The Tao of Glass | Improbable  |  Carolina Performing Arts Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill  |  Saturday, Mar. 25 

It’s a moment of assessment, as a child-sized puppet looks up at creator Phelim McDermott and, after a moment, reaches out to take his hand. But a surreal, dreamlike quality suffuses the two of them (technically three, including puppet captain Sarah Wright, who animates the dark-haired youth) as they set out on a brisk walk around an empty, circular stage. 

As composer Philip Glass’s arpeggios gently build momentum upward, a second puppeteer lifts the child’s feet off the ground, his legs dog-paddling as he gleefully swims through the air. A third puppeteer takes him even higher, as he soars above McDermott’s head and careens across the stage in a literal flight of fancy.

We’ve seen nothing yet, as the sequence unfolds in The Tao of Glass, an evening-length series of meditations on the famous avant-garde composer, who wrote 10 new songs for the work. The show will take place on Saturday, March 25, at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall.

Puppeteers open the doors, panels, and sides of an old black upright piano to release a world within—as music so often does itself. A panel of gossamer fabric, seemingly fashioned from pages of sheet music, unfurls from it. It’s a projection surface for shadow puppets that disclose the child’s airborne, moonlit journey through a tale of Maurice Sendak, as impressionist layerings of puppetry depict the bespectacled head of Glass himself in passionate engagement with a grand piano.

“Glass’s music invites us to see the world in a different way,” McDermott tells the INDY Week from a studio in London, where his revival of the Glass opera Akhnaten just opened last week. “It can invite you to see a bigger pattern, a deeper pattern, in what the world is doing.”

While the bold cadences in works like the score for the film Koyaanisqatsi have no problem claiming primacy with a listener, the shifting and repetitive structures that form the basis of Glass’s compositions can often serve an ambient or meditative function as well. Much of his work doesn’t seek to overwhelm or block out everything else that’s happening as we listen; instead, it often coexists with—and can filter, frame, or give different context to—all of the other experiences that are taking place at the same time.

McDermott cites the opening movement from Glassworks, which he uses in his show.

“It’s an extraordinary piece of music,” he says. “It echoes moments that you felt in the past, but it always brings you back into yourself in the moment.”

As McDermott listens onstage, he observes, “I’m amazed that this piece of music can still break me open.”

It’s been doing so for years. After his production of Satyagraha, Glass’s epic opera on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, first bowed in 2007, four subsequent revivals of the work have been produced at the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. McDermott’s current production of Akhnaten is his third since 2016. The works join a decidedly varied portfolio for the British stage artist, whose West End and New York directing credits have ranged from Shockheaded Peter and The Addams Family to a musical version of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro last year.

McDermott is slightly hesitant to talk about the connections he finds between Taoism and Glass’s music.

“It sounds very heavy and serious, but it’s actually a very playful show,” he says. “The Tao is a playful thing.”

The religion has roots dating back to the fifth century BCE in China, with precepts recorded in works like the Tao Te Ching. It posits the Tao as the subtle principle that underlies and forms the source, pattern, and substance—the “way”—of all that exists. Often referenced in analogies involving the movement of water, Taoism explores living in harmony with what it finds as the ever-animated, ever-changing natural order of the universe.

“It’s like the bubbling of a brook, the sound of leaves rustling,” McDermott says. “Add Philip’s music to those things, and you’re getting to a good show.”

Puppetry and Taoism have something fundamental in common. Indirection is a necessary part of both. According to Taoist scholars, “the Tao can’t be said,” McDermott notes. “You can only point in its direction.” Similar to Taoist texts, puppets only reference and point to the people and things they represent.

To underscore the point, McDermott and colleagues use newspaper and adhesive tape to make some puppets throughout the show. “The thing about those materials is you can’t quite control them. The more you try to make a well-made puppet, the more it falls apart.”

The resulting state requires what the creator calls a Taoist conversation with the materials. “They’re Taoist puppets. If you stay open, and you find out what the material wants to do, it animates itself—usually through the mistakes that happen.”

In every performance, the players make a different puppet of Glass playing at a piano. “Every time it’s slightly different,” McDermott says. “If the puppetry is open, it has this sense of a prism or a lens through which a doorway to dreaming can come through. It’s a dream door, which connects us from consensus reality, down to the essence.”

“I have no idea how you explain that to anyone,” he laughs.

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