Interview with Tony nominee Simon McBurney

Simon McBurney is a Tony-nominated director and producer, who is now standing front and centre as the sole performer in his own Complicite production of The Encounter at the Golden Theatre.

Simon previously directed the 2008 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons and made his Broadway debut as director of the Complicite production of The Chairs, earning a Tony nomination in 1998. As an actor, his many screen credits include The Last King of Scotland, The Theory of Everything, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, The Conjuring 2, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and many more.

Simon kindly took time out from his busy schedule to answer our questions about the most innovative show on Broadway right now.

Thomas Hayden Millward: You've previously directed 'The Chairs' and 'All My Sons' on Broadway, and now you find yourself making a Broadway debut as a performer. Are you experiencing an altogether different kind of pressure this time around?

Simon McBurney: Well... I guess so. The same pressure but simply doubled. No, what am I saying... tripled. Actor, director and... writer... bloody hell. I don't have enough antacid pills at the moment...

THM: Did you ever imagine that a show as uniquely innovative as 'The Encounter' would find a place on Broadway, the epitome of the world's commercial theatre scene?

SMcB: No.. no, really no... Next question... Forgive me that is so rudely flippant... but it is halloween outside my window and I am watching three dinosaurs jump up and down in the middle of 3rd avenue chased by a bunch of cops. But it is exciting. It feels like being the worm in the peach.


THM: The production is filled with technological wizardry, especially in terms of the audio, yet it seems to run so smoothly. Have there been many technical mishaps during the run?

SMcB: Yes. Many disasters. But the show has not yet ground to a halt. The worst was perhaps a year ago on opening night at the Edinburgh Festival in front of the world's press. I wear two packs on me. One is my head microphone as anyone in a Broadway musical might wear. The other are my in ear headphones which relay the show to me. So I can hear what I am creating, indeed what you the audience is hearing. On the opening night of the Edinburgh festival I was so overcome that I had to rush to the bathroom before going on stage. I unplugged both remote devices in my desperation. And thought I had replugged them correctly before I strode in front of the audience as confidently as I could muster. But no... the microphone I was supposed to speak through was plugged into MY earphones and my ears were plugged into my microphone. No one could hear anything. Least of all myself. A sound technician got on stage as I was working and re-plugged them both while I, desperately, improvised and carried on with the show. It was terrifying... But, hell, none of us are living in Aleppo. I am grateful that such things happen to me and remarkably the press then, as here in New York, was extraordinary.

THM: Can you tell us a bit about the importance of interrupting the narrative of the encounter in the jungle with the scenes back in "the real world," where you audibly interact with your daughter?

SMcB: This is a serious issue. Yes. It is at the heart of what the piece is about. She carries several of the themes of the piece in her appearances. But not in an obvious way at all. She reminds the audience of the passage of time. The hour and 45 minutes of the show are the same amount of time she regularly gets up after bedtime when she and I are alone together. Meanwhile the story is hurtling around in time all over the place. She is able to ask the most relevant questions about the piece but in such a disarming way the audience are not hit over the head by political polemic. Rather what she says resonates long after. For example, she is the one who can ask of McIntyre and his intrusion into the lives of the Mayoruna 'What was he looking for? Why was he there?' Questions we carry back into the story itself ask about who he was and why he was there... and questions about OUR world too. She questions, like all children, what the benefits of our technology are. And why I pay more attention to my phone than to her... Why I am not present. Why am I so distracted. Indeed... why are we all.
She is the future. So as the piece becomes more and more politically engaged in the questions of exploitation of the natural world, questions which in the end are about climate change and where the planet is headed, so we are forced to consider OUR future as ALL people in the planet. And our destruction of the way of life of the people who know the natural world better than any of us on this earth, is inevitably catastrophic for us too. Losing knowledge is a terrible thing. We always lose out to greed.


THM: What would you say are the main benefits of stimulating the audience's minds with the sounds of the Amazon Rainforest, as opposed to the usage of more visual aids such as projected photos?

SMcB: A photograph is flat. It is also a moment forever disappearing into the past. The past moment when it was taken. We see it, therefore, as remote both in terms of place and time. But the point of The Encounter is to awaken the audience to the present. A present which is created by the imagination. So a flat photograph would not be appropriate. Except to someone who has lost the capacity to imagine. The sound surrounds you. And yes the words of the story are key to what you feel. But I think The Encounter is as visual a piece as any you will see on Broadway. Perhaps more so. Because you begin to see things that are nor there. Through suggestion. As the wall behind me is mapped onto by the video, you see the forest. It is not a literal image, But you see it. And it moves. You see mosquitoes, so much so that i can see people in the audience begin to swat the air before them; you see the river, the shadows of people who are not there play on the ground, you see people, my daughter, the boy Tuti, Cambio, the headman of the community Loren McIntyre invades... and you see Washington DC burning before your eyes. And the beauty of it is that is there and not there simultaneously.
I had Teller of Penn and Teller come back stage the other night. He said that is real magic. To conjure before our eyes the most biodiverse place on the planet using... nothing. Well not quite nothing. I use the detritus of modern life. There is only plastic, rubber, metal and technology.


THM: And finally, what do you want to take away with you from your Encounter with Broadway and what would you like audiences to take away with them from their Encounter with your show?

SMcB: Ah... yes... how to sum it up... I want them to be moved of course. To have been gripped, frightened, made to laugh and think, given questions not all of which have answers... but above all I want them to take away an experience, that is so physically present that they feel they too have gone on a journey. But I don't want them to feel they have arrived. Rather that a new landscape has opened out before them. Where they go next is up to them.

The Encounter is booking through to 8 January 2017 at Broadway's Golden Theatre. Click HERE for tickets!