Simon McBurney’s solo theatrical work, THE ENCOUNTER, which is not only about one man’s journey deep into the Amazon rain forest but also even more deeply into his own expanding sense of consciousness, has been on quite a journey itself. It started in London at Complicite, the theatrical troupe founded by McBurney in 1983. It then was seen at London’s National Theatre. It subsequently toured internationally before coming to Broadway last fall. In the spring, it will play the Curran.
The piece is based on the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu which traced the adventures of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer who in 1969 found himself lost among the indigenous people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. Audience members get lost themselves inside the headphones at each of their seats. The headphones are worn throughout the performance in order to experience more fully the world McBurney’s is creating onstage as well as inside their heads. It is a singular theatrical experience for each member of the audience is cocooned in sound; their ears are helping build the world emerging before their eyes. It is mindful and brainy and brilliantly visceral all at once.
I visited McBurney backstage during his Broadway run. We sat in an anteroom down the hall from his dressing and talked about the nature of theatre within the context of this theatrical work about the natural world and how we fit into it. “I was so moved by this show,” I told him, “especially the part of the narrative which is about journeying back the beginning. You kept hitting that in the piece - this trip your character is asked to take back to the beginning. There is a program of recovery by which I live my life and it teaches me that I must live my life anew one day at a time. My life is a daily trip back the beginning. That aspect of the piece resonated with me deeply. You probably didn’t even think about that when you were developing this piece - how that specific aspect would resonate for people like me in the audience. But isn’t that what theatre is all about? We bring our own narratives to the play’s narrative.”
“Exactly,” McBurney agreed.
“We’re complicit,” I offered.
Here is our conversation.
KEVIN SESSUMS: Let me be the first to welcome you to San Francisco even before you get there. Have you ever been to San Francisco before? We are excited to welcome you to the Curran.
SIMON McBURNEY: I am very excited myself about going to San Francisco. Some of those are personal reasons because in the 1970s when I was a teenager I hitchhiked around the United States and I went through San Francisco several times. I had friends who lived in San Francisco. For some reason, it marked me considerably. It has a place in my imagination.
KS: It considerably marks most of us lucky enough to live there.
SB: Also, currently, it is where an organization called Survival International - which works and fights for the rights of indigenous people all over the planet - has its American base. I fundamentally believe that indigenous populations have extraordinarily important things to tell us about the earth, the planet. And that is not a piece of New Ageism. It is the very simple fact of how do you treat the world around you and also how do you think about it. In that regard, THE ENCOUNTER - which has been rightly marked out for the power of the sonic experience, the sound experience - is for me, however, not about what happens inside your ears but what happens between them. In other words, what is going on inside our mind. For me, this show is as much about what is going on within your brain as it is about the Amazon.
"THE ENCOUNTER is for me, not about what happens inside your ears but what happens between them. In other words, what is going on inside our mind. For me, this show is as much about what is going on within your brain as it is about the Amazon." -McBurney
KS: What I was very moved by the other night when I saw the show was how it highlights how the collective experience of attending the theatre is always a singularly emotional one. This show - because of the headphones, the sonic aspect you mention - is a poetically technological way to highlight that solitary way we experience theatre within the collective context of theatre-going. There is an isolation within one’s own orb of sound - which almost sounds spiritual, as it should, sense the play itself is a spiritual journey as much as a geographical one. But was this geographical journey into the Amazon rainforest, which is at the heart the piece, one you were drawn to because of its theatrical possibilities or were you drawn to making this piece because of your empathy and respect for indigenous people? Which was the initial impulse - the theatrical or the political?
SB: I have always had a strong connection with different places and perhaps I have always had a very strong displacement. And from an early age - I can’t explain why - have felt a very powerful connection with those people whose connection with place is very longstanding and have an intimate understanding of The Natural, let’s call it - the topography and the flora and the fauna of where they live. So that kind of interrelationship I found touched me as a little boy. Perhaps also the fact that my own father, who was an American, talked about his own grandfather’s pride in his indigenous roots because he was descended from North American First Nations people on one side. So it was something I was always aware of. My father was also an archaeologist so I was always around people who were talking about indigenous peoples. I was aware of the ways that different peoples lived and live. But there was always this connection with place, which implies a kind of respect not only for the world around you but also a continuity with it. That was something that was very powerful to me. And I have my own children now so I was thinking about what is happening to our world for their sake when I was making this piece too.
But I am having my own experience as well, which is having to do with what is the nature of consciousness. How am I here? How am I me? I made a piece some years ago called Mnemonic which was about memory. It fascinated me in the terms of the fact of the biochemistry of memory tells you memory does not exist anywhere very specific in the brain. Now there are specific places it passes through - the Hippocampus, for example, at the base of the brain. But, by and large, the whole brain is involved in memory. How? Because it is a set of electrical impulses. It’s like a pattern. So when you remember something - or when you’re conscious - you have these flickering electrical patterns. When you remember something you are remaking that electrical pattern. But that is the same process as when you imagine. No two memories are the same - even when you have what is called a photographic memory and the things appear to be the same again and again and again. You know memory is not the same because you know when you go back to a place you have not been to in many years and it’s completely different. That is because every time you remember it - even though you think it is absolutely specific - it changes fractionally all-the-time-all-the-time-all-the-time-all-the-time. Memory and imagination are the same thing. In other words, memory is a creative act. You have to make a memory. You don’t pull it up like a file on a computer. The mind is not a computer. It is much messier. And it is fundamentally a continuously creative thing. It is alive.
The only thing we know about the mind is that it is consistently moving.
It is not static.
And yet we have a very static sense of the world.
We divide things up into black and white.
Yes and no.
This building. That building.
My mind. Your mind.
Nature. The city.
We’re constantly in the act of division.
"This piece itself is a thing that I experience each night. I am aware of guiding it but I feel more like a kind of musician than I do necessarily just an actor performing the role." -McBurney
KS: The audience. The actor.
SM: But what you know in the theatre, as an actor, is that you’re not making the theatre: the audience is. And the audience is going at the same time: we’re not making the theatre, you are. The truth is that you create together. And the truth is that it’s not that we’re alive and that everything around us is outside of us and dead. No. The whole planet is alive and we are just an extension of that life on earth. We are a part of it.
KS: You say that you are very connected to place and flora and fauna. Do you think that the earth itself in all its extensions has consciousness? Or can consciousness only be discussed within the human extension of the earth’s life force?
SM: Consciousness is a very, very tricky and contentious issue. If you read someone such as Daniel Dennett who wrote a book called Consciousness Explained - which has also got the joke title amongst a lot of neuroscientists as Consciousness Explained Away - you will imagine that consciousness is just what might be called epiphenomenon, a product of evolution, and a kind of illusion. The definition of consciousness is very difficult because we all feel conscious and yet we know that our consciousness is just a tiny part of the way we live in the world. The majority of our lives are unconscious. We seem to be able only to study consciousness when something happens to the brain. You say, “Well, what happens to the brain when that part no longer does that?” And you go, “Oh, my goodness me! So that part does that and this part does this and it all makes us feel as if we’re conscious.” When we’re dead we’re no longer conscious, we say.
That is only one aspect of consciousness. If we are alive, then our consciousness is part of the living entity but the living entity doesn’t stop at the limits of our body. The living entity is part of the process of life. And so if consciousness is part of life then it is a part of the life that exists outside of us as well as our interior world. When I was in the Amazon and I talked the Mayoruna tribe about where their consciousness is - in the west we say that our consciousness is somewhere behind our frontal lobe - but as far as they were concerned when I asked where theirs was they pointed to the forest. I thought they misunderstood, so I kept on asking the question in many different ways and having it translated in many different ways. What I came to understand is that for them their inner world is inseparable from their outer world. So that if you do something outside of yourself you are affecting your interior world So it is much more fluid. The idea of the frontier of what is inside and out is not determined by the edge of your skin or the limits of your neurological makeup but is continuous and is contiguous with what is outside. If you destroy the world outside, you destroy your inner world. Or if you start to fuck around with inner world, it has consequences with your outer world and hence in this piece, if you will, the question of the way we think about our world is at the heart of the play.
KS: My own theory of consciousness - my spiritual belief - is that consciousness exists by itself separate from us. There is a consciousness that doesn’t know about suffering. It is free. It is floating. It has to come into the human experience to know about suffering. It itself is born into the human experience as we are born. Once it comes into the human form - we are born from pain, we’re crying, our mothers are screaming, the very act of birth is a painful one - from that point on we just live all our lives trying to heal. Consciousness is learning about suffering by residing in the human form. So that, in learning about that, it knows more. Educates itself in a way, I guess. And then the minute we die, we heal. Death is healing. And we’re born back into consciousness and consciousness is more omniscient in the infinitesimal experience of each of our lived lives. It learned about human suffering and therefore becomes more omniscient on the other side of the human experience. We are just these tiny, tiny little human specks that consciousness floats through to understand what it is like to be human because until it does it does not understand the human experience. We are the foreigner to it. It is the native tribe, if you will.
SM: Absolutely. But also we are inseparable from it.
KS: It flows.
SM: It is a continuity, yes: it is a continuity, it is continuity. Everything is continuously moving.
KS: Speaking of movement, let’s talk about the role of being an actor in your life. This play specifically is very taxing physically. You are constantly moving in it. There is an athleticism involved. But that said, is acting itself a way for you to calm yourself? You have a very active mind. It seems never to stop. Is performing - the art of acting - a way of stilling your mind?
SM: I have a very hard time stilling my mind, as you say, yes.
KS: So acting for you - no matter how kinetic the role - is a way for you to find stillness.
SM: It’s like a kind of mediation, yes. It’s like a kind of trance sometimes - particularly in this piece. Do you see this wound on my head?
KS: God, yes. Wow.
SM: I put the claw of the hammer in my head during our dress rehearsal the other day but I didn’t notice I had done it. I did not notice. There wasn’t even the slightest bit of pain. There was blood streaming out of my head and I knew there was blood streaming out. But I didn’t want to disturb people. But the pain was neither here nor there. It didn’t even occur to me. And this piece itself is a thing that I experience each night. I am aware of guiding it but I feel more like a kind of musician than I do necessarily just an actor performing the role.
"Memory and imagination are the same thing. In other words, memory is a creative act. You have to make a memory. You don’t pull it up like a file on a computer. The mind is not a computer. It is much messier." -McBurney
KS: I know you studied at the Jacques Lecoq Institute in Paris. Part of the process there is something called Autocours, which could be described as collaboratively directing and conjuring a piece from a collective experience. I assume some of that comes into play at Complicite since Lecoq is one of the company’s major influences in its corporeally poetic work. When you were developing this piece did you start with the concept of the aural aspect of it or did you arrive at it by working as a group at Complicite? There is such an interesting incongruity at play in the piece being about something primal and natural and mystical while being abetted by such specific - even advanced - technology.
SM: Everything is a process. I was thinking about consciousness on the one hand. I was thinking about perception. I was interested in the idea that we are not one person but we are multiple people and I explored that. On the other hand, I had this story and I didn’t know whether these things would coincide. One of the things that did overlap between these two things was the question of solitude to circle back to what you brought up earlier. One of the things that the headphones did was to place us very firmly within the solitary experience. I did think at one point that I would do it for only one person at a time.
KS: That’s an expensive ticket.
SM: Yes. That would be a kind of an expensive ticket. I also think - and I haven’t thrown this idea out yet because I might do another version - I did think of doing it over eight hours because there are a lot of different things I have taken out which I worked into a piece that lasts an hour and forty-five minutes. It could also exist in another form. But I became very interested in the aural form that it is in now. Ten years ago when I met my wife she was working with two very interesting Swedish artists called Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl. Very remarkable artists who were working with the binaural head and I had not really seen that work before. Their art was an immersive experience. You saw the world in a different way as a result. Gradually over the process of trial and error as I worked with the binaural head myself the play began to emerge. But that is the case with almost all the work that I make.
KS: How long did it take you to develop and arrive at this piece?
SM: It took a few years. But I would do just a bit here and bit there. I’d work on it for couple of weeks. Then I’d present five or ten minutes here. Five or ten minutes there. It gradually came into the light of day.
KS: It seems as if you are ad-libbing at times and yet there are so many sounds cues in the piece. So is it more set as a piece than it appears or are you, in fact, pretty free floating up there - like that consciousness I was talking about - and the sound people are tuned into you as a performer? Is there is a kind of dance going on between you and your sound technicians - or in this case, your aural artists?
SM: Yes. They are dancing with me. They have my words but they are watching me. It is like music. At one point, I thought of having them onstage so people could actually see what they are doing. Because they really are like musicians. That is why I make a point of acknowledging them at the end.
KS: I liked that. I thought that was kind of you. Well, not even that. It was correct of you.
SM: Yes. Correct is a good word for it.
KS: Sound does seem to be important in your life. Your wife is a concert pianist. Your brother is a composer. Sound is wrapped up in love for you.
SM. Yes. I think that’s true. I think that’s very true.
KS: How are you affected when you see a deaf person?
SM: I’ve worked with deaf people. You get a very different relationship. My very, very close friend, the actor Tim Barlow, is profoundly deaf. He’s been around a lot of deaf people and a lot of blind people. They talk about what it’s like not to have sight or not to have hearing. The way that some of them define it is that if you are blind you are cut off from things and if you are deaf you are cut off from people. In fact, the seeing of them gives you a greater sense of solitude in your silence.
KS: Ironic that the solitude you experience in THE ENCOUNTER is based on the aural aspect of the piece. Could you do this piece for an audience of blind people since so much of it is indeed based on that aspect?
SM: I could but what you see is equally important because I want people to be aware that in order to get to the story, in order to be touched, in order to see where you are and get involved in what is happening onstage, you have to go on the imaginative journey which is why everything onstage is as sterile as possible. It was a deliberate technological choice that there are water bottles - a political statement - because it takes four pints of water to make one bottle of water. Everything is plastic. There is nothing organic onstage whatsoever.
KS: I love incongruity. Respect it. I think sacredness resides in the incongruous. So I loved that aspect of the piece. Although you are, in a deeply organic sense, becoming one with the piece itself all these atoms of incongruity - plastic, heightened technology - are sparking off each other in the process like a rollicking party of particles.
SM: Exactly. That’s right. You go through all that to arrive at the most biodiverse place on the planet. And you do that to do this: ask yourself questions
THE ENCOUNTER premieres at the Curran on April 25th.