Retro futuro: A Q&A with Intergalactic Nemesis creator Jason Neulander

Something unique (and uniquely geeky) is coming to the Straz this Thursday.

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The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth

8 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 28. $30-$45.
Ferguson Hall, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa.

It's a comic! It's a radio play! It's an old-school adventure serial!

Actually, The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth is all of that and more. Originally conceived as an audio experience, this tale of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan's adventures criss-crossing the planet and even traveling to outer space in order to stop the invasion of the Sludge Monsters from the planet Zygon (yep) is coming to Tampa as a unique hybrid entertainment: the story is performed onstage by voice actors accompanied by a pianist and foley artist creating music and sound effects live in the moment, all of it staged in front of giant, vibrant comic-book panel-style artwork that follows the plot.

The show stops at the Straz for one night only this Thursday, and promises a visual and aural spectacle unlike anything else hitting the stage this season. CL spoke via telephone with co-creator, co-writer and artistic director Jason Neulander about how the whole unlikely thing came together.

The Intergalactic Nemesis began as radio-style audio experience, right?
[Laughs] That's a very fancy way of putting it. Yeah, it was originally done as a radio drama, recorded on a four-track recorder to cassette tapes 20 years ago this year.

How did you become interested in adventure serials?
I wasn't a radio serial listener, but the idea of an adventure serial was straight-up in my wheelhouse when my buddy Ray [Colgan, co-writer] came to me with the idea of making a sci-fi radio play. I was 7 years old when Star Wars came out, and I was 11 or 12 when Raiders [of the Lost Ark] came out. But also with my dad, I have a very clear memory of being 9 or 10, watching Flash Gordon on Saturday mornings with him. I always loved the kind of mid-20th century … American sci-fi short stories. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, any number of those guys.

Just a couple of years prior, I had founded this little theater Salvage Vanguard Theatre in Austin, and that company's mission was to produce new plays that were sort of redefining what theater could be. Our first couple of years were produced in a rock club here in town called Electric Lounge. So the idea of trying this new old medium in an environment that made no sense, [recording it] in a coffee shop in Austin, made perfect sense to me, so I jumped on it, and here we are.

How did it make the transition from that to the comic and eventually the stage show?
Really organically. We did that original summer of '96 series of recordings, and I managed to convince our local NPR affiliate to broadcast that, and then I kind of thought it was done. But a few years later, we revisited it go record it digitally, and in doing so did a pretty heavy rewrite of the whole thing. I started thinking of it as having a life beyond — maybe even a life beyond Austin. I saw how much people loved the story, and I thought surely there's a way to do more of this.

In my head, I thought maybe someday somebody would make a movie of it. And people would say, what, you mean shooting people talking into microphones? [Laughs] And I'd say no, a narrative film based on the story. And that's kind of when I came up with the idea of converting it to a comic book. This artist Tim Doyle, I got hooked up with him through this gallery in town, and what he did was make oil paintings that looked like comic book heroes. I asked if he wanted to make a backdrop for the live version of the radio play, and he did, and we had fun and he did such a good job, when it came time to convert it to a comic book he was the first person we went to, and it turned out he had always had dreams about doing that.

We had about one comic book worth of material when I realized that, if I wanted it to take on a life outside of Austin, I needed to totally rewrite it. We stopped working on the comic, [co-writer] Chad Nichols and I pulled the entire script apart — maybe five pages are from the original 100 page script.

Then I went back to Tim and said now that this is solid, let's make a comic book version. I think he got a full 22-page comic done of the first ten minutes of the show, when I went to a meeting with our local performing arts center to beg them for a job because I was out of work, and they offered up their 2,200-seat venue [to host the show] instead. They had just bought a new digital projection system and were looking for a way use it.

We started working on the comic in late 2008, and the meeting happened in 2009, and then it took another 15 months to finish all the art and get the books published, and we premiered in September 2010, and it's spawned 2 sequels. It's just been amazing.

Was it difficult to find, say, a great foley artist for the performances?

That's a great question. Buzz Moran, who created the sound effects, was on board from the beginning. I invited a friend of mine to head up the sound effects, because I didn't know anyone who did sound effects, but I knew instinctively that a musician might be good for the job, because it's not just sounds, the sounds have to have an emotional quality to them, you know? So I brought in a drummer, and he brought in Buzz, and the drummer dropped out, I think he just didn't show up for rehearsal, but Buzz ended up designing the sound for the show.

Ever since he was a kid he'd been collecting toys that made strange noises, but he never used them for anything. So here was this opportunity for him to open up his closet full of gadgets and actually use them.

Buzz doesn't tour with us, he has a family and the touring lifestyle just isn't good for him. We have a woman on tour with us, her name is Kelly Matthews, she never did sound effects before, we brought her in, and she learned everything. She's captivating.

How long has the show been playing at the Alamo Drafthouse [in Austin]?
The show plays on and off at the Alamo, it's not an extended continual run. Every once in a while we'll bring it back there. We used their theater to workshop the material, lucky for me Tim [League, theater owner] is an old friend.

And how did you end up on Broadway?

It wasn't a commercial Broadway run, there's a nonprofit theater called New Victory, they brought us in for a two-week run as part of their 2012-2013 season. That was pretty cool, though. Being a director, putting it in that space and fine-tuning it, there was this moment when I looked around this space and was like, holy crap, dreams do come true.

The show is suitable for all ages?

Big time. What's so cool is, when we're touring it really is the full gamut. I kind of wrote this experience for my own inner 12 year old, not knowing if anybody would be interested in going along for the ride. And when we premiered, a little over 2,000 people came out, and the energy was like a rock show, and the range was from 7 to, uh, deathbed [laughs]. Comic-book nerds, science-fiction geeks, people who remember radio from when they were kids. This incredible range, and it's like that everywhere we go, it's so cool.

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