What began in the 1990s as a traditional radio play at a coffee shop in Austin, Texas, has morphed from a radio play, to a graphic novel, to a live performance. The Intergalactic Nemesis is now traveling around the country with three actors, one foley artist, one keyboardist and 1,200 graphic novel images. Audiences show up not quite sure what to expect — but they often leave smiling.
To set the stage: It's 1933, there's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, an evil hypnotist, a time-traveling librarian and alien sludge monsters. The radio play, says producer and director Jason Neulander, started simply, with scripts, a few actors and some crazy noises.
"There was literally a sound for everything," Neulander says — for example, the sound of hypnotism, which the foley artist creates by whirling around two toy plastic tubes.
Eventually the Intergalactic Nemesis crew teamed up with a graphic artist. Neulander says it was fun mixing two old forms originally created in the '30s — radio plays and comics — but he says, "without contemporary technology this production would not be possible." He recently had to buy a new computer because the old one did not have the processing power to run the slide show.
Chris Gibson plays nine characters in the show. He has four death scenes. He says he loves being encouraged to overact and go "as far as you possibly can." And he does — putting on outrageous accents and creating hellish, horrific voices.
Tim Keough, who is studying acting, recently saw the show at the East Village Cinema in New York. He says his girlfriend, a comic illustrator, bought the tickets to surprise him. "I had no idea of what I was walking into," Keough says. "[It] kind of blew my mind. The sound effects — you could feel you were in the cave; it felt like an alien planet with sludge on the walls."
It's not often audiences get the chance to see sound effects being made in front of them, and show-goers were riveted by foley artist Buzz Moran. "I absolutely loved the use of children's toys for the sound effects," says Jason Arias, who also saw the show in New York.
Moran coaxes surprising new sounds from familiar old toys. He takes a child's slide whistle and blows into a different area to create a gas jet for an alien planet. He takes a toy that allows children to change their voices and makes the microphone feed back into the speaker, creating a laser effect. A child's train whistle coupled with a box of macaroni and cheese makes for a very convincing approaching train.
Neulander says The Intergalactic Nemesis connects with his inner 12-year-old. His favorite movie is (still) Star Wars, and and he loves pulp science fiction from the 1930s and '40s. He's not bothered by the critique that there's no deep purpose or moral in the show.
"Sometimes it's important to just have an escape," Neulander says. "Life can be hard, and I feel like right now, in the times we are in, it really can't hurt to have an opportunity for a couple of hours — for people from 7 to 70 and older — to go in the theater and escape from their daily lives and go on a pure, unadulterated adventure."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The "Intergalactic Nemesis" started in a coffee shop in Austin, Texas in the 1990s, then it morphed or, as this recent trailer goes...
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE INTERGALACTIC NEMESIS")
BLOCK: The "Intergalactic Nemesis" is traveling around the country with three actors, 1,200 graphic novel images, a sound effects guy and music. NPR's Margot Adler reports that it's a throwback to another era with some timeless appeal.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: The "Intergalactic Nemesis" started with some scripts, a few actors, some crazy noises.
JASON NEULANDER: And the writers did not hold back. There was literally a sound for everything.
ADLER: Jason Neulander is the director and producer of the show.
NEULANDER: Including something that's still in the show, like the sound of hypnotism.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOISEMAKING TUBES)
ADLER: Just two children's noisemaking tubes. Eventually, they teamed up with a graphic artist. There's a score involving piano and organ, a foley artist making the sounds, three actors standing in front of old-fashioned microphones and comic book images projected on a large movie screen.
Neulander said it was fun mixing two old forms originally created in the '30s, radio plays and comics.
NEULANDER: But without contemporary technology, this production would not be possible. Last year, I had to buy a brand new laptop because my old one didn't have the processing power to run the slide show.
ADLER: It's 1933. There's a woman reporter, an evil hypnotist, a time-traveling librarian and alien sludge monsters. Chris Gibson plays nine characters in the show. He has four death scenes. He loves being encouraged to overact.
CHRIS GIBSON: It's a real treat as an actor to literally be encouraged to go as far as you possibly can.
I wouldn't be bringing any frail little children to Cladmore.
MOLLY SLOAN: Is that so?
GIBSON: Aye. Too many strange things. I don't even trust me eyes anymore. Lights coming on and going off in the wee hours of the night, terrible sounds and (unintelligible) demonic sounds. It's the devil's work, for sure.
ADLER: You had no idea?
TIM KEOUGH: I had no idea what I was walking into.
ADLER: Tim Keough says his girlfriend, a comic illustrator, bought the tickets to surprise him.
KEOUGH: Kind of blew my mind. The sound effects you could actually feel like they were in a cave. It felt like an alien planet with sludge on the walls.
ADLER: Jason Arias and Cecilia Macarewicz appeared to be in their 20s. They were totally taken with the foley artist and the old time radio feed.
JASON ARIAS: I absolutely love the use of, like, children's toys for the sound effects. He had, like, these weird tubes that he would swing around.
CECILIA MACAREWICZ: They even had, like, the old school microphones. That was great. I was like, oh, my gosh, this is the 1940s. So I really enjoyed it.
ADLER: 1930s, actually. Many eyes in the East Village Cinema were riveted on Buzz Moran, the foley artist, perhaps because you don't often get to see sound effects being made except on live radio shows. Moran uses lots of children's toys and gets effects they were not intended for, like the slide whistle.
BUZZ MORAN: So, normally, you would just play...
(SOUNDBITE OF SLIDE WHISTLE)
MORAN: ...with the slide whistle. So, instead, I blow into this other area.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING)
ADLER: And you get a gas jet on the alien planet. Or a little toy that allows kids to change their voices.
MORAN: Normally, you would speak...
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOT VOICE)
MORAN: Just a voice changer, but since it has a speaker attached to it, you can take the microphone and make it feed back, make a nice little laser sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF LASERS)
ADLER: And, of course, most traditional, a box of macaroni and cheese and a child's train whistle.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)
ADLER: For director Jason Neulander, "The Intergalactic Nemesis" gets back to his inner 12-year-old. He was seven when "Star Wars" came out, still his favorite film, and he loves pulp science fiction from the 1930s and '40s. So when I say, this is really fun, but there isn't any deep purpose to it, as there is in some of the best science fiction, he says sometimes it's important to just have an escape.
NEULANDER: Life can be hard and I feel like, right now, in the times that we're in, it really can't hurt to have an opportunity for a couple hours of people from age seven to 70 and older to go into the theater and escape for just a little while from their daily lives and just go on a pure, unadulterated adventure.
GIBSON: Here we are, Cladmore.
ADLER: "The Intergalactic Nemesis" is currently touring the galaxy from Burlington, Vermont to Park City, Utah.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: And you can see "The Intergalactic Nemesis" for yourself, or at least clips of it, at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.