Text: Jamie-leigh Hargreaves for Factory International, 2020

Following a rapturous reception at MIF19, Phelim McDermott’s personal homage to Philip Glass continues to travel around the world with upcoming performances at Perth Festival and Ruhrfestspiele. We take a look back at the beginnings of the project with the creative team.


Phelim McDermott (PM): I don’t really know when I first heard Philip’s music – but I bought his album, Glassworks, and that was my first introduction. When I was at college, I thought, I’ve got to find out about this man. I ended up in the Middlesex Polytechnic Library watching old VHS videos of the original productions of Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha [Philip Glass operas].

Kirsty Housley (KH): This is what I find interesting: you grew up with Philip Glass and I did too, but I wasn’t aware that I had. My introduction was also through film, but I didn’t know that it was Philip Glass. The Truman Show was probably the first time I heard his music, then someone recommended Koyaanisqatsi [scored by Glass]. I watched it and just thought: ‘Wow – this music.’

PM: He’s a very humble man: very approachable and human. They say don’t meet your heroes, because you’ll be disappointed. I haven’t been disappointed with Philip.


Philip Glass (PG): Phelim and I spent some time together visiting Maurice Sendak [illustrator and children’s author, most famous for Where the Wild Things Are], and we were talking with him about [adapting] In the Night Kitchen. Before we got to do the piece, Sendak passed away – so that came to an end. Phelim asked if I would like to work with him on a new piece that would be a kind of replacement, and that turned out to be the Tao of Glass.

PM: The show became about the stories and conversation between me and Philip, and whether anything grew from that. Actually, Philip was interested in the fact that there was nothing there.

Tao of Glass is about what emerges from the space where there is nothing. Phelim McDermott

KH: I think when we first spoke about the show, what I was most interested in was the idea of absence. The idea that a show hasn’t happened and an empty space has been left. And that feels like a kind of grief, but actually in that space there’s hope, and possibility. Nobody knows what’s going to happen and therefore anything is possible.

PM: On one level, this show is about a number of dreams not happening. There was one point where Philip said, ‘You know, this show’s about loss, isn’t it?’


KH: We’ve got a sign on our wall that says ‘Be prepared to be surprised’, and I feel like Philip is the epitome of that. Some composers want you to do your bit first and then they know what they’re doing – but Philip wasn’t sat opposite Phelim saying, ‘Tell me what it’s about, Phelim, otherwise I can’t bring anything’. There was this really genuine collaboration.

PG: Of course, it didn’t happen the way he wanted it to, but that’s just life in the theatre world.

PM: I told Philip stories, he improvised, I responded to his music, and then he responded to me. He has the David Bowie cut-up mentality: let’s put these pieces in this order and it’s going to do something to your brain. It will do something to how you listen, how you perceive this piece of theatre.

The show is a bit of a collage, I think – it comes from lots of different places. There are echoes thematically across all the different stories, and when you glue them together, the whole is transformed. Kirsty Housley


PM: Kintsugi is a form of Japanese art where you take pieces of a broken vase and fix them together with golden glue, and it becomes more beautiful because it highlights its flaws. I would say that, on some level, the show is like a piece of kintsugi.

It’s not even like the pieces of the same pot – it’s pieces from about eight different pots.

KH: Every day we make good discoveries, then we hit a brick wall and have to rethink how we’re working. The stories existed when I came in and the process has been to discover how they will evolve and fit together – in a way, the meaning reveals itself through how they’ve been collated. It’s in the form as much as in the content.


PM: One idea of what the show was going to be was that I might ask Philip eight important questions – about creativity, life and mortality.

PG: I don’t remember Phelim sharing that idea with me. So he may have asked me the questions without telling me there were eight questions. During the workshops, he may have asked all the questions and got the answers, but I was not privy to the system.

PM: It’s not what ended up happening, because it didn’t feel right. Philip did say, ‘It’s hard being the sage, isn’t it?’

KH: That feels like a really important element of the show, though: that there are just some things that are impossible to articulate with words. Philip can’t give Phelim the key to successful creativity or living a brilliant life any more than anyone else can. But he can give you extraordinary music.


PM: It’s called the Tao of Glass – and one of the ideas of Taoism is that there are times when you may notice that you’re following nature, and what nature is asking of you or revealing to you, or you’re working against that. That’s very good as a creative process metaphor.

KM: It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do – I definitely can’t do it – and so there’s also something impossible about the Tao, which I really like. You can’t win it and you can’t know it. It’s about the journey of it.

PG: I’ve read the same books as everyone else has, but the books about Taoism make a point of telling you that they’re not going to explain Taoism. And they don’t!

KM: I’m interested in the humanity of trying to follow Taoism, and failing – the attempt is fascinating, but human nature can often get in the way.

PM: That’s the beauty of the Taoist version of dreaming. Maybe you will follow the Tao, which says to believe in your dreams – just don’t expect them to be manifested in the way you think they will.There’s another way of dreaming that we’re interested in with this show, which is more meditative: it’s about being connected to reality and listening to your instincts.


KH: I feel like there are almost two different types of dreaming. One is really prevalent at the moment: sorry to be political, but it’s a very capitalist way of dreaming. It never allows you to be in the present. There’s always something that you want, so you’re spending your whole life trying to get that thing, which is always in the future.But there’s another way of dreaming that we’re interested in with this show, which is more meditative: it’s about being connected to reality and listening to your instincts. It’s really the difference between daydreaming and having a life plan.

PM: The show is about a different kind of understanding of dreamland and where dreams originate. There’s a model in the show, Arny Mindell’s Deep Democracy model: if you go further down the cone of consciousness, there’s a kind of dreaming that happens pre-image, pre-words, that’s very easily marginalised within ourselves.This dreaming is much more like a big, connected, unbroken wholeness where we are not separate people, or separate from nature. This whole show has grown from that place.

KH: Tao of Glass has been our dream in this room, but when it meets an audience, it will become a new dream that involves them too.


PM: Tao of Glass will mean different things to people in different places. I like to think that if we create something that does continue, it will be open enough to unfold new stories that might get told.

PG: There are some interesting things involving my presence in the piece. Besides being the composer, I kind of have a ‘ghost’ presence: I will be with the piece at the performances, but I won’t be on the stage.

KH: Tao of Glass will continue evolving throughout its run in Manchester, at Perth Festival and beyond.

PM: You don’t really find out what you’ve done until an audience is sitting there – and that’s what theatre is. Dreaming together.

Tao of Glass premiered in Manchester International Festival in July 2019.


a conversation between Phelim McDermott & Frank Hentschker

MIF Originals: 
A conversation between Phelim McDermott & Isaiah Hull

Prep School: Click here to get into the show with readings, interviews, videos & more!

Tao of Glass

Creative and Production Team

Composer – Philip Glass
Writer, Co-Director and Performer – Phelim McDermott
Co-Director – Kirsty Housley
Remount Director – Peter Relton
Designer – Fly Davis
Lighting Designer – Colin Grenfell
Sound Designer – Giles Thomas
Collaborator – Ragnar Freidank
Musical Director – Chris Vatalaro
Assistant Director  – Jen Tan
Puppet Designer & Puppet Maker – Lyndie Wright
Design Associate – Camille Etchart
Originating Sound Associate – Sorcha Steele
Sound Associate 2023 – Eleanor Theodorou
Lighting Associate – Matt Lever
Production Manager, Luke Childs
Company Stage Manager, Emma Cameron
Deputy Stage Manager, Caoimhe Regan
Assistant Stage Manager, Anna Booth


Performer – Phelim McDermott
Puppeteers – David Emmings, Avye Leventis
Puppeteer & Puppet Co-ordinator – Sarah Wright
Puppeteer (swing) – Janet Etuk


Musical Director and Ensemble (Percussion) – Chris Vatalaro
Ensemble (Clarinet) – Jack McNeill
Ensemble (Violin) – Laura Lutzke
Ensemble (Piano) – Katherine Tinker
Photography – Tristram Kenton


Commissioned by Manchester International Festival, Improbable, Perth Festival, Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, Hong Kong New Vision Arts Festival and Carolina Performing Arts – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in association with Naomi Milgrom AO. Produced by Manchester International Festival and Improbable.

Originally performed at Manchester International Festival 2019.

Philip Glass is managed and published by Dunvagen Music Publishers, Inc. For Dunvagen:
Adrienne White – Director
Richard Guérin – Head of Repertoire
Cory Davis – Music Editing and Copying
Alex Gray – Music Assistant
Jonathan Wyatt – Personal Assistant
Lisa Dean – Royalty and Licensing Coordinator
James Keller – Senior Advisor


Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Philip Glass is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School. In the early 1960s, Glass spent two years of intensive study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and, while there, earned money by transcribing Ravi Shankar’s Indian music into Western notation. By 1974, Glass had a number of innovative projects creating a large collection of new music for The Philip Glass Ensemble and for the Mabou Mines Theater Company. This period culminated in Music in Twelve Parts and the landmark opera Einstein on the Beach, for which he collaborated with Robert Wilson. Since Einstein, Glass has expanded his repertoire to include music for opera, dance, theater, chamber ensemble, orchestra and film. His scores have received Academy Award nominations (Kundun, The Hours, Notes on a Scandal) and a Golden Globe (The Truman Show). Glass’s memoir Words Without Music was published by Liveright Books in 2015. Glass received the Praemium Imperiale in 2012, the U.S. National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama in 2016, and 41st Kennedy Center Honors in 2018. Glass’s recent works include a circus opera Circus Days and Nights, Symphony No. 13, and Symphony No 14. Glass celebrated his 85th birthday in 2022 with a season of international programming.

Phelim McDermott is a founder member of Improbable and the company’s co-artistic director. In addition to Tao Of Glass Improbable credits include: 70 Hill Lane; Lifegame; Animo; Coma; Spirit; Sticky; Cinderella; The Hanging Man; Theatre of Blood (in collaboration with the National Theatre); Panic; Beauty and the Beast (in co-production with ONEOFUS); The Tempest (a co-production with Northern Stage and Oxford Playhouse); Opening Skinners Box (a co-production with Northern Stage and West Yorkshire Playhouse); Lost Without Words (a co-production with the National Theatre), My Neighbour Totoro (RSC and Nippon TV at Barbican). Opera credits with Improbable include: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (ENO, LA Opera); The Perfect American, the Olivier Award-winning Akhnaten, Mozart’s Così fan tutte (ENO and Metropolitan Opera, NY); Aida (ENO); and BambinO, an opera for babies (originally co-produced with Manchester International Festival and Scottish Opera, now with LA Opera); The Hours (Metropolitan Opera). Other productions as director include: the Olivier Award-winning Shockheaded Peter; Alex (The Arts Theatre); The Ghost Downstairs (Leicester Haymarket); Dr Faustus, Improbable Tales (Nottingham Playhouse); The Servant of Two Masters, The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Government Inspector (West Yorkshire Playhouse) and Artistic Collaborator on She’s Leaving Home (produced by 20 Stories High). In 2003 Phelim was awarded a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) fellowship to research new ways of rehearsing and creating theatre using improvisation and process-oriented conflict facilitation techniques. As part of this work he has facilitated many Open Space Technology events. He was made an Honorary Doctor of Middlesex University in 2007. 

Kirsty Housley is a director, writer and dramaturg working across theatre, film and digital. Recent work includes Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead for Complicite (Additional Direction), Jekyll and Hyde by Evan Placey (director) for The National Theatre; Extinct by April de Angelis (director and dramaturg) for Theatre Royal Stratford East; The Long Goodbye (director of live show and livestream) with Riz Ahmed for Manchester International Festival/BAM; Can I Live for Complicite (Dramaturg); Mephisto (A Rhapsody) at The Gate Theatre (director); Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran and The Believers are but Brothers (Director and co-creator with Javaad Alipoor); Avalanche: A Love Story at The Barbican and Sydney Theatre (Dramaturg); Misty at The Bush and the West End (Dramaturg); The Encounter for Complicite (co-director) and Myth for the RSC (director and co-writer).

Factory International is the organisation behind Manchester International Festival (MIF) and the landmark new cultural space which welcomes its first visitors in June 2023, creatinga global destination for arts music and culture in the heart of Manchester. Factory International will commission, produce and present an ambitious year-round programme of original creative work, music and special events at its new venue, online,and internationally through its network of co-commissioners and partners. It will also stage the city-wide Festival every other year, at its new home and in venues and spaces across Greater Manchester. Designed by the world-leading Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the ultra-flexible building is based around multiple configurations, enabling large-scale artistic work of invention and ambition that is not made anywhere else-from major exhibitions and concerts to intimate performances and immersive experiences-and providing artists with a space to make, explore and experiment. Outside, its public areas will come alive with pop-up performances, events and markets, creating a thriving riverside destination for audiences to enjoy. Through the Factory Academy, Factory International will become a major training centre for local people, helping to build the technicians, producers and other creative talent that will bring the future alive, while its pioneering programmes of engagement and artist development will benefit local people and the next generation of creators. Rooted in Manchester, Factory International will strengthen the city’s status as a national and international centre for culture, creativity and innovation, as well as a major visitor destination. The economic impact of Factory International will be considerable, creating or supporting up to 1,500 direct and indirect jobs and adding £1.1 billion to the city’s economy over a decade. Its development is led by Manchester City Council, with backing from HM Government and Arts Council England.

A few words on the Improbable from Artistic Directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson: “So, what kind of theatre do you make?” is a question people often ask. It’s a good question but it’s difficult to give a simple answer because we seem to go in lots of different directions at once. Sometimes the work is really big, like Sticky, an outdoor piece with giant Sellotape structures; or shows might be in big theatres like Theatre of Blood or Lost Without Words at the National Theatre, or Aida, The Perfect American, Così Fan Tutte, Akhnaten, and Satyagraha at the English National Opera; but some of it is much smaller like Animo, The Still, Permission Improbable, or BambinO, our opera for babies. The shows could be improvised, scripted, devised. They might feature fireworks, puppets, opera, music, mayhem and sometimes even some acting. We’ve taken these shows all over the world from Sydney to Syria, New Zealand to nearly everywhere else. Alongside the shows we also take our practise into other spaces such as conflict resolution, academic research or business. For the last fifteen years we’ve been hosting and facilitating Open Space events. Open Space is a self-organising process that enables large groups to tackle complex issues with no formal agenda. These events have seen the emergence of a nationwide community of artists and theatre practitioners under the banner Devoted And Disgruntled (which was hosted at Royal and Derngate in 2019) and also seen us work with councils, businesses and charities across the UK and internationally. Alongside Tao of Glass making it’s US premiere, our production of Akhnaten has returned to the London Coliseum with ENO. We hope to see you at another show or event soon. 


NYU Skirball holds close James Baldwin’s dictum that “artists are here to disturb the peace.” Our mission is to present adventuresome, transdisciplinary work that inspires yet frustrates, confirms yet confounds, entertains yet upends. We proudly embrace renegade artists who surprise, productions that blur aesthetic boundaries, and thought-leaders who are courageous, outrageous, and mind-blowing. We are NYU’s largest classroom. We want to feed your head. 


NYU Skirball’s programs are made possible in part with support from the National Endowment for the Arts; the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature; and by Howard Gilman Foundation; FACE Contemporary Theater and FUSED (French U.S. Exchange in Dance), programs of FACE Foundation in partnership with Villa Albertine; General Delegation of the Government of Flanders to the USA; Collins Building Services; Korean Cultural Center New York, Norwegian Consulate General in New York; Marta Heflin Foundation; Harkness Foundation for Dance; Mertz Gilmore Foundation; Aaron Copland Fund for Music; Amphion Foundation; as well as our valued donors through memberships, commissioning, and Stage Pass Fund support.