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'The Encounter' Brings The Sound Of The Amazon To Broadway


The best way to enjoy this next story is if you listen through headphones. It's about "The Encounter," a new Broadway show. It uses three-dimensional sound effects to take the audience deep into the Amazon. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Every audience member at "The Encounter" gets a pair of headphones.

SIMON MCBURNEY: OK, I'm just going to test your headphones, just check them. And Helen's going to put us in your right ear. OK, and now I'm going to take a walk across this 2.6 pounds of electrified pate that we call our brain. And now I should be somewhere in your left ear.

LUNDEN: That's Simon McBurney, who conceived, wrote and stars in the show. It sounds like you're in a rainforest, but it doesn't look like one. The back wall is covered with the kind of foam tile you'd see in a recording studio. There's a plastic table and chairs, some microphones and cables, a lot of water bottles and something that looks like a mannequin head - eyes, nose, ears on top of a microphone stand.

MCBURNEY: What I wanted to do is put the barrier up and say, right, there's going to be nothing on stage that's organic, nothing that is going to remind us or suggest the most biodiverse area of the planet.

LUNDEN: Before you know it, Simon McBurney has taken the audience into the Amazon basin for an incredible story about one American man's encounter with a tribe called the Mayoruna. His sound designer Gareth Fry went to the rainforest with that same head we see on stage. It has a microphone in each ear and records binaural, or three-dimensional, sound.

GARETH FRY: It's a really sort of great way of putting an audience in the Amazon rainforest or other places we've taken the head to. It creates a great relationship between audience and performer. For him to be able to whisper into your ear creates this sense of intimacy with Simon.


MCBURNEY: He walked around the back of its enormous roots, and then somehow on the screen of his mind - hey, buddy, you're not alone. He had the sensation of presence and then almost instantaneously saw a young man in the forest, naked, two parts of red uruqu on his cheeks.

LUNDEN: The story McBurney tells is about Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic explorer and photographer. In 1969 he made contact with the Mayoruna, the cat people who some thought were extinct. Author Petru Popescu wrote "Amazon Beaming," a book about the late McIntyre's experiences on which the play is based.

PETRU POPESCU: When he met them they were hiding from civilization. And he met them all alone, therefore he could not leave them. He was in a state of virtual hostage situation.

LUNDEN: Some members of the tribe were hostile while some were friendly. And for the six to seven weeks McIntyre was lost in the rainforest with them, he became convinced he was having telepathic communication with the tribe's chief, says Simon McBurney.

MCBURNEY: What that communication is I can't really vouch for. All I can tell is his story of what that communication was, which was a nonverbal communication in which he had the sensation he was being communicated with.

LUNDEN: And we can hear it through the 3-D audio. At one point, McIntyre is kind of running for his life around the perimeter of the village while he hears the chief in his mind.


MCBURNEY: (As Loren McIntyre) Nine, 10, 11 laps.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Barnacle) I want to survive. I want you to survive as well.

MCBURNEY: (As Loren McIntyre) I ran on and on.

LUNDEN: McIntyre called the chief Barnacle for the warts around his legs and ankles. Barnacle drove the tribe, starving and exhausted, to a place in the forest where they would perform a cleansing right.

MCBURNEY: These people are in the process of creating a ritual to go forward in time in order to arrive at a time where there will be no white people, where they can begin again because as far as they're concerned, the approach of white people signals the death of their environment.

LUNDEN: "The Encounter" explores a lot of ideas about the environment, about consciousness, about the stories we tell ourselves and others. When Simon McBurney was preparing the show, he went to the Amazon and met with members of the Mayoruna.

MCBURNEY: And they were very touched. And they said it's incredibly important that you tell this story, but you must also say that we, the Mayoruna, exist.

LUNDEN: And McBurney says that's his aim. "The Encounter" will run on Broadway through January, then go to Ann Arbor and Los Angeles. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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