Dallas — The AT&T Performing Arts Center brings The Intergalactic Nemesis, the comic book brainchild of Austin writer, director, and producer Jason Neulander (at the right in the photo above), to the Dallas City Performance Hall stage to wow audiences with its singular blend of comic art, voice acting, and sound effects. It’s the final show of ATTPAC’s Off-Broadway on Flora series. We sat down with Neulander to talk inspiration, bringing the sound of hypnosis to life, and the kind of serendipity that makes art happen at just the right time.
TheaterJones: The Intergalactic Nemesis is a very different kind of theater. What was your inspiration?
Jason Neulander: Necessity was the mother of invention in this case. It started as a radio play that some friends and I put together 20 years ago in Austin. The project developed a pretty big following, and in 2009 when I was out of work I went to Long Center looking for work. The executive director offered me the big hall, 2,400 seats, to put up the show instead.
I realized this was a lifeline, but that the venue was too big to just watch a radio play being performed. During that meeting, an image came to me of comic artwork projected the size of the proscenium arch. Turns out the theater had just bought a projector system. It was an amazing coincidence at a time in my life when I really needed things to happen.
So were you interested in comic books growing up?
I was never big into comics as a kid. What always bugged me is that I could never remember month after month to get the next issue. I was always stuck in stories where I didn’t know what was going on.
But as an adult, I got reintroduced to comics by the composer for The Intergalactic Nemesis, Graham Reynolds. He turned me on to Lone Wolf and Cub, an early Japanese manga about a samurai. It’s very visual, with little dialogue, and influenced by American Westerns. It was briefly in print around the time I was developing The Intergalactic Nemesis. This really turned me on to the idea of exploring the comic medium outside the realm of superheroes. I just never got into costumed superheroes.
I was way into sci-fi as a kid—I read a ton of pulp short stories from the 1950s and later, which really influenced my work, and I loved watching Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers on the local television network with my father.
My other big influence was Golden Age Hollywood movies—His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Philadelphia Story. Lawrence Kasdan’s crackling dialogue from movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Body Heat were a big inspiration too, along with sci-fi franchises like Terminator and Alien.
One of the most unique aspects of the show is the live Foley artist. How does that add to the show?
Most of the sounds in the show involve using objects that have no resemblance to the thing they’re trying to sound like. This is one of the biggest pieces of magic in the show, when you manage to catch it. For instance, the sound of a train is produced with a toy train whistle and shaking a box of Kraft mac and cheese in just the right way. A lot of sounds are holdovers from the original radio production in the 90s, where we ended up rummaging through kitchens and closets to find things that made noises like what was called for in the script. The sound of hypnotism—I bet you didn’t know that hypnotism had a sound—is done with this toy tube that you swing around.
There’s also the underlying theme of the whole show of the hero by circumstance. You have these characters, one of whom in particular is a librarian with absolutely no training in saving the earth. Similarly, none of the people involved in the project had sound design training. They are all self-taught. The message of the show is a celebration of the everyday person having a dream and going for it and finding a way to be successful at it.
It’s very personal for me, this project took on life out of a time when I was unemployed and desperate. Now it’s been touring the world for five years and doesn’t want to stop. The effects are personal to me, and they’re a part of it—the show is very much a live experience, and as much as possible in it needs to be done live. The comic panels themselves are actually cued live, not synced automatically. That allows us to adjust timing based on audience response. The person who runs projection is on stage with the cast, controlling tempo and reading the audience as much as the actors do.
What was it like developing the graphic novel? Did the story change?
Once we started working in the visual medium, a lot of things opened up. Plot points didn’t change per se, but the way the scenes unfold changed because you can do things visually that you could never do with just sound. Graphic novels are different than the live production by that same token—you can do sound in a way you can’t just do with a printed page. For example, the opening scene evolves into a bar room brawl, but weren’t able to pull that off in the radio version because it was auditory cacophony. You either need a narrator to explain, which slows the pace, or it’s just a big mess. So that scene was very different in the radio play version.
I had never developed a visual work like that before. I knew enough that the format we were working in was the same as the 9-panel comic book page of the 1930s. I wanted it to feel like something you’d have picked up then, but with a contemporary twist. The artist, Tim Doyle, is a comic collector and educated me on the visual language of comic books. He was a great partner to work with and had great feedback. Tim has a great sense of composition and movement in every image he has drawn.
Do audiences have the same response to elements of show, or do responses vary from show to show?
Oh, that’s a great question! They definitely vary from show to show. We encourage audience participation quite a bit, wanting people to cheer on the good guys, boo the bad guys, get vocal. Sometimes an audience member will pull focus from the actors on the stage, but it usually works very well.
The energy feels more like a rock show than like a play. The audience can get really into it, and the actors feed off of it. It’s a dialogue back and forth between the audience and the performers, a celebration of what the live experience is all about. I don’t tour with the show that often, but once in a while I’ll be in the room when that happens, and it’s unlike any other live theater experience.
Are the actors primarily stage actors, or voice over artists?
They’re primarily stage actors, though they’ve all done their share of VO work. A DC Universe MMO does all their character voice work in Austin, so if you’re an actor in Austin, you’ve recorded a voice for them.
Have they experienced any challenges with this format?
The role of the audience can be a challenge for them—they can throw a curveball that actors don’t always know how to handle. That live aspect is always there.
Once I figured out the format, I was lucky enough to work with my friend Tim League, the co-founder of Alamo Drafthouse. I was able to develop the show at the Alamo incrementally as an “open lab,” performed in front of unsuspecting audiences in 10-15 minute chunks before genre movies during their opening weekends.
That gave us honest, real-time, real responses and it really helped me figure out what I was creating and what direction I needed to give to the actors. I knew that sound needed to drive the visuals, and that the actors needed to learn it as if it were a radio play, using a wide variety of voices.
Have any works inspired by yours cropped up?
I haven’t really seen anything like that yet, but part of me wonders if they haven’t really tapped into the larger consciousness of the comic book world because we’ve toured traditional performing arts centers. I was initially thinking of doing something similar to the moving comic book videos from the comic book publishers, but we didn’t think it would work very well.
PBS put together a YouTube version of our show that is awesome—it divides the screen into panels, but within each panel something different is happening, like artwork, a voice actor, or a sound effect, continually evolving as a comic book would.
What’s next for you? Are you going to develop more live-action comics?
The Intergalactic Nemesis evolved into a trilogy, so I’m feeling like I need to take a break from this format for now. I have a project in my back pocket, and if the opportunity to put it together were to come up I would definitely develop it. Now I’m working on some film projects, and I’m hoping to direct my first feature in the next year.