Flotation tanks and absent kettles: Phelim McDermott on Tao of Glass

Photo: Rod Morata

Photo: 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 – AkhnatenSatyagrahaThe 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!’.”

Read the rest of the interview on Bachtrack