MY STORY David Glass, artistic director of the David Glass Ensemble

The David Glass Ensemble was founded in 1990 as an international theatre company engagied with the changing world through tough productions, often written by David Glass himself and with new takes on Shakespeare and even Dickens. As a pioneer of physical theatre the performer, director and playwright is often said by other theatre makers to be a defining force in world drama.

He is also a teacher and among his students have been Simon McBurney, Emma Thompson and Lloyd Newson. The Ensemble has performed in more than 70 countries, and having trained at the Lecoq school in Paris and worked with directors such as Peter Brook, David Glass continues to be artistic director of the company, which this week was in Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun Centre with the Èlan Lost Child Project.  

One critic described the Ensemble’s work as “powerful, visceral, insane, tender, disgusting”. Are any of those adjectives fair?

I try not to tell the audience or the critic for that matter, what to feel. For me theatre is a “democracy of the heart” and each individual in the audience brings their own experience, memory and imagination to a performance on that particular night. But I’d say that our work is “visceral and powerful”, though there are moments of great tenderness in pieces like Bleak House and Mortgage. But as with all theatre, we should see the insanity of our world mirrored in the piece.

I’m a great believer in Jung’s idea that art releases the “shadow” side of our psyche. I don’t really work in a naturalistic form; I think there are some stories that are appropriate to be told in this way - and this is also what I would consider a national norm in England - but my work tends to celebrate theatricality. I’m more Spielberg than Loach, as it were.  

Above, David Glass

Main image, Glass Ensemble's Brides

How did you come to form the company?

Like a lot of artists I have been motivated by two emotions that we should never underestimate, boredom and anger. I was a very successful solo mime touring all over the world and was seen as a modern Marceau, but despite this success (if you want to call it that) and fame I was horribly bored with myself. My training had been in Paris where I’d spent some time watching Peter Brook’s company and was inspired by Mnouchkine as well as other great European theatre companies, and so in 1988 I began to think of creating a physical theatre ensemble. The only comparable company in the UK at that time was Complicité and I thought this is a direction that a lot of my pent-up energy could go in. So in 1990 Vicky Harboard and Susanne Burns, arts administrators, supported me in establishing the company, and our first work was Popeye

Your casts seem to be mainly female. Where do you draw your performers from?

I’m not sure that is entirely true but certainly a very popular piece recently is The Brides that I made with 13 women about the wonderful beauty and madness that can be found in women. It’s a love letter to the Feminine Principle, vulgar and delicate, hilarious and hideous by turn. However, I do think theatre being highly elative always is a strongly feminine art form. Also, I’ve been privileged to have worked with some fine women artists over the past 30 years: Rae Smith, Anna-Marie Duff, Kathrine Hunter, Buloh dancer Yukio, the lighting designer and arts leader Paule Constable, and I was married to the leading clown teacher and writer Peta Lily. I have always tried to advocate for women to have more power and more voice in what can be a very patriarchal art form. Over the past five years a number of wonderful women artists have been a part of the ensemble: Briony O’Callaghan who plays Mortgage; Hester Welch who was my AD for three years on The Brides, City Of Darkness and Divine Comedy.  Also Elisabeth Ho - Betty- a young performer who is our learning producer and was at Google in Singapore before joining us in the UK. Younger actresses in Bleak House have included the brilliant Aimee Kember and Aimee Pollock, and of course our partners in Italy Margharita Fussi and Silvia Bruni. Also we are growing a number of fab young black actresses such as Shanez Patti and Masie Daisey. 

Your productions are often shocking and at the same time funny. How do you strike a balance that will appeal to your audiences? 

Again, I think all theatre should jolt us awake, not make us fall deeper into the slumber of hideous convenience. One of the statements in the ensemble’s manifesto is “Disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed” and I think that’s what art should do. It should help us to “Feel again and think again”. And sometimes to have feelings we’ve never had before and thoughts that will keep us up at night. But also the world is a pretty shocking place. 

How have you managed through lockdown and can you tell how the virus might influence what you do in future? 

The Ensemble has had a period of reflection and we are refocusing the work we do in 18 countries under four areas: Legacy all our productions and learning up to now; Lab or Laboratory which is our work and projects over the next three years during this time of huge change (if everything is an experiment then nothing is wasted); Learn is our very extensive learning strand - theatre learning, experential learning, creative learning, applied theatre and youth learning. I place learning at the centre of everything we do. Again another statement from the manifesto is “Let us fail at excellence, not succeed at mediocrity”. In theatre we must fail and then learn from that failure. In fact, that’s life. And the last strand is light, which is Ensemble Films making features and documentaries, animation, digital art and sonic work. We are developing a number of apps to support our international projects Requiem for Change, Lost Child Project and AB Project.

Do you think Covid-19 and its implications will have changed theatre-going, and will it be for the better or worse?

I think many changes have been brewing deeply in the last ten years: inequality, polarisation, the future for our young, climate emergency and the failure of society throughout to control capitalism. The virus has brought all of these out into the open. Theatre thrives on stories of change and renewal, and of course for the moment theatres as buildings are in total crisis as are the mainly freelance people that work in them. But we must remember theatre at base is NOT a building, it is a relationship and a process. Because the Ensemble has always been pioneering and hugely adaptive and agile we are part of only 3% of companies who are working. We’ve just finished a huge Lost Child Project in Hong Kong and I’m at present working on a three-year community based project in Hastings with Theatre Nation called Beckett Pandemic. After this I am taking trains across Europe for various projects and finishing at the National Theatre  of Serbia with our AB Project, The Return, which has been chosen for one of their most important festivals. 

Since the lockdown there has been a movement towards more community engagement. Do you see that developing?

Absolutely. Fundamental values of kinship and community have become very important. Ensemble is another name for community and all our projects have a strong link to community development. Our Lost Child Project in Hong Kong is about creative citizenship, and we work through over 40 Ensemble associates in 18 countries.  

You’ve just completed an interation of The Lost Child Project in Hong Kong. What is it, how did it come about, and why were you reviving it?

The Lost Child is now the biggest marginalised youth arts project in the world. It’s taken place in 23 countries over 22 years. It is a creative practice and framework that deals with three ideas of Lost Child - actual lost children like street children, trafficked children or child labourers – and children lost in their homes through neglect or abuse. And finally, the lost child in every adult body, adults who feel they have lost all touch with their creative and spontaneous sides. This is a tragedy that can wreck families and destroy communities. The framework creative practice that I wrote for it in Cambodia’s Centre for Creative Practice in 2002 is now one of the most used creative strategies in the world. We are developing this into two major programmes now, Alchemy Extraordinary and Alchemy of Leadership. Creativity is the only way forward as I see the future.

You have had many controversial productions addressing current issues, and you are working on an adaptation of Naomi Klein’s climate change book This Changes Everything. But likely to be the most controversial is AB Project about the murderous Anders Breivik attack on a Norwegian island in 2011. How difficult is that to write and stage?

The story of the 69 young labour movement people who were killed on the Island of Utoya set the first chapter of a world splitting between extremes. Gun violence against the young and hope for the young’s future is on a knife edge. AB has produced theatre work in nine countries, and in China we did the project at the Central Academy of Dramatic Art - their RADA - where I have taught for 30 years. This is the first time terrorism was ever explored as a theme in China. We are now putting together the AB Trilogy: The Awakening, One of Us and The Return for a Creative Europe project and will be touring over the next few years. Over 350 young creators have gone into the making of it. I’m very proud that so many young people have contributed to this extraordinary project about a heinous act.

Learning, you have said, is at the centre of what you do, and you have already collaborated with Bath Spa University. Would you like to expand the education side of what you do?

It’s always been a strong strand in the Ensemble and we now have formal partnerships with a number of creative universities and conservatoires - East 15, Central Academy Beijing, Lasalle Singapore and most recently RADA’s Lab where I will be collaborating with one of our master ensemble associates Mike Alfreds and the brilliant black artist Benji Reid. We have a long-standing partnership with the progressive university Bath Spa and we are beginning a three year epic work next year - it’s very relevant and a bit secret at the moment. We also have partnerships with learning centres big and small across the world, and we’re developing new partnerships with digital teaching platforms for young people and a new major corporate trainer. So lots going on. 



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