals for a revival of his juggling-heavy production of Glass’ “Akhnaten” at English National Opera. “It connects me to a part of myself that sometimes I neglect and have forgotten about. It’s like an invitation to return to myself.”

Improbable’s productions tend to be built from everyday stuff, but “Tao of Glass” is even more modest than most. It is essentially a one-man show for McDermott. (Glass doesn’t perform live in the piece, but he is present in ghostly form through a sophisticated player piano that plays back precisely what he put down on it, including every detail of touch and phrasing.)

Onstage, McDermott is surrounded by shadow play, sticky tape and creatures formed from tissue paper as he tells stories about his life; his history with Glass, both the work and the man; his experiences in meditation-encouraging flotation tanks; and his encounters with the writings of Lao Tzu, the open-minded principle of “deep democracy” espoused by the author and therapist Arnold Mindell, and a shattered coffee table made of, yes, glass.

In the interview, McDermott talked more about his relationship with Glass and how the show came together. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Talk about the roots of your relationship with Glass’ work.

A: I was at college in London, what was then Middlesex Polytechnic, and I became very obsessed with his music. This was in 1982 or ’83, and I would take out VHS tapes of him playing with the Glass Ensemble, and footage of the operas and so on. And then, in the last six weeks of my degree course, I made an adaptation of an Ian McEwan short story, “Conversation With a Cupboard Man.”

It was a monologue about a guy who lives in what, in the U.K., we call a wardrobe — quite a dark, sort of strange piece about this guy who’s a misfit. And Philip’s music from “Glassworks” was so appropriate to that piece. It became the music we used in the show.

Q: And when did you take on one of the operas?

A: I was approached by John Berry at English National Opera. It was 2005, and I was performing a show called “Spirit” at New York Theater Workshop, literally around the corner from where Philip lives, and he met me at Atlas Cafe. I’d been asked to do “Einstein on the Beach,” and I thought it was a stupid idea. Philip asked me, “Why do you want to do ‘Einstein’?” And I said, “I don’t.” So we talked a bit, and he said, “Your genuine reluctance to do this piece makes me think you should do it.”

But then he mentioned “Satyagraha.” And I went away and listened to it, and it’s not a bio-opera about Gandhi; it’s about a concept. I got excited by this idea of collective social activism, of big groups of people and how they can exchange ideas. And it resonated with Arnold Mindell’s “worldwork”: If you want to do social activism and change, you have to work on yourself. If there’s an outer conflict, you also have to work on that conflict within yourself. That idea of “deep democracy” is in “Tao of Glass.”

Q: Your stagings of “Satyagraha,” “Akhnaten” and “The Perfect American” have different unifying concepts.

A: With “Satyagraha,” which we first did in 2007, it was big-scale spectacle, but using humble materials: sticky tape, newspaper — building those into large-scale puppetry. That became a model or metaphor for how, collectively, you can create something powerful even with humble materials. For “The Perfect American” (2013), which is about Walt Disney, it was about animation, and about all the work that goes into it between every frame. And for “Akhnaten” (2016), about the Egyptian pharaoh, it was juggling — and it turned out the very first image of juggling is in an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic.

Q: How did “Tao of Glass” come about?

A: It’s a show that happened when another one didn’t, which I talk about in “Tao of Glass.” Philip and I were supposed to adapt Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen.” I’d come out to New York; I’d done a storyboard and what musical bits might happen; but Maurice’s sad death, in 2012, meant that project veered into not happening.

John McGrath at the Manchester International Festival said even if that project’s not happening, if I was to dream what I might make with Philip, what might that be? And I got a vision, floating in the flotation tank, of me and Philip onstage together. I went to Philip and said, “I have a vision: I’m doing the puppetry, and you’re at the piano.” And he never said no.

Part of the story is my dream of getting him back into a rehearsal room the way I imagine he did when he was just starting out, just a downtown rehearsal space and some musicians. And it happened: There was this week where Philip did come into the rehearsal room, and I told stories — about him, about Taoism, about Arnie Mindell — and he would riff, and then he went away and arranged those bits of music he’d played. And, in a way, the show made itself. In the breaks, he would take us to a Tibetan curry house where they all knew him. It was Philip having a good time, really.

They say don’t meet your heroes, but I did, and I ended up making a crazy show with him that’s one of the things I’m proudest of. When you’re making a show like this, you have to trust something, and what you end up trusting is just doing the next step and the next step and the next step. And that’s what Philip’s music does. People say it’s repetitive, but it’s not really repetitive. It’s cyclical and it changes, and you get to a place where you don’t know how you got there, a deeper place.

Q: What comes next for you and him?

A: The last time I saw Philip — we always have a little conversation about what happens next, and he said, “When we work together, it seems to go quite well.” And at the moment we’re talking again about “Einstein,” to complete the trilogy with “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten.”

There’s probably vocabularies from those other productions that will go into our version of “Einstein” — probably a new vocabulary, too, but also elements of those other productions. When we met, he talked about various things, but the thing he’s most excited about is the trilogy: that we’ve got to do our Improbable version of “Einstein,” so that we can do all three operas across a city at the same time.

He’s a bit slow now, but he said, “You’ve got me all fired up.” So I know that that’s what Philip wants to happen — and I’m saying that publicly so that it does. That’s how you make things happen.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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