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How the one-man play 'The Encounter' uses sound to tell its story

Simon McBurney stars in the one-man show,
Simon McBurney stars in the one-man show, "The Encounter."
Robbie Jack/The Wallis
Simon McBurney stars in the one-man show,
Simon McBurney and his seven-year-old-daughter, Noma, whose curiosity helped shape the show.
Marcos Nájera
Simon McBurney stars in the one-man show,
In a show that relies heavily on an audio experience, special accommodations are made for audience members who are deaf or hard of hearing, such as Maggie Barron.
Marcos Nájera
Simon McBurney stars in the one-man show,
Author Petru Popescu wrote a 1991 book about Loren McIntyre called "Amazon Beaming."
Marcos Nájera

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Not far from Lima, in the snow-capped Andes Mountains of southern Peru, is a small body of water called Laguna McIntyre. It got its name in 1971, when a National Geographic photographer named Loren McIntyre discovered this true source of the Amazon River.

Now, a play called "The Encounter" — which runs through Apr. 16 at The Wallis in Beverly Hills — tells the story of McIntyre and a trip he took just a few years prior to his discovery. He got dangerously lost in the depths of the rain forest, but was found and saved by a mystical tribe. 

The show is equally part-theater, part-radio program, part-mind trip. But as a whole, it adds up to Simon McBurney’s one-man tour de force that he devised with his London theatre company, Complicité. The story is straight-forward — Western man gets lost in an unknown land in a journey gone awry. But it’s how McBurney pulls it off that’s far more complicated and beautiful.

"I tend to make things that ask questions, rather than create answers to things," McBurney says. "So this piece is about somebody getting lost. But, parallel to lots of people, I feel lost in the world. So the sense of being lost is, of course, a metaphor."

When you see and hear McBurney, you know who he is — a prolific actor of stage and screen. Among several blockbuster film appearances, "Harry Potter" fans will instantly recognize his deep, rich voice as that of the loyal but grumpy house-elf, Kreacher.

And that voice will stay in your head for at least two hours, and probably well beyond. After all, that’s how the show is designed — he’s trying to burrow into your conscious mind by entering through your ears.

(Every seat at "The Encounter" comes with a pair of headphones. Marcos Najera/KPCC)

When you enter the theater at The Wallis, you find a set of black Sennheiser earphones on your chair. And from there, McBurney chronicles the 1969 journey of photojournalist Loren McIntyre, and his unexpected "encounter" with a rain forest tribe called the Mayoruna. He got lost while trying to find the source of the Amazon River. Instead, he wound up trying to learn about the mysterious tribe through his camera lens.

"He’s taking something from these people. He’s taking photographs," McBurney says. "It is an act of colonial appropriation, and some people react to the show as, ‘Oh, this is just another white man going into the jungle' — which it is, but the whole audience is made to go on that journey, because the whole audience is in headphones."

As the show starts, McBurney's voice playfully crossfades as he teases: "If I were to breathe in your ear like this … your brain would tell you I was really breathing in your ear." And then your ear actually feels hot. In this fast, simple demonstration, the audience "learns" how the story will be sent from the stage and received out in the house.

The play is based on a 1991 book about McIntyre called "Amazon Beaming," by author Petru Popescu, a resident of Beverly Hills.

"He was a fantastic man to know," Popescu muses.

He spent countless hours interviewing McIntyre about his time in the jungle. They spoke endlessly, for a year — on the phone, through letters, and occasionally at the photographer’s Virginia home.

"Everything was connected to his trips. Everything evoked what he lived," Popescu recalls. "His living space duplicated the jungle, in a sense. There was a master bedroom in the house in Arlington, but McIntyre slept in a hammock. And he had as pets two Capucine monkeys, and they were obviously like two children who needed care! The animals reacted when he appeared, exactly like two infants."

Perhaps in that same spirit of communicating in ways beyond the English language, McIntyre believed his time with the Mayoruna people taught him to speak telepathically with the tribal leader, through a shared consciousness — that’s the "beaming" referenced in Popescu’s book title. McIntyre died in 2003, but Popescu says he still holds on to one takeaway in particular:

"The thing that we talked about, even though it doesn’t appear in the book per se, was courage. I was absolutely fascinated with the fact that he was hanging up his hammock in the tree and would wake up eye-to-eye with a python snake or something like that. I mean, he survived a million plane crashes. He had a very clear sense that you had to have courage to do what you have decided to do."

To re-enact McIntyre’s encounter with the Mayoruna people on-stage, McBurney works as both actor and Foley artist. His only visible castmates are microphones, water bottles and ribbons of old VHS tape. But up in the booth, sound engineer Amir Sherhan creates live soundscapes along with his partner, Laura Hammod. Amir says they are almost like DJs.

(Amir Sherhan creates and mixes live soundscapes during a performance of "The Encounter." Marcos Najera/KPCC)

"It’s all kind of down to timing," explains Sherhan, "because sometimes you have to overdub a sentence and layer onto each other. You are mixing as you’re recording. So there is a certain musical element to it."

The stage looks like a recording studio, in a way. That’s a nod to McBurney’s time doing research about sound for the show by locking himself in a room that blocks out every bit of sound from the outside world.

"That’s an anechoic chamber — a room without echoes used to measure sound," McBurney says. "And on all six sides of this cube is what you see on the back wall of this theater. As soon as they lock you inside — behind this incredible door that they close behind you so no sound can get in, and turn off the lights, and I’m sitting there in darkness — very quickly what you hear is your own breath, you hear your own heartbeat. And then you start to hear the movement of fluids in your head. The most fascinating thing I heard was when I left the chamber and heard everything outside. It’s like a tsunami of sound I never realized was there. And this of course is at the heart of the show. Because the brain selects what it wants to hear, then the stories it forms, and then you make sense of the world. If that story produced is only one vision of the world, then it’s a little problematic."

And right when you discover your headphones are overflowing with McBurney’s rich layers of story and sounds from the Amazon, all of a sudden, out pops the audio of one of the play’s most delightful creatures.

"Well, he brought it home [and] I was like, Why is this head in our house?," says McBurney’s sweet seven-year-old daughter, Noma.

She is describing "Fritz"— a binaural microphone that sits on-stage during the show and resembles a human head. It is lovingly named after the German audio company founder, Fritz Sennheiser. "Fritz" basically has two "ears" — rather, two microphones that can capture sound with the same true range as a left and right ear. For Noma, it was funny to barge in on her father rehearsing parts of the show in the middle of the night with Fritz. But soon, Noma started asking more and more questions about Loren McIntyre. Now, she’s part of the show.

McBurney says: "The point is that Noma is able to ask questions that, coming from other people, might be a little self-conscious. Like, What is he looking for? Why is he there? Why is this man in the jungle? What’s he doing there? — when, in a sense, he really shouldn’t be there."

"My favorite part of the play was at the end," says McBurney’s poised and charming daughter.  "Because it all really ended well and I really understood as it all came it to my head."

If the ideas from the stage pop into the heads of audience members as easily as they do for his daughter, McBurney says that’s the whole idea:

"I’m telling a story about a man to whom this happened. It’s entirely up to you what you make of it.  And what happens in the theater is this odd event which, in the end, is beyond words. You might hear some lovely words from Shakespeare — but Shakespeare himself was aware of the added power of the audience imagination when he says at the beginning of Henry IV: 'I want you to imagine this wooden [stage] as the fields of France.' He’s asking for the audience to make a leap of imagination which is beyond words. It’s appealing to something within us."

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