Should you be in a position to ask writer/director/performer Simon McBurney a question, you should be prepared less for the answer than for a tour of the thought process behind it. That’s only fitting, given that McBurney’s work with Complicite, the company he cofounded in 1983, so often uses a mixture of technology and old-fashioned stagecraft to explore the nature of time, consciousness, and memory.
All these themes are present in Complicite’s latest work, The Encounter, currently touring the United States after a sitdown on Broadway last fall (its last U.S. engagement is April 25-May 7 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco). The Encounter is, as with many Complicite shows, an adaptation of a book, in this case The Encounter: Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, about a river voyage taken by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre.
This adaptation, however, is anything but a straightforward page-to-stage job. As the audience watches while wearing headphones, the voyage into the Amazon becomes a journey into the nature of storytelling itself, created onstage by McBurney and two sound operators using live Foley, sound loops, pitch-shifted microphones, and binaural audio, which mimics more precisely than regular stereo how the human ear experiences sound.
I spoke to McBurney via a sometimes patchy phone connection while he was out on tour. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
So what city are you in right now?
How’s the tour going so far?
Incredible. We’ve never been to the Wallis Annenberg before, and now they’ve broken box office records on it, so that’s good. Not that those records have been going for very long, but it’s good to know. They’re responding to a piece of work that is not, perhaps, in the normal stream of things.
Early in your career, you studied with the late Jacques Lecoq. Do you still feel his influence on your work?
When Jacques was dying, and I went to visit him in his chalet in the French Alps, we talked about his work and what he did, he said, in French, “In the final analysis, I am nobody. I am the neutral point through which you should pass to articulate what you want.” In other words, what I want to say is, he put obstacles in the way of people in order that they, through their ingenuity and imagination, develop their original voice.
The thing about Jacques is that he left no imprint on people in terms of a style, a technique. What he was interested in was how to develop people’s individual creativity. You can see that from the huge variety of different people and professions that have come out of that school. Geoffrey Rush. Toby Jones. Julie Taymor. But also friends who are landscape architects, even doctors. He was interested in the process of creativity and imagination. People discovered where their creativity lay as a consequence of passing through the school. That’s what’s really interesting about him.
I discovered how to articulate myself away from Britain, and I discovered as well that I don’t feel particularly British, even though I have this curious, very English middle-class voice. I feel more at home, I would say, in other countries, more at home in continental Europe, than I do in an English context.
I feel more influenced by Artaud or Tadeusz Kantor in terms of the sheer anarchy of those people’s work. Of course Brecht. It’s really impossible—it’s always a difficult question. We like in our age to pin things down, to pin labels on people. The whole thing, it’s like the way mathematicians respond to biology. They get the horrors because they see the mess. (Laughs) Creativity, it’s all part of the messy stuff.
Your original idea with The Encounter wasn’t necessarily, “Oh hey, let’s do this complicated thing with binaural sound and live Foley and pitch-shifting” and so on.” It started with the book, right?
The show started with two central areas of discussion and excavation. It was a twinning of two different investigations: one into the book and the nature of that story and that encounter, and the questions that the book raised, such as the notion of our Western idea of time. The other was into the nature of how we encounter each other. Questions which relate to our fundamental sense of what we consider to be real.
Ever since I had finished this piece called Mnemonic, which was an investigation about memory and how it works biochemically, I had become very fascinated with the processes of the brain. What is the relationship between your actions and this extraordinary electrical activity that goes on in that 2.6 pounds of electrified paté that’s sitting on your body? Not that I’m necessarily the wiser, but I was fascinated to discover that every time you remember something you’ve got to remake it, literally, from scratch. You have to reconstruct the pattern, the electrical pattern in the brain. It doesn’t remain the same. Every time you remember, even though it’s fractional, it is different. Your memory is constantly changing.
The only thing that’s interesting to me about that is that memory and imagination are the same thing. Memory is a creative act. So I became fascinated as well about consciousness, which leads you down a rabbit hole. It’s very difficult to talk about consciousness because we all think we know about consciousness—because we all think we’re conscious. In fact, the moment you start to investigate it, you’re not quite sure.
So that was an interesting thing to excavate. And how does that relate to processes which we might call perception? How do we think as a people? What are Western things that you and I take for granted? Very simply, you and I don’t know each other, but we can organize ourselves because we all believe a thing called 6 o’clock and a thing called Wednesday are real. But they don’t exist. They aren’t actual things; we feel that they are very real to us but they are fictions.
We live in a society where fiction is a great deal more present than what we call reality. People are becoming particularly aware of that, that contradiction, because of the current political situation, where you have people who are openly lying, yet everyone chooses to cling onto it as having a meaning that they wish to shore themselves up with against the roar of the world.
So. I’m interested in that!
How did the staging ideas develop?
In the end, I wanted to get inside people’s heads, and secondly, if I was going to tell a story about the most biodiverse place on the planet, it should be all artificial, and emphasize the artificiality of it. It’s a bare stage with nothing but plastic on it. It’s so antithetical to the kind of organic complexity of the topography of the Amazon basin, but what I hope is that it stimulates another topography in the minds of the audience, although maybe they’re not conscious of it.
In terms of the sound design, you can split it into three different categories, really. I think there’s been a bit of confusion about it, so that’s how we’re going to credit it in future programs. The conception of the content was mine with Gareth Frye; the actual nuts-and-bolts of how to produce that, the organizational part, he affected with Pete Malkin. Then there’s a third element, the very simple practical question of putting 800 headphones into a theatre. That was Gareth’s individual brilliance.
You and Gareth went to the Amazon for research and to conduct field recordings.
I had never been to the rain forest. I wanted simply to go there. I had no intention to arrive uninvited in an indigenous community. It happened through a series of extraordinary chances that we wound up invited to this community. Once that seemed to be happening, I also talked with my sound designer Gareth: that, at certain points, it would be wonderful to have recordings that we actually made of that environment, and to invite some of the community also to participate and to say things. I wanted to talk to them about the book and what they thought of me doing it. We took the binaural head with us and played it for them. At this point, we weren’t even sure that we were going to make the show.
When did your daughter become a character in the piece?
Quite later on.
I have a two-and-a-half-year-old, so I appreciated that voice being present.
They have a lot to say, and they’re able to see things and comment on the reality of the world, which is quite startling, because they are not yet inculcated into the series of fictions that we then become slaves to.
In my mind there always were different stories that were unfolding. I tried to write several of them, but they fell apart and weren’t very good. The fiction of them always grated in relation to the reality of Loren McIntyre’s story. It seemed to me that her voice had a truth associated with it that corresponded with the documentary truth of Loren’s story. It’s things she actually said. You can feel it. It’s absolutely real. She’s herself. So it gradually formed into the two hours when [my daughter and I] are alone at home if my wife is away; the way she gets up and down, and the way she talks to me once I put her to bed.
Every piece of theatre has a series of rules that govern the experience. How did you determine the rules for The Encounter? Is that something you think about when developing a piece?
I wanted the audience to be aware of everything. I wanted to pull back the curtain and say, There are no tricks. I don’t want you to concentrate on how it’s done. I’ll tell you how it’s done. I want you to concentrate on what it’s about. I did try it where people put headphones on in the beginning and off we went. But by instead explaining everything first, people are empowered, in an almost Brechtian sense. Because they know how everything works, they can go deeper into the story. There is no magic here. There is only the substance itself.
One hallmark of your work is its use of technology. How do you keep it from becoming just spectacle and keep it related to narrative and theme?
My father was a prehistorian. He would look at very early Neanderthal lithics and talk about technology as he held them in his hand. I think these are the same objects. They’re tools. In the past when I was using projection, people talked about “gimmicks”—well, they don’t anymore, because it’s just part of the syntax of making something onstage. Sometimes people talk about them as tricks. They’re not tricks. They’re punctuation. You use them with meaning, just as you might use a spade, you know. You can use it well or you can use it badly.
Artists need to be diving into these worlds, and not be dominated by them. They need to explode them, if they can, from the inside, or not have too much respect for them. Throwing them around, you know. That idea in the show when I smash everything up—that’s my own frustration with the world coming out, the fact that there is an element in which we are out of control, we are dominated by everything, which is one of the images of the show. We are dominated by the quantities of plastic, by human-created climate change, and I guess when the sea levels rise over Mar-a-Lago then finally it will be accepted as real (laughs). Or probably blamed on somebody else.
If I recall correctly, that connects to the meaning behind Complicite’s name, where the audience and the work are complicit in the act of creation.
Yes. It’s a collective act. The audience is aware of their creativity, and this is a collective, creative act. It’s not just the actors or the playwright who is creative. There are plenty of playwrights who wish to argue for the supremacy of the written text. Or others who argue the director should [be supreme]. I’m not very interested in such arguments. I don’t think they’re very helpful. In the end, this remains the creation of a space in which everyone’s imaginations are involved, and if everybody is involved, something happens, we all bring something to life, together.
It’s sort of the same thing happening here between you and I. You’re asking me questions, you’re provoking me to say things. As I say them these words are creating images which we will be worked into your article, which will be your thing, not mine, even though I will be the fictional topic. Or The Encounter will be. Or theatre itself. I don’t know, of course, what your article will be. That’s the surprise.