It started as a whim 14 years ago a side project for a director from an edgy non-profit Austin theater company along with a cluster of energetic, independent writers and actors.
Now, after morphing into a fully fledged stage show that has toured the country, that off-the-cuff effort — "The Intergalactic Nemesis" — re-emerges this weekend at the Long Center in its splashiest production yet. Billed as a "live action graphic novel" with more than 1,200 comic book images that form the backdrop, the live radio drama features three actors, a sound effects artist with more than 200 gadgets and a keyboardist playing an original score. And "The Intergalactic Nemesis," unlike most theater in Austin, is produced as a for-profit professional enterprise complete with private investors, spinoff products including a comic books series, commercial tie-ins and ambitions of more touring, including a run in New York.
But back in 1996, the show was a lark, a bit of fun for director Jason Neulander, founder of Salvage Vanguard Theater, and writer/Little City Coffee barista Ray Colgan. Why not try to stage a show outside a traditional theater, maybe on the stage-like section in the back of the then-new Congress Avenue coffee shop Little City? Why not do a live radio serial, a sci-fi thriller, a campy yet affectionate homage to yesteryear with actors reading from scripts and a Foley artist making sound effects?
And so "The Intergalactic Nemesis" materialized like a fleet of alien aircraft from Planet Zygon invading Earth, which is what the protagonists in the 1930s-era adventure story — Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan, her assistant Timmy Mendez and librarian Ben Wilcott — must stop.
The coffee shop shows turned into an undeniable hit. Audiences — boisterous and appreciative — crowded Little City to watch the retro story unfold at weekly performances. The writers — in addition to Colgan, the creative team then included Lisa D'Amour, Julia Edwards and Jessica Reisman — quickly churned out more chapters. For each new episode, Neulander whipped a cast into shape after just a couple of hours of rehearsal. And Buzz Moran, a guitarist always fascinated by things that make weird sounds, quickly developed into a Foley artist crafting live sound effects from a range of everyday objects. Recordings of the live serial were made, then broadcast on public radio station KUT.
"People just immediately responded to the story," Neulander recalled recently over coffee, not uncoincendentally at Little City. Maybe it was the nostalgia of an antiquated form of entertainment and the "golly gee whiz" style of dialogue. Maybe it was the charm of going back to a vintage future with its archaic imagined technology.
The success of the show "wasn't something any of us expected, yet we realized we were on to something," Neulander says.
That something morphed a few years later when Neulander and Chad Nichols rewrote the show into an evening-length theater piece with Moran again on sound effects and an original live score played by composer Graham Reynolds. Not only did that show spin two sequels — "Return of the Intergalactic Nemesis" and "Intergalactic Nemesis: Twin Infinity" — but it also hit the road in 2006 for a national tour that spread over two years, playing in about 30 cities (but not in New York) and selling out notable venues such as Houston's Wortham Center.
By the time the tour ended in 2008, "The Intergalactic Nemesis" had flown a long way from its coffee shop origins.
Not since "Greater Tuna" morphed from a homespun farce to a full-blown trilogy of nationally produced plays that included a 1994 Broadway run (and a Tony nomination for one of its stars and co-creators, Joe Sears) has an Austin-made theater production had such far-reaching aspirations.
That ambition is by no small measure a product of Neulander's enterprise. But "Intergalactic Nemesis" is a bit of different road than what Neulander first set out to do when he came to Austin in 1994.
When the New Jersey native rolled into town on a motorcycle, he had theater degrees from tony Brown University and a desire to start a theater company, Salvage Vanguard, that declared a punk rock ethos and that busily spread "I Hate Theater" bumper stickers around town. "It was about being DIY before DIY became the buzz word (it is now)," Neulander says.
Through the nonprofit Salvage Vanguard, Neulander staged several dozen premieres of edgy new plays, along the way advocating the work of now-lauded talents such as composer Reynolds and playwright Dan Dietz and also racking up plenty of local awards. In 2006, with the local economy surging, the eternally vagabond theater troupe put down roots of its own, converting a rambling 9,000-square-foot warehouse on Manor Road into a theater.
But by late 2007, Neulander — always a very vocal and visible presence on the Austin theater scene — abruptly announced he was leaving the theater company he had founded. The pressures of touring "The Intergalactic Nemesis" demanded more of his attention, he said, and fundraising for the theater-building project hadn't percolated as predicted (the organization still carries debt from that project).
"I needed to re-think what my priorities were," says Neulander. "Nemesis," he decided, was where he would put his focus.
Since striking out on his own, Neulander has transformed "Intergalactic Nemesis" into its own for-profit franchise. Creatively, he expanded the sci-fi storytelling to include a seven-part comic book series, recruiting local artists Tim Doyle, Paul Hanley and Lee Duhig to create the vivid vintage-style illustrations that hark back to classic comic books of decades past.
For the current production, Neulander raised $110,000 of capital with investors including America Online co-founder and Long Center board member Marc Seriff, entrepreneur Scott Reichardt and real estate agent Cord Shiflet. The Long Center came on board as an official presenter.
Neulander also crafted the kind of marketing tie-ins not typically used by Austin's bare-bones arts groups. For starters, there's the "Intergalactic Nemesis Combo" sundae from Amy's Ice Cream, the "Intergalactic Nemesis Combo Pizza" at House Pizzeria, a "Intergalactic Nemesis Blend" at Little City and a treasure hunt competition using location-based social media service Gowalla. There are even plans for an "Intergalactic Nemesis" iPhone game app.
After the two Long Center shows, Neulander has the show booked in Houston in 2011 and is attracting the attention of presenters around the country in the hopes of seeing this revamped "Intergalactic Nemesis" hit the road once again — and maybe this time land an Off-Broadway gig in New York.
Neulander contends the show's appeal will endure, and spread.
"Who doesn't like to be told a good story?" he says.
'The Intergalactic Nemesis'
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Dell Hall, Long Center, 711 W. Riverside Drive
Information: www.thelong center.org