There is no curtain-raising in “The Encounter.” The show simply begins — with the actor Simon McBurney telling a story, and each member of the audience listening through a set of headphones.
The show, playing at New York’s Golden Theatre, charts the adventure of American photojournalist Loren McIntyre, who got lost in the Amazon in the late 1960s. He was taken in by the Mayoruna, an indigenous tribe with whom he shared almost no language. Gradually, however, McIntyre found that he could communicate with Mayoruna community members — first through gestures, and then, it seems, telepathically.
Decades later, he shared his story with Petru Popescu, a Romanian author who wove it into the book, "Amazon Beaming," which inspired McBurney’s play.
“It's not just this extraordinary story about this man, but it also questions that story, about the way that we have gone into these other worlds,” McBurney says of McIntyre’s adventure. “Appropriated things — the way white, Western colonization has wrought such destruction in the world. It also questions the way that we perceive time, the way that we think about the environment.”
Using low-tech sound effects and pitch-shifting microphones, McBurney deftly distorts the audience’s perception of fact and fiction. He stripped away some of the wizardry in a visit with Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen (which you can listen to in full).
“Our perception of the world is based on the stories of that world,” he says. “And you know, people are listening to my voice, and that is a reality. And you're hearing this voice, which is a kind of high British tenor.” But as McBurney speaks, something strange happens: “My voice is changing, if you like. It’s going down in pitch … And now for some reason, I don't want to speak with a British accent. I want to change into an American dialect.”
The voice of the Cambridge-born McBurney melts into an American drawl. "It’s not because I think it makes me more attractive to your listenership," he continues. "It's because this is the voice that I use for the principal character in this play, Loren McIntyre."
As McBurney moves to another microphone, “You find out how much your brain has adjusted, because suddenly I sound like Mickey Mouse.” His voice snaps back into its crisp British accent. “And this seems to be more fictional than the other voice.”
Another microphone he has resembles a Styrofoam human head. Called a “binaural head,” the device, McBurney says, imitates how we, as human beings, hear. When he speaks into it, his voice seems to float just behind your right shoulder.
“The brain believes this fiction so totally, that, were I to lean forward and breathe into this microphone, you would think that I was breathing in your right ear,” he says. “And your right ear will begin to heat up. Feel it?”
To make the binaural recordings that give the Amazon such substance in the theater, McBurney traveled to South America with one of his collaborators. While there, he sought out the descendants of the Mayoruna people McIntyre had met in the 1960s.
“They took me on an extraordinary journey into the rainforest where I had never been,” he says. “And I began to understand and appreciate what McIntyre was talking about, but also the way that these people see the world.”
He says that for the Mayoruna people, the sense of the forest “outside” is inextricable from their inner reality or consciousness. “The interesting thing for them [with] this sense of ‘inner life,’” he says, “is that it was inseparable from the world around them. You abuse or you exploit the outer world, and something happens within.”
For McBurney, the story stirs up questions about time, cultural appropriation and the environment. He wants the show's tricks of sound and sight, its layering of aural perception and deception, to lead the audience toward a deeper line of inquiry.
“This question of ‘how we feel connected,’ if you like, to other people, to families, to other families, to our nation, to other nations, is I think a very urgent question,” he says.
“And if I was to sum up the whole show, it is about our ability to listen to each other and to the world.”