The Man with the Microphone

GRACIE HAYS: How did you discover your passion for sound design?

GARETH FRY: Well, initially, I wanted to be a recording engineer, doing music. A friend of mine did amateur dramatic theater, and he was bringing this show to the Edinburgh Festival, which had a big comedy component. I was really into alternative comedy at the time, so I said “If you ever need a sound engineer for one of the shows you’re doing there...” They didn’t pay you, but you got free accommodation and travel. I wound up doing Amadeus at 10 in the morning at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992, and that was sort of my first personal experience doing theater sound. It just absolutely hooked me, that interplay of music and sound and text, and I knew at that moment that that was what I wanted to do.

GH: You and Simon McBurney have worked together quite a bit, in the years since then. Can you talk about what the creative process was like for THE ENCOUNTER?

GF: It was a bit unusual, actually, because it was such a different show than the shows we’ve done before. Quite often, there’s a script or a book, or a cast of characters—there’s a very identifiable narrative and dialogue you can draw from. And very early on, Simon was in fact workshopping how to adapt Amazon Beaming in the fashion of having multiple actors playing different roles, and things like that. But it just wasn’t quite doing the story justice. It was diminishing the story, rather than helping the story. It’s a very difficult thing to create a sense of the vastness we wanted, of the claustrophobia, or of the Amazon rainforest itself. If you’re wanting to do that visually, with, say, a painted backdrop, then you’re almost setting yourself up for failure. It just won’t work. So we started looking quite swiftly at other ways of telling the story. And we ended up going back to the most basic form of storytelling—one person, narrating. Once we had that, we began to figure out how technology could bring something to the storytelling process as well.

GH: Can you talk about how the binaural head works, exactly?

GF: Yeah, absolutely. It’s made by Neumann, which is a subsidiary of Sennheiser. The idea is that it has two ears, and it has a microphone in each of its ears. The microphones record sound on stage, and then relay live sound to the audience’s headsets. It’s designed on the idea that if you hear a sound off to your left, that sound hits your left ear first, before hitting your right ear a fraction of a second later. Our brains use that timing difference to work out where a sound is coming from in space. So when a sound happens on stage, with Simon standing to the left of the binaural head, it’s transmitted by the headphones exactly as if you were standing on stage, right where the head is. If Simon whispers into the head’s ear, it feels like he’s just sat in the seat next to each of us and is whispering into our own ears. So it really enables this intimate, one-to-one storytelling. Technologically, it’s actually not a very complicated bit of equipment. The heads have been around for decades and decades. The high-tech bits of it are our brains, and the way our brains process sounds, allowing us to use minute fractions of timing differences to locate sounds in space.

Gareth Fry recording sound in the Amazon in 2013. Photo by Chloe Courtney.

GH: Do you think THE ENCOUNTER will set a precedent, in terms of how theatrical productions can interact with technology? How did you decide that binaural sound was the best way to tell this story?

GF: Well, it’s not all binaural sound. We use a mix of conventional and binaural sound. The binaural sound is very good at making the audience members feel like they’re there in the Amazon rainforest. It’s a very good technology for taking you to a place in a very realistic way. And it allows us to divide the sound up between the things that Loren is thinking in his head, his internal experience, and the external world of people and voices and things that he’s experiencing around himself. It also kind of makes the audience feel like they’re on stage with Simon.

The feedback that we’ve had from people about the headphones has been amazing—I think they’ve been surprised how quickly the technology recedes into the background. Somebody was asking me the other day if I’d do another show using binaural sound, and I’m not sure when that next show will be, because in the case of THE ENCOUNTER it was the story that made us want to use binaural sound, rather than wanting to use binaural sound and then finding the story to tell with it. The technology is really just a means to an end. I’ve been involved with quite a few virtual reality projects over the past couple of years; it’s a form of telling stories that is very new, and the technology is evolving very rapidly at the moment. But the risk is that the technology is leading the process, rather than the story. Ideally, you start with a story and then figure out the best way to tell it, rather than starting with a way of telling a story and then finding something that will fit that.

Ideally, you start with a story and then figure out the best way to tell it, rather than starting with a way of telling a story and then finding something that will fit that.

GH: The Encounter has six different people involved on the sound. What was it like working with a team of that size?

GF: My fellow sound designer Pete Malkin and I have been working together for about six years, so that was really a very easy relationship. And then as we were getting closer to rehearsals starting, we brought in some sound engineers who would mix the show live. Now we’ve got a team of four engineers who are all touring, taking turns mixing and looking after the microphones and all the hundreds of headphones. Pete’s and my job is mostly done on press night, in theory—we sort of walk away from the show and let the sound engineers run it on a nightly basis. We’ve got two operators, two engineers, for each performance, which is pretty unheard of. There’s only one other show currently on the West End that has two sound operators—Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is another show that Pete and I did. And part of this, too, is that Simon, being both the performer and also the director, is constantly tweaking the show and finding ways to improve it. In all the times we’ve performed it, he’s never done the same show twice. Sometimes he tweaks little things and sometimes it’s big changes. So rather than having this rigid, fixed show, we’ve got this quite fluid, musical show. And part of the job of the sound engineers is to kind of improvise with Simon as he changes things. It’s quite a musical job, rather than just pressing a go button on all this automated sound equipment. They sort of busk along with Simon.

GH: How many different locations did you need to travel to, to record sounds for The Encounter?

GF: We spent just under a week in the Amazon rainforest, Simon and I. Every day we would do treks, starting from the village we were staying in, just trying to get as many different recordings as possible. Having done that, we then had to do some additional recordings of, for instance, a Cessna aircraft. There’s also a scene in the show where there are a lot of mosquitos, and we weren’t able to get a clean recording of them in the rainforest. There were certainly lots of mosquitos while we were there, but there were also lots of birds, and other insects making lots of noise, so I ended up going to the London School of Tropical Medicine to record some of the mosquito colonies that they use for malaria research. And then we went around to Epping Forest in East London to record footsteps and people dancing and things like that.

GH: What was it like managing all that recording equipment, while traveling through the Amazon?

GF: Yeah, it’s all very heavy, which makes it not very fun to be traipsing around, especially because we had to carry about five days’ worth of batteries with us for every piece of equipment, since we didn’t know when we’d next get to a charging point. Along with that, we had to carry around the binaural head, which weighs the same as a human head. It’s just not designed to be trekked into the Amazon rainforest. So yes, it’s hot and humid and you’re trekking around with $40,000 worth of heavy recording equipment, getting into these tiny little boats that needed to be bailed out constantly because they were leaky and breaking down. That was slightly nerve-wracking, knowing that one false move and you’ve just lost a week of recordings. It’s sort of interesting because on one level you are aware that you’re having this amazing experience, but on the other hand, you’re also very personally uncomfortable because it’s hot, sweaty, you’re dehydrated, you’re getting bitten by mosquitos. I think I came away with something like six hundred mosquito bites by the time I left. They really took to me [laughs]. I was on a lot of antihistamines after that.

GH: How did meeting the Mayoruna influence how you approached the show?

GF: Well, reading Amazon Beaming, it’s entirely in Loren McIntyre’s point of view. He didn’t really understand the Mayoruna language. They didn’t speak Portuguese or any other language that he used, so for the majority of the time, he was unable to communicate with them verbally. And so, it was really important to us to hear the other side of the story. We were able to talk to people who were in that area in the ’60s, when McIntyre was there. It was vital to hear their perspectives and interests and motivations. And you know, they’re really not very different from us: they want food and they want safety and they want security.

Our story is set further into the rainforest, in an area that is now a militarized zone, so we couldn’t go exactly where Loren McIntyre had gone. But we met up with this community that has moved downriver to find better fishing ground, and that had sort of integrated with other communities and a couple of local towns. They told us their stories of their journey from being an uncontacted tribe to having a school and a hospital, and sending their kids off to universities. They sort of have one foot in their indigenous origins and another foot in twenty-first-century Brazilian society, where they’re actively promoting indigenous rights, and trying to fight the ever-increasing efforts of oil companies to encroach on their territory. They’ve got one pay phone that is shared across the village, and they got electricity only a year before we visited. When we got there, the tribal leader was asking us why we had come, and we were explaining McIntyre’s story and what we were trying to do with it. And the easiest way to explain was to demonstrate binaural sound, because we had the head with us. And this turned out to be the first time the tribal leader and his wife had ever heard sound in headphones. But meanwhile, you know, the Amazon is such a busy trade route that there are cell towers all the way up it, and on a five-hour trek in the rainforest I had better reception than I get in my house in outer London. So it was quite interesting—the elder leaders in the community still felt this connection to being uncontacted, and a lot of the younger adults have smart phones and are on Facebook. When we were leaving, some of them were like, “Well, okay, I’ve just added you as a friend!”

Gareth Fry

THE ENCOUNTER follows National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre as he finds himself lost in a remote area of Brazil in 1969, which leads to a startling encounter that is to change his life. Each seat comes equipped with a pair of headphones. Put them on and experience ground-breaking sound design - plugging into the power of the imagination, and engaging you in new and breathtaking ways as McBurney leads you on an epic journey. Through May 7 only.