LONDON >> Simon McBurney was chatting about his children as a technician adjusted his microphone. How many photographs he had of them on his phone — more than had ever been taken of him in his lifetime. How memories are preserved and created around images and sound. "Put on your headphones," he urged, going on to explain how binaural technology — sound transmitted separately into each ear — works, fooling the brain into imagining a person is just inches away.
It was a hot summer day at a community center in North London, where McBurney, the director of the celebrated theater company Complicite, was camped out with the technical team that creates "The Encounter," his one-man show, which begins previews Sept. 20 for a limited run at the John Golden Theater on Broadway before touring to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Los Angeles.
But McBurney, who wrote and directed the play, wasn't really chatting casually. He was rehearsing the monologue at the start of "The Encounter," for which each audience member wears headphones. In those first moments, he was doing what he has done throughout his theater-making career: building magic from the stuff of everyday, drawing the audience in to the ruminations about storytelling and memory, illusion and reality, fantasy and imagination, time and consciousness that permeate "The Encounter."
The play, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, is "a journey to the center of your mind that begins in your auditory nerves and keeps burrowing deeper."
The two-hour show is inspired by Petru Popescu's "Amazon Beaming" (1991), a novel based on the 1969 real-life encounter between Loren McIntyre, an American photographer, and the almost unknown Mayoruna tribe living deep in the Amazon rainforest. As well as offering metaphysical considerations, it's a kind of a "Boy's Own" adventure for which McBurney uses little more than his own voice and body, a desk, a few microphones, and plastic bottles of water to create sounds and story layers that take us deep into the Amazon.
His voice and other voices are in the ears of each audience member. So are the sounds of the Amazon rainforest, the shriek of birds, the crackle of leaves underfoot, the chatter of children, the whine of mosquitoes and the roar of a Cessna plane. Interspersed with McIntyre's adventures are recorded interruptions from McBurney's 7-year-old daughter and snippets of testimony from experts on the nature of consciousness, memory and time.
It's not exactly standard Broadway fare. Although McBurney's production of "The Chairs" came to Broadway in 1998, Complicite is usually presented by festivals and theaters with an experimental bent. Richard Frankel, one of the producers of "The Encounter," said that he and his partners were nonetheless immediately convinced that the show would work. "People go to the theater to be moved and engaged and engrossed, and this does it in spades," he said.
Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, which has presented Complicite five times since 1996, described McBurney as "one of the great theater-makers in the world today." He added: "I think his strength is that he is doing absolutely his own work. He has increasingly become someone who can tell a very complicated story and make it simple and personal and utterly compelling."
McBurney is a compelling storyteller offstage, too. In an interview over lunch at an Italian restaurant near the rehearsal rooms, he managed to eat, gesture and talk, almost without stopping, about "The Encounter," which had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2015, had a sold-out season at the Barbican in London and has toured Europe. He is 59 and compactly built, with large, mobile features, an intense stare and thinning hair that stands up in jagged peaks on his head when he runs his hands through it.
"There is a short answer and a long answer," he began, when asked about the genesis of "The Encounter."
He proceeded to give both, recounting how he was given Popescu's book by a friend in 1994, how the tale "remained on the list of things that keep haunting me" and how he finally began to develop it as a theater piece five years ago.
The long answer, he said, was more complicated. "The question of when something really begins is impossible to answer," he began, plunging into a discussion of childhood influences (his U.S.-born father was an anthropologist); early adult experiences ("The question of identity was very important to me — am I American? Why did I feel at home in Scotland?"); and his fascination over the years with the processes of memory.
"One of the things that most excited me was discovering that every time you remember something, you are making it anew," he said. "Synaptic connections, at unbelievable speed, form a pattern or electrical charge in the brain that brings memory or images to life. Your mind has to make the pattern each time; it doesn't exist somewhere intact. That means memory and imagination have the same syntax and biochemistry, which is very exciting for an artist."
During the making of many of his theater pieces, McBurney talked to neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists. He realized, he said, "the extraordinary fictional nature" of the world.
"Ideas that surround us, like identity, nationhood, countries, language. These things don't exist or have meaning outside imagination," he said. "A sense of being lost and a huge doubt about my own culture resurfaced in me, and I thought about 'Amazon Beaming,' and how it's about a man who is lost and gradually loses everything, who cuts the connections that are the scaffolding for meaning or what he takes to be immutable truths. He encounters another narrative; that's what it's really about. I have no Rousseau-esque illusions that these people live better lives. The point is that their narrative is as important as ours."