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Broadway’s new hit The Encounter is an intrepid journey into the humid depths of the Amazon rainforest.
We speak to Richard Katz about taking National Geographic photographer Loren Mcintyre’s infamous misadventure to the stage.
It’s probably easier to describe what you don’t see. The piece, dealing as it does with a man’s journey into the amazon rainforest, doesn’t have any obvious set; we don’t see the forest, the river, his camp or any of the other places in a literal way. The stage is, for the most part, empty except for a desk, some microphones and a few hundred plastic bottles of water. Everywhere we go within the piece is done so by using a combination of incredible sound and the imagination of the audience.
This is a hard question to answer. I’ve been collaborating on the piece for something like ten years, and its development as a work has gone through so many different incarnations. The first bits I saw are so very different from how the piece is now. The first time I saw how the show is now I was really struck by a piece of text that comes near the end of the piece. The explorer, Loren McIntyre, writing to the memory of his dead friend hopes that there will be ‘A consequence to our association’. I find that a very beautiful encapsulation of what the theatre should be about.
I think people respond to it on many levels. On the one hand, it is a ‘boys own’ story; explorers, forests, getting lost. But I think what people are really responding to – and it will be particularly interesting to see the reaction in Australia – is some sort of clash of culture.
McIntyre’s experiences are set in motion by a very western desire to go and find the ‘other’. To conquer it, you could say. He was heavily motivated by the notion of being the first person to ‘discover’ the source of the Amazon river. Somehow, tied up in that notion, is how fragile our world is. How man has presided over such incredible destruction in his desire to conquer the planet, conquer nature, control nature. He’s ‘just’ taking photographs, but his presence has an inevitable consequence on the environment of the forest and people of the forest.
Unlike many other shows, where you might be trying to persuade yourself (and others) that you really are Hamlet, prince of Denmark, this one requires a multi-layered approach. Yes, at some points I want to honour the idea of performing Loren, of being Loren. But I also have a commitment to how the show works – that is, triggering sound effects or using some of our kit. So you have to be incredibly disciplined but also flexible. Really going deep into the character’s world, his thoughts and experiences, but to also retain enough of your ‘outside eye’ to be able to interact properly with all the stuff from now, using the microphones stage kit etc.; that is to say, not from the world of the amazon rainforest but from the theatre we are happy to be in.
Well first of all, who wouldn’t be in a one man show? Actors are a little on the egotistical side; knowing that it’s just me, all by myself? That’s pretty cool. But the show also allows you as a performer to go to some incredible places and that kind of challenge – the need to be able to inhabit all the different aspects of the story – is an incredibly seductive idea.
It’s unbelievable. Almost two hours alone on stage, so stamina is crucial. The text is delivered at quite a pace, so vocal dexterity and variety are important. The character undergoes some pretty extreme physical experiences, so a good command of your body is helpful. The ideas, though not complicated, require a sensitive approach in terms of unpacking them in an illuminating way, so it means you have to have your brain well and truly switched on. I mean, I’m not down the mines or anything, but it requires you to give it your full attention, physically and mentally.
Image credit: Prudence Upton
Obviously the sound plays a huge part. But I think the thing people really respond to is the vulnerability that’s all through the piece; the vulnerability of McIntyre in that situation, the vulnerability of the indigenous people of the Amazon and their ever-shrinking environment, the vulnerability of one person’s life. It could all end in a second. AND the audience gets to process that vulnerability by watching one small person on one big stage. I think it works best when the audience genuinely feels a bit worried for the performer and the enormity of it all.
The sound is a character. Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin have created a world that the audience sits within. Not passive, but active. It surrounds you so believably, that we regularly have people turn around to see what’s behind them, even though it’s nothing more than an incredibly realistic sound of something behind them. Really, from the opening minutes of the show, the audience is taken on an incredible journey within as the sounds help to illuminate what they’re seeing without.
Header image credit: Prudence Upton