Binaural Audio in The Encounter on Broadway

THE ENCOUNTER is a one-man play on Broadway, which uses a technology called binaural audio. The play makes it clear that it is using this technology by literally placing the mock human head used to record the audio (during recording a microphone is placed in each ear) center stage. As writer, director, and actor Simon McBurney jolts around the stage–he stops to whisper in the mannequin’s one ear or the other. Each member of the audience is wearing a headset with right and left channel isolation so McBurney’s whispers are transmitted into the ear corresponding with the side of the mannequin into which McBurney vocalizes. McBurney lived with this mannequin in his house as he worked on THE ENCOUNTER. This becomes evident when he speaks to his five-year-old daughter, voiced in the play, who wonders what the floating head is doing in their home. As an audience member, wearing the headphones gives the effect of being immersed in sound. Science & Film’s Sonia Epstein was in the audience and at best, it was as if I were on stage too, and at other times as if the actor were seated behind me.

THE ENCOUNTER is based on the true story of National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre, who was lost in the Brazilian Amazon and adopted for six weeks in 1969 by the indigenous peoples. McIntyre became close to the Mayoruna peoples’ chief, whom he dubbed Barnacle. Barnacle communicated with McIntyre without speaking–as a voice inside his head. The audience, if they close their eyes as instructed to do before the play starts, can have a similar experience to McIntyre’s as Simon McBurney’s voice resounds in each ear.

McBurney plays himself and McIntyre, distinguishing between the two via accent. All of the techniques employed in creating THE ENCOUNTER onstage are made explicit: McBurney explains that he will transition between accents, demonstrates the effect his proximity to the mannequin in the center will have on the audience’s hearing, and shows how he creates the sounds of the rainforest by using audio looping (used by many electronic musicians). This explicitness makes it all the more evident when musical effects and voices not created on stage are added.

THE ENCOUNTER is inspired by the 1991 book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, based on interviews he conducted with Loren McIntyre. The book has been republished to coincide with the production of the play. THE ENCOUNTER is at the Golden Theatre through January 8, 2017.

Photography (c) Joan Marcus