Radio made a smashing comeback September 29—on the Broadway stage, of all places—at the Golden, where the sound was truly golden for a solo show called The Encounter.
This was a close encounter of the audio-intensive kind. A set of earphones is waiting for you at your seat, creating an audience of not only Princess Leias but also of old-timey radio buffs who’d stare transfixed at their magical box of bulbs and sounds as their minds took flight and formed the story that was being told over the airwaves.
The stage set, which starts out spare and winds up in shambles, consists of a table, a chair, microphones (one shaped like a human head) and audio tapes. Then in comes a stage technician in a baseball cap and nondescript work-clothes to give us a sound check. His voice seems to move from the right ear across the brain to the left and back again. He even fills each earphone with a clutter of different voices and sounds.
This techie turns out to be our star of the night, director-adaptor Simon McBurney. He demonstrates his usual British tenor, which he will use for the narrative ahead and then the lower Americanized voice he will affect to play Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer. The story that unfolds was a true one, first put to paper by Petru Popescu in the book The Encounter: Amazon Beaming, about how McIntyre got hopelessly lost in the Amazon rain forest in 1969 and stumbled onto the primitive Mayoruna tribe (a.k.a. “the cat people,” because of spikes embedded in their faces). His perils and interplay with the tribe are periodically interrupted by Reality in the form of McBurney’s real-life daughter, Noma (then five, now seven), who is having a restless night herself from all the commotion in Daddy’s studio.
As a film actor playing with others, McBurney is a scene stealer par excellence. Here, he has the stage all to himself for two hours and seems to be playing—simultaneously!—several characters. It is an unbridled, unabashed tour de force.
After an enthusiastic curtain call, he held up his hand to silence the crowd and come clean. “It’s a lie. I’m not alone. There are many people here who go to create the show.” He then saluted his fiercely overworked and “incredible sound technicians.
“Two years ago I was with the Mayoruna in the Amazon,” he continued. “As is traditional, I was given a welcome that took hours and a long speech, all going down to one question: Why are you here? So I then told them this story [for] about an hour, and the headman afterward said, ‘We are very moved.’ I said, ‘I’m thinking of making it for the theatre.’ He said, ‘We hope you do, and, when you do, we want you to go to your people—that’s you—and tell them that the Mayoruna exist.’ They do. They work tirelessly. They’re in a constant political struggle, because they do something we all understand: They are fighting for their environment—our environment, just as people are [doing] in the North Dakota Pipeline today.”
Before leaving the stage, McBurney reiterated that the Mayoruna exist and adding that “perhaps, somewhere you will see, also, in the audience, my daughter exists.”
The opening-night party was at Sardi’s, and the 59-year-old head of London’s Complicite acting company arrived still in stagehand garb to meet the press in the tiny bar close to the entrance. The sign said: “2nd Floor Bar Open; Little Bar Closed.”
Accompanying him were wife Cassie and their contribution to the next generation of scene stealers, Noma. “It’s still early in the season, but she may have a lock on the Featured Actress category,” teased one wag about the daughter’s vocal adorability.
As a director, McBurney is famous for using games to loosen his actors up, so what tricks did he employ to bring out the best in Noma? “I just recorded her alone, sorta shaped that, then I asked her to say specific things. Gradually, it just evolved.”
His own performance provoked no small amount of wonderment. “Everybody asks the same thing: ‘How do you learn all those words?’” he said, “but they enter into your body, step by step, very swiftly. When you’ve done it a few times, they’re there.”
It’s not as draining as you might think, he confessed. “It’s like an act of resistance. You feel very good. You’ve been through something, and that’s wonderful.”
McBurney said the hardest part of this show was not the acting of it but the adapting of it. “It was shaping a huge novel, trying to get it down into a form where it’s really not a novel but a document—where you’re not destroying that document but you’re actually finding the center of it and sort of turning it into a theatrical thing.
“I wanted people to feel the examination of the story, as well as the story. There are a lot of issues within the story—why he’s there, what’s happening, how’s the world at that time in that consciousness. I tried to allow people to come into my mind as well as the mind of the protagonist—to come into my home and see my relationship with my daughter and to twist that story around the story of the Mayoruna tribe.”
The Romanian author of the book, Popescu, seemed as much a stranger in a strange land as McIntyre among the Mayoruna. “Romania is a nation of 20 million people, and any Romanian who wants to break out has to speak or write foreign languages,” Popescu said.
But break out he did, and now he’s on Broadway. “My heart was fluttering as I was coming to the theatre in the taxi. And, at the end, people got up and did a standing ovation. It was wonderful. I never thought that my book would get on Broadway.
“In fact, I never thought, actually, I’d be able to finish the book when I started it. I never thought it would be published because it had so many things that were difficult to resolve. I bought the rights to McIntyre’s story, so I did hear from him some incredible stories, but I didn’t know anything about him as a collaborator. When I had to tape him, I went to [his home in] Arlington, VA, many, many times to get out of him these stories. I did not know who would buy such a book. It was about exploration. It was not at all frivolous in any fashion. It was serious from the point of view of personal investment and from the point of view of scientific awareness.”
When The Encounter: Amazon Beaming did see the light of print, it was published in eight or nine languages beyond English. McBurney encountered the book the year it was published but waited 15 years before buying the stage rights. When Popescu sold the book, he had no idea McBurney had in mind a one-man show.
The author did think the play was exceedingly faithful to the text. “Not only did I recognize my words,” Popescu admitted, “there were three or four times when I recognized my own voice talking about the wilderness and tribal people.”
He was not imagining things, either. Popescu’s voice was one of hundreds of voices of people that McBurney or his “co-star,” sound designer Gareth Fry, interviewed and recorded over the past six years. “They’re all real people, not actors at all except for Simon,” Fry boasted. “We have John Hammond, who’s an actual explorer; Rebecca Spooner, who works for an organization called Survival International that is protecting indigenous rights; Marcus DeSoto, who’s a mathematician and physicist at Oxford University; neuroscientists, geographers, professors. Simon and I even went to the Amazon rain forest and spent a week with the Mayoruna.”
His most difficult job, he said, was finding binaural recordings of things featured in the show. “Because it’s an unusual sound technology, we had to go to the Amazon rain forest to get recordings of it. I had to hire an aircraft to get recordings of the aircraft. I had to go to the London School and Hospital of Tropical Medicine and record some of their mosquito colony that’s used to study malaria.”
Fry believes The Encounter will make the grade on novelty alone. “It’s an exciting, unusual show to have on Broadway, something they won’t have seen or heard before. Audiences should really take to it. The way Hamilton pushes the form of what a musical is, The Encounter in the same way pushes the form of what a play is.”