In 2008, theater writer-director Jason Neulander was about the get the break of a lifetime. His live-action graphic-novel project “Intergalactic Nemesis” was on its way to getting a production on Broadway.
“It looked like we were going to get a commercial production in New York,” Neulander said recently via phone from his home in Austin, Texas. “So I put all my eggs in one basket.”
Then the economy tanked. Neulander quickly realized that the Great Recession would not be kind to risky theater productions such as “Intergalactic.” Soon, he was broke. He returned home to Austin, desperate for job. For the first time in his life, Neulander put a standard résumé together. He went looking for work. One of the stops was Austin’s Long Center for the Performing Arts.
“I knew the executive director there,” said Neulander. “I thought he might hire me for something.”
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While no office or production jobs were available, the theater’s director expressed interest in Neulander staging “Intergalactic Nemesis” at the center’s 2,400-seat Dell Hall. That conversation would mark the beginning of an unusual show, one that has evolved into a successful globe-traveling theater production.
“The Intergalactic Nemesis – Book One: Target Earth,” which arrives at Davis’ Mondavi Center Friday, features three actors on stage voicing characters by speaking into retro-looking microphones. The show also includes a foley artist for sound effects and a keyboardist for music. Projections of graphic-novel panels on a two-story screen assist with the storytelling.
“Intergalactic” begins in 1933 when a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, an intrepid research assistant and a mysterious librarian team up and travel the galaxy to fight a threat to the future of humanity: an invading force of sludge-monsters from outer space known as the Zygonians.
The Bee spoke with the 44-year-old Neulander about the genesis of the show, its challenges and its new-found appeal.
When and how did the show originate?
It began in 1996 – as a radio show. I’d founded a theater company in Austin called Salvage Vanguard Theater that was primarily about developing and producing new plays. We did mainly experimental work. That was when Ray Colgan and I came up with the idea of producing a sci-fi radio play and and performing it at a local coffee house.
Were you into radio drama?
I had never done anything like that before. To me, this was the definition of experimental.
What was the inspiration?
I was a huge fan of “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which I grew up with. The project seemed to me to be a sort of perfect, zero-budget way of creating a similar kind of experience.
Why not just do it as a stage play?
I came to the realization that my starting point, as a theater director, was from an audio place. It was about finding the rhythm of the work through sonic experience. In 2000, Buzz Moran, who created the sound effects and the audio recording for the show, bought this 8-track digital-recording studio device and approached me about doing “Intergalactic” as an evening-length show. We ended up with 200 minutes of material. We cut it down to half that. The show is pretty different now than what it was back then.
What happened to it?
We toured that version of the show, and in process of touring, I realized the material was not good enough to be touring. So, in 2007, (co-writer) Chad Nichols and I revisited the material. We really tore it apart. Top to bottom. It was still in radio play format, but that script became the basis for what we’re doing now.
After almost making it to Broadway, the production ended up at the Long Theater in Austin.
Yes. But I felt the venue was way too big for the experience of seeing a radio play, which only works in an intimate setting. That’s when I came up with idea of projecting the comic-book artwork. ... I realized I could create a visual spectacle that could fill the hall. So I took the radio play and wrote a comic-book strip based on it using much of the original dialogue, but stripping away all the verbal description and replacing it with pictures.
So how did you start?
By changing scenes that don’t work in radio, like fight scenes and action scenes. That allowed me to revisit the story telling from a purely visual standpoint. From there, a hybrid script combining radio play with the comic-book (became) the live-action graphic show. It’s three actors doing all the voices, one person doing all the sound effects and a keyboardist doing the cinematic score.
What does the popularity of this show say about young people and theater?
“Intergalactic” is pulling people into performing-arts centers who are not normally going to these kind of venues. We’re not getting as much of a high-art crowd as pop-culture crowd coming through the doors. This project speaks directly to a pop culture-centric audience. It might have something to do with the fact that comic books are so popular right now. I have yet to hear a child refer to this show as anything but a movie.
You created sequels to this story that have also toured. What do you want to happen to the “Intergalactic” series?
My dream would be to see it become a live-action feature film. This is one of the reasons I’ve kept this project alive – I really love the characters. And I discovered through sequels that the audience is with me on that.
How close are you to achieving that goal?
I’m a few tens of millions of dollars away from doing that.
The Intergalactic Nemesis – Book One: Target Earth
What: A live-action graphic novel
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis
(530) 754-2787; www.MondaviArts.org