Saturday, April 29, 2017

It's A Jungle Out There!

Sleep studies can document restlessness, REM activity, and other clinical indicators of a dream phase. Watch a sleeping dog suddenly start kicking his legs as he dreams and it's easy to imagine that he's chasing squirrels in a world far removed from the living room rug.

Even if they can't remember what they experienced, it's safe to say that most people dream while sleeping. As their minds take them on adventures across multiple dimensions, guiding them through unimaginable worlds and seemingly impossible physical experiences, the sounds and colors of a person's dreamscape can intensify and accelerate the dramatic experiences they undergo while sleeping.

The other morning, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I dreamt I was at the San Francisco Playhouse, attending some sort of community poetry project. When called upon to contribute a few lines of verse, I heard myself (in haiku format) describe how the water in San Francisco Bay was boiling as oversized lemons fell from the sky. While this image was a far cry from harvesting sweet lemon drops from the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the last four words I spoke were "Welcome to climate change!"

A pioneer in the use of psychedelic drugs as a therapeutic tool for working with psychiatric patients, Dr. Timothy Leary (who gained notoriety while experimenting with psilocybin and LSD under the Harvard Psilocybin Project) became a countercultural hero during the 1960s for his mantra "Turn on, tune in, drop out." However, despite all the advances in popularizing the use of psychedelics and creating more potent hallucinogens over the past 50 years, no one has found a way to precisely share the full scope of a person's experiences while dreaming or hallucinating.

That's not to say that people haven't tried. New technologies have greatly enhanced the ability of animators to create new worlds with CGI scripting and digital mapping (just as the increased amount of sensory stimulation in our daily lives may have caused people to digest more images and ideas and thus dream more vibrantly). Every night, when I fall asleep, my dreams allow me "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Sharing the thrills of creativity within the physical confines of a theatre with a proscenium stage presents a daunting challenge. How does one free an audience from such common theatrical restraints as gravity, time, and space in a way that goes far beyond digital mapping and inspired lighting design?

Those of us old enough to remember such cinematic experiments as Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama know that creating a shared "out of body, out of mind" experience is no easy feat. In a city like San Francisco (where, at any given moment, some people can't decide whether they're in the mood for oral or anal), audiences in two adjoining theatres (the Geary and the Curran) have come close to realizing theatrical nirvana with one show that gave audiences an incredible aural experience and another that triumphantly delivered the visual goods.

Earlier this month, American Conservatory Theatre presented a touring production of Robert LePage's mind-bending Needles and Opium. This impressively sculpted presentation allowed the audience to experience what it might feel like to float through a dreamscape while losing track of time, space, and gravity; to sense the ecstasy of a drug taking control of one's nervous system while seemingly floating against a starlit sky. In more than six decades of theatregoing, Needles and Opium was the closest I'd ever come to witnessing something akin to the dream world I inhabit in my sleep every night being replicated in a theatrical framework.

"How do you maintain a sense of intimacy with a thousand people?" asks Lepage. "You have to rely on technology to magnify you, to change the scale on which you work. I am drawn to plays in which the characters are transformed, but also to plays in which the sets are transformed and matter transcended. It's incredible to be able to travel through time and place, to infinity, all on a single stage. I think that if I remain fully aware of the stage as a place of physical transformation, I make it possible (or can try to make it possible) for the audience to really feel the direction in which the action and the characters are being hurtled. It's the metamorphosis brought about onstage that makes this kind of travel possible."

What Lepage achieved visually in Needles and Opium, Simon McBurney is delivering aurally in The Encounter. Inspired by Petru Popescu's book, Amazon Beaming, The Encounter starts off with McBurney standing onstage and explaining to the audience how the various devices they see will create the sounds they hear through the earphones they must wear throughout the performance. As he guides the audience through certain sound effects, he slowly transitions into the character of the famed photojournalist, Loren McIntyre, who found himself lost in a remote area of the Brazilian jungle back in 1969.

Part of McIntyre's assignment was to travel to the Javari Valley and photograph Brazil's indigenous Mayoruna tribe for National Geographic. However, after getting lost in the rainforest, McIntyre discovered that he could not get back to his original location because, without any common language to use while attempting to communicate with the head man of the Mayoruna, he ended up having to spend two months living with the tribe until he could find a way to communicate with them telepathically.

Written, directed, and performed by McBurney, this intense monologue traces McIntyre's transition from a Western way of thinking into a nearly primitive way of life in order to survive. As he is stripped of Western assumptions (and a mischievous monkey destroys his camera and film), the photographer tries to relieve his thirst by munching on a hallucinogenic plant and finds himself swatting away mosquitoes and becoming acutely aware of a nearby jaguar as it makes its way through the forest.

Simon McBurney in a scene from The Encounter
(Photo by: Robbie Jack)

The storytelling ranges in style from simple narrative (as McBurney's daughter interrupts him while he is working at home in London) to the thrill of discovery familiar to those who have sat around a campfire, listening to ghost stories. The audience's earphones deliver positional sound of such astonishing quality that it makes it much easier for a listener to suspend any sense of disbelief.

Many of the sound effects in The Encounter are achieved the old-fashioned way, using a variety of Foley devices and common props (plastic water bottles, crinkly metallic bags that previously held potato chips). Add in some looping pedals (which come in handy for McIntyre's delusional moments and obsessive mutterings) and prerecorded sounds and the audience is subjected to a much purer soundscape than one would normally encounter during a live theatrical performance.

The technical star of the show is a binaural head filled with directional microphones (cost approximately $30,000) whose 3D audio technology is capable of delivering the kind of positional sound that can make theatregoers feel as if insects are buzzing around their heads or McBurney is whispering directly into their ears. While it's easy to be seduced by McBurney's stunning use of this technology, he prefers to see it as an enabling (rather than manipulative) storytelling tool.

"The Encounter has rightly been hailed for the power of its sonic experience," he states. "But, for me, it is not about what happens inside your ears but what happens between them." Although the journey he traces through the Amazon rainforest is a grand adventure (enhanced by a talented crew of technicians who keep morphing sound effects with the dexterity of jazz musicians as McBurney improvises certain moments onstage), his story serves another purpose.

Simon McBurney in a scene from The Encounter 
(Photo by: Robbie Jack)

McIntyre's original goal was to find the true source of the Amazon River, but what he found was something much deeper: a tribal awareness of man's relationship to nature based on a deep understanding of the responsibility we inherit as we alter the landscape in which we live. As eagerly as humans pursue deforestation in their lust to convert natural resources into goods and wealth, the human race is rapidly approaching an environmental as well as existential crisis. As far as McBurney and lots of scientists are concerned, the world has reached a very dangerous moment in the history of climate change.

Simon McBurney in a scene from The Encounter 
(Photo by: Robbie Jack)

The Encounter premiered in 2015 at the Edinburgh International Festival and was subsequently staged at the Barbican Centre in London and the John Golden Theatre in New York. Each attendee's seat is equipped with a pair of earphones that allows members of the audience to plug into the power of McBurney's imagination as the famed British actor leads them on a mind-blowing journey of spirituality, consciousness-raising, and hallucinatory misadventures (it helps to think of The Encounter as an armchair adventurer's version of the Ayahuasca experience without all the vomiting).

There's no doubt that this show is a triumph of sound design's ability to enhance a fairly traditional piece of storytelling. Some have even likened The Encounter to an old-fashioned radio play, but we now live in a much more sophisticated multimedia world than what existed on October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles scared the shit out of Americans during his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

In all honesty, I found that watching McBurney switch back and forth between microphones as he raced around the stage occasionally became a bit tiresome. The simple solution was to shut my eyes for a few moments and retreat into the symphony of sound coming from my earphones.

Bottom line? There are many moments in McBurney's two-hour tour de force when The Encounter's aural stimulation delivers more than enough excitement and satisfaction. However, I get more mind-boggling visual effects in my sleep. Performances of The Encounter continue through May 7 at the Curran Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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