A bit of a Glass act

David Glass has made a name for himself by turning hit films into plays. And now he's doing the same to La Dolce Vita.
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Transposing famous films on to the stage is modish just now, but there's one man who had the idea long before anyone else. David Glass, whose name has become synonymous with contemporary mime, has plundered film culture from Popeye to Les Enfants du Paradis since the inception of his company, and now opens a stage version of Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita in Sheffield on Friday.

Sheffield in February 1996 is about as far as you could get from the elegance of 1950s Rome, and though you might suspect that Glass is attempting to cash in on the film's glamour and popularity, his reasons are far more noble. While La Dolce Vita can be seen as a privileged view into decadent high society through the charmed life of the gossip columnist Marcello, David Glass sees the dark side of Fellini's vision. "Fellini based it on Dante's Inferno - it's one man's descent into hell. It's about the loss of values, loss of faith and the celebration of all that is superficial and empty. It's also about the role of the press in making a world that is increasingly ugly and dehumanised. It's as true, if not more true now, as when it was written."

Tall, thin and bespectacled, idealistic and passionate about his work, Glass himself seems to belong to a more innocent age. A combination of intelligence, an edge of arrogance and something like shyness makes his sentences come out in rapid bursts. Born in Switzerland, where his grandfather ran Zurich's biggest film studios, brought up in Hollywood, where his mother worked as an art director, he moved with his family to England when he was 12. As soon as he was able, Glass headed for Paris, where he sought out and trained under all the great names of the previous theatre generation: Etienne Decroux and Jean-Louis Barrault, and later Jacques Lecoq, Philippe Gaulier, Alvin Ailey and Peter Brook.

Throughout the Seventies Glass travelled round Europe honing his skills the hard way, in street theatre ("The valuable lesson there is that you only get paid after the performance," he says wryly), interspersed with periods of passing on those skills to like minds in England (among others, he taught Simon MacBurney, before the creation of Theatre de Complicite, and Emma Thompson). The third production of his ensemble, an adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast in 1992, firmly established Glass as a mature talent and a wizard at rendering even jealously guarded classics into acclaimed stage versions.

His decision to adapt the film of Les Enfants du Paradis, in which his former mentors Jean-Louis Barrault and Etienne Decroux starred, was a personal tribute and an achievement of which he is still proud. It was, like all his work, minimal in terms of props and scenery, but brilliantly conceived. "We portrayed the real world of Les Enfants with nothing - all the objects were mimed. But when we went into the theatre, those mimed objects became real objects. So when the old clothes-seller brought in a skull, it was mimed, but when he passed it to a character on stage, it became a real one suddenly."

Glass approached the RSC to do a co-production, but was refused and so is understandably bitter that, six years later, the same company produced Simon Callow's critically slated production without his input. "It's one of those things that happens," he says with a valiant attempt at good grace. "You break new ground as an innovative company, and then the big companies move in. It's a form of flattery, I suppose.

"I get a lot of offers to work in mainstream theatres now, which I turn down because it's not possible to work under the conditions I want," he explains. He rehearsed La Dolce Vita for seven weeks, which is already double the rehearsal time of some regional rep theatres, but he would have been happier with twice that length of time again. The research period lasted for almost two years, a process of "total immersion" which involved watching the film 75 times and studying four different versions of the screenplay, including one annotated by Fellini himself. His great coup was to get hold of the rights not only to the film, but to Nino Rota's instantly evocative score as well. The result is that, with co-adaptor Paul Sand, Glass has created a musical version of La Dolce Vita.

"I found that the process of writing a musical was similar to directing a film. It all boils down to story and action. A moment in a musical can be done purely visually. We've ended up with music almost the whole way through, of which half comes from the music or melodies from the film, a third from other Nino Rota scores, and the rest original music by Paul Sand." This means that the performers have to be capable of singing as well as all the other physical skills that David Glass demands.

In the rehearsal room, the actors' time was divided into distinct sections. The morning was dedicated to a class in physical skills, and one for music. In the afternoon they prepared different general areas: the world of the play, for example, or improvisation. Only at the end of the day did the cast come to the actual text they were preparing for performance.

Sometimes when theatre practitioners borrow from cinema you get the feeling that they are hankering after the more glamorous world of film. Coming from a film family, the world of cinema holds no mystery for Glass. "For many years, film stole from the theatre, so I have no problem about stealing back," he says cheerfully. What does interest him, however, is how to make a convincing piece of theatre out of a screenplay. "The story of a man who loses his way in life could be told in a number of media. The best films usually have a simple conceit because the language of film is so complex, whereas the language of theatre is rather more simple, so the content and thematic material tends to be more complex.

"I've condensed a story with 148 named characters to 20. I've increased the importance of Paparazzo, the photographer, in order to up the ante of the story. And I've emphasised the role of Marcello's friend Steiner. He is like the teacher figure of Virgil in Dante's Divine Comedy. But in La Dolce Vita, Steiner commits suicide, so in a way he leaves Marcello down there in Hell, whereas Virgil escorts Dante to the next stage of his journey."

Glass's decision to stage this particular film is reinforced by his passionate belief in live theatre as an antidote to an increasingly dehumanising world. "Theatre is more significant than any other art form at the moment. To see the vulnerability of real people on stage connecting with people in the audience is increasingly important because more and more we're engaging with dead people or dead situations," he says.

n 'La Dolce Vita' opens at the Crucible, Sheffield (0114-276 9922) on Saturday (previews Friday), then tours to Ipswich (12-16 Mar), Worthing (19-23 Mar), Birmingham (26-30 Mar) and the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (3-27 Apr)