Simon McBurney is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. And that's just the way he would have it. I met up with Simon in the early evening before soundcheck for his nightly one-man Broadway show, The Encounter, which is written, directed and performed by Simon. Perfect sound is crucial for this production, as the audience wears headphones throughout the performance that pipe in different character voices (each played by Simon) and noises separately in the left and right ears to create a unique sense of storytelling and reality. I was curious to find out more about the man behind this creative show and, after getting settled, launched into a discussion with Simon about his early years.
What were you like as a child?
I grew up in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. I was the youngest child. My brother called me "constitutionally disobedient" as I was always in trouble in school; in fact, I was thrown out of the school at one point. I suppose I am insatiably curious, so if someone tells me not to do something, I go 'well why? it's got to be interesting!' That curiosity has taken me, from a very early age, all over the world in terms of different experiences. When I was eighteen years old, I worked in a traveling carnival. I operated one of the stalls in the carnival where you try to get a ring on a coke bottle and you get a pink panther. And all of these things are, as Donald Trump would say, 'rigged' to a lesser or greater degree. Everything is 'rigged' if the truth be known, everything is a game, everything is a play of life of one sort or another. The people I encountered were a microcosm of the United States - flashing lights and everyone trying to rip each other off. And looking for joy. It was an amazing experience. And then I took off from there. In the late 1970s, I hitchhiked across the United States by myself. Stuff I wouldn't dream of doing now. Several times, people pulled a gun on me.
And yet you continued?
Yeah, they were just showing me that they had a gun. They were worried that I might pull a gun on them.
Was there one big takeaway from those years?
I have a great deal of difficulty summing up things but, certainly, if you don't take a risk, you don't find out something new.
When did you get the theater bug?
That's interesting because I never really got the theater bug. From as young as I could remember, I acted in plays. My mother wanted to be an actress, so when we were children, she would write plays for us, like Christmas stories or Britain pantomimes. And when I went away to school, I was constantly in school plays. But I never really took a decision "that is what I want to be." Rather I said, "well, I know I can do that, so I'll do it." I wrote my first play at 13, and directed my first serious play when I was 14 or 15. So even though I went to university, I sort of used it as a glorified drama school. I'd do three plays a term which allowed me to do a lot of terrible renditions of Shakespeare, and have fantastic roles and get it out of my system.
How has the story of The Encounter affected you personally?
It affected me because I am passionately engaged in questioning the way we are currently destroying our planet, and in questions of injustice. Within the book Amazon Beaming, on which the play is based, there is a destruction of peoples and their cultures and appropriation of their lands, and there is a sense that the people that are being attacked from all sides understand the environment, but the people attacking them don't understand the environment. Similarly, in the play, a man is lost in the environment, but the key thing is not just the physical circumstances of that, but what happens in his mind. How does the way he sees the world change? The play isn't just about the sound that goes in your ears; it's literally about what happens between your ears, in your mind. What I am trying to do is suggest to people that, yes they will get a terrific piece of entertainment, but they will get much more as well. It depends, in part, on what they put into it.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I have a yoga practice. It helps as I have to keep myself very much present during the performance. The role is a feat of concentration as much as it is a physical feat. It's about making the spoken word excite certain parts of the imagination. Although it should feel relaxed and almost improvised, it's very carefully scripted and, yet, it has to feel natural. And I need concentration because I'm jumping between characters and it's key that the audience totally believes in each character.
You have also done a ton of film work. One of my favorites is Magic in the Moonlight. How was it working with Woody Allen?
I had a fantastic experience with him. We got on very well, and the role was a wonderful role and sort of pivotal in the piece. But he is very demanding. Not in the sense that he's saying 'you've got to do this', but in the sense that he doesn't tell you very much. And he will set up a scene which is like a frame and you have to play within it, and quite quickly. That's very demanding and requires being very inventive.
Seems like that would be right up your alley as you think outside-of-the-box. How would your family describe you?
You would have to ask them! I imagine that it must be infuriating to be with me because I'm all over the place, and also absent-minded because I'm thinking about a lot of different things. But, relationships are the key to understanding who we are and having a sense of place. Perhaps it's an endless quest for me, not being absolutely certain where I belong, which is also, in a sense, what this piece is about. We might associate ourselves with being American or British or from this place or that place but, in this moment, where we belong, is on this planet together. And we need to really listen to other people. As I say at the beginning of the show 'theater is about a kind of empathy thru proximity, which is why I want to get even closer to you right now'.
Get close to The Encounter by clicking here for tickets.