"I think sound is quite tricky. It is often much less tangible than visual forms of design."
How Gareth Fry's special aural effects help conjure the Amazon rainforest in this new show
There are very few shows where sound is in the spotlight. In fact, veteran British sound designer Gareth Fry says that usually, if he's doing his job well, theatregoers might not note his contribution. "Sound is used emotionally, and frequently I'm sort of working on the subconscious level outside the audience's awareness," he explains. "So it can be tricky because quite often I'm trying hard not to be noticed, but still to have an effect."
That's definitely not the situation with Fry's Broadway debut The Encounter, a cutting-edge UK import from Complicite that employs binaural sound to conjure the Amazon rainforest in an intimate yet all-encompassing way. Since every audience member wears headphones, the sounds in this production feel especially close and authentic. We might think someone is whispering directly in our ear or get the sensation that a rainforest animal is racing back and forth behind our heads. (Patrons who close their eyes may feel even more convinced that what they're hearing is real.)
Conceived and performed by Complicite co-founder Simon McBurney, the solo show is inspired by Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, about National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre's real-life South American odyssey when he came across the elusive Mayoruna tribe. It took five years for McBurney to develop this unique theatrical experience, and Fry has been with him since the outset.
"Simon actually got the book 20 years ago, and I think he spent all that time mulling over how to possibly begin to stage it," says Fry. "It doesn't conform to the normal theatrical conventions of storytelling. When you're trying to evoke the scale and vastness of the Amazon rainforest, it's difficult to do that with flats and backdrops and things like that. You can create an impression of it, but we wanted to be more immersive than that, to take the audience on a journey down into the wormhole of Loren McIntyre's experience. Sound is such an evocative medium that it sort of became the natural way to do it. It started off with this idea of wanting to make it seem like Simon was creating this story from nothing onstage. I have a long history of working with Simon and we've done quite innovative sound projects before. He knows he can ask whatever is in his imagination and I can probably find a way to do it. He mentioned binaural sound to me, and I had used it previously. [It doesn't work with speakers], so we started figuring out how we could use headphones, which creates a sense of one-to-one storytelling that you don't often have in theatre. It's quite unique."
Sound, along with McBurney's mesmerizing performance, are the centerpieces of The Encounter. The lightning and projections complement the story but are abstract. The set is intentionally bare in order to highlight the various high-tech and no-tech ways sound is utilized. A binaural microphone, which resembles a human head, is prominent, and the back wall is covered in floor-to-ceiling soundproofing. A hodgepodge of Foley props – VHS magnetic tape, bags of chips, water -- allows McBurney to create specific sound effects on the spot. His iPhone plays prerecorded interviews and various mikes completely transform his voice. Sound isn't just a means to tell the story; in many ways it is the story. No wonder The Encounter has more sound operators (five in total!) than actors (two including McBurney's alternate, Richard Katz, who performs on Wednesday matinees), plus a co-sound designer, Pete Malkin, who started out as an associate designer but was soon promoted by Fry.
Simon McBurney in 'The Encounter.' Photo by Tristram Kenton.
"As far as I know, we're the only show on Broadway that has multiple sound operators," says Fry. "That's due to the sheer complexity of the sounds in the show: multiple mikes, sound effects, music, looping, voiceovers. A few theatre companies have used binaural sound before, but it tended to be stuff they recorded and played back. We have the live binaural microphone onstage, which I don't think has been done before. The show features voices of people we interviewed: geographers, explorers, and biologists; neurologists talking about time and consciousness; the rainforest and indigenous communities; people in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and London, Skyping from across the other side of the word. A lot of these voices feed into the show, helping us understand the context of the story we're telling, how indigenous communities are affected by the outside world."
McBurney and Fry traveled to the Amazon in order to record many of the sounds heard in the show. "It was quite important for us to go to experience it ourselves so we could know what we were talking about," he says. "It was a really critical point in the development of the show, not just recording the sound effects, but having a basis to tell the story from, to have some relationship with the character and his journey and the people he met."
The duo even connected with members of the Mayoruna tribe, who aren't quite as cut off from so-called "civilization" as they were when McIntyre stumbled upon them back in 1969. "They've learned Portuguese and just got electricity a year before," says Fry. "They're sending their kids off to university and then they're coming back and helping with their community. They're quite active fighting for the rights of indigenous people. They've got a foot in each end I think. The younger kids in the community had smartphones. The Amazon River is such a trade route that there are cell phone towers all along it. So we were a five-hour trek into virgin rainforest and yet I had better cell coverage than I do in my house! As we were leaving a couple of the kids were like, 'Are you on Facebook?' So we're friends with them now -- it's slightly surreal. There's this encroachment of our world into theirs."
After more than a year of touring The Encounter across the pond, Fry is thrilled to bring it to Broadway, although the accomplishment is bittersweet. After establishing an award for Best Sound Design in 2008, the Tony Awards Administration Committee eliminated the category in 2014. There was a big industry backlash -- even Fry posted a letter of protest -- but as of now the decision still stands, though the committee reserved the right to "determine a special Tony Award for certain productions that have excelled in this particular design realm."
For Fry -- the recipient of two Oliviers (the British equivalent of the Tonys) and chairman of the Association of Sound Designers -- this is little consolation, though he's very diplomatic about his disappointment. "It's a particularly weird thing because New York City has got some of the best sound designers in the world working on all these amazing shows," he says, choosing his words carefully. "It's one of the centers of excellence. To remove that category was a real blow to everybody in the industry. I think sound is quite tricky. It is often much less tangible than visual forms of design. You can't take a photo of it. You have set design and lighting design and video design and they're all working together to make this shared visual aesthetic. But sound design exists in the aural work of the actors and musicians. It makes it more difficult to judge what it is."
Since the sound work is visible, so to speak, in The Encounter, there is a chance that Fry will snag one of those "special Tony Awards" the committee floated. But even that makes him wary. "I wouldn't want for this to win an award because the sound is front and center," he admits. "Shows should win awards for being good. And there are lot of shows on Broadway that are using sound very powerfully; it's just the sound isn't front and center. It's tricky. All awards are. How do you say who's best at something? How do you judge the dividing line between who created what? Theatre is a group of artists coming together and creating and thriving off each other's input."
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Top photo: Simon McBurney in The Encounter. Photo by Robbie Jack.