David Glass is engaged in a project that is Wagnerian in scope and ambition, but most un-Wagnerian in its aim of taking art off its pedestal and giving it back to the audience. Over the next three years the theatre director is taking his ensemble on a tour of Britain and the world, performing, leading workshops and bringing back ideas, images and sounds.
The result of this international collaboration will be The Lost Child, a trilogy of theatre pieces dedicated to the millions of children who "disappear" each year, the victims of war, poverty or myriad forms of adult abuse. The ensemble will be working with street children in countries such as Colombia and the Philippines. But for David Glass, the project is also about "the lost child in every adult body, a child that has never been allowed to grow, to cry or to laugh". For instance, the ensemble will work in Hanoi with groups of adults traumatised by their experiences as child soldiers in the Vietnam wars.
One of Britain's leading exponents of physical and visual stagecraft, Glass is scathing about the state of the conventional theatre: "The establishment theatre - 'credit card theatre', I call it - is dead. It's at the margins that the really interesting things are happening. When you see a choreographer working with 30 disabled children - that's when you see real communication begin to happen."
His performers are chosen for their flexible approach to ensemble work, their variety of skills - from dance and mime to story-telling and music - and for their ability to handle workshops.
Glass is currently working on a book charting his 20 years as a teacher, and an afternoon spent at the ensemble's north London studio provides a glimpse of how he has acquired his reputation for persuading performers to flex their imaginative as well as their physical muscles. They are rehearsing The Hansel Gretel Machine, the first part of the trilogy, and the walls are plastered with words and images depicting this universal tale of abandonment and loss. Beneath these, strewn around the edges of the floor, are "lost" objects - old knives and forks, some stones in a bucket, an empty picture frame - that can be called on as props. In the middle, the four performers are running through a delightful sequence from near the beginning of the piece in which the family are laying the table and plates turn into fluttering butterflies.
That playful manipulation of physical objects reminded me of Fantasia, and film is a clear influence on this most visual of directors. Two of Glass's previous productions - Les Enfants du Paradis and La Dolce Vita - have been stage adaptations of famous movies. With a grandfather who was a film director in Germany in the Twenties and early Thirties, and a mother who was a set designer, Glass grew up in Hollywood. A nightmarish sequence the ensemble puts together later in the afternoon - in which Gretel, herself pushed along on a trolley, watches helplessly while Hansel is led away by two blank-faced strangers - has an unnerving somnambulism worthy of Hitchcock.
The Hansel Gretel Machine goes on a two-month national tour at the end of January, but the most challenging education work will come in May, when the group goes to Vietnam; trips to the Philippines, Colombia, Venezuela and China follow later in the year. While the local performers, musicians and directors who are part of the project work on their own versions of the Hansel and Gretel story, the ensemble will return to London to create the second part of the Glass trilogy, which will be based on their experiences in the workshops and will celebrate how children have overcome abandonment. This will tour the same places next year. The final part of the trilogy, scheduled for the year 2000, will be a musical piece, a requiem for the children who have been lost completely.
It seems like just the kind of plan for the millennium that should be supported. But in an arts sector obsessed with glossy "capital projects", funding can be hard to come by. Save the Children and the British Council have both helped, and Glass has dipped into his own pocket, but the ensemble is still looking for commercial sponsorship. Perhaps companies will soon start supporting people rather than domes.
The David Glass Ensemble is touring the UK with 'The Hansel Gretel Machine' from January 28-March 27. For details, tel: 0171 354 9200