Popular culture has always been stocked with galactic explorers, smart robots, laser guns and forbidden planets.
They showed up in radio serials of the 1930s and movie serials of the 1940s. They were around for comic books in the 1950s and feature films of the 1960s and ’70s. And they’re still around today.
Jason Neulander appreciates all the components — and all the outlets — all at once. He has mixed old-time radio, graphic novels, actors on stage and homemade sound effects into one show, “The Intergalactic Nemesis.” The first two installments of the series — “Target Earth” and “Robot Planet Rising” — will play Proctors’ GE Theatre Wednesday through next Saturday.
“Nemesis” is supposed to look like a graphic novel come to life. Creator Neulander and the team behind the play have taken artwork from an original comic book story, removed word balloons and projected the art panel-by-panel on a two-story-high video screen on stage. Three actors voice all the characters. Another performer creates sound effects and a keyboard player takes care of the musical score.
Some people already know part of the story. “Target Earth” introduced “Nemesis” to the Capital Region during a January 2012 visit to Proctors, and will be reprised Wednesday night and Friday afternoon for people who want to catch up with the Zygonians and the rest of the story.
And this is the story: In 1933, hotshot reporter Molly Sloan, her assistant Timmy and a mysterious librarian named Ben Wilcott team up to face a threat from space — an impending invasion of hostiles from a faraway planet.
‘The Intergalactic Nemesis’
Book One: Target Earth
Book Two: Robot Planet Rising
WHERE: GE Theatre, Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Book One: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. Book Two: Thursday, Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday March 30, 1:30, 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $50-$15
The adventure continues in “Robot Planet Rising,” which plays Thursday, Friday and next Saturday nights, as well as a matinee next Saturday. For people who must know, Molly has to rescue a missing robot emissary from deep space. Along the way, she must deal with pal Timmy, a former fiancé, bad robot Alphatron and Soviet spy Natasha Zorokov.
Neulander believes the unique designs of the shows interest theater operators.
“There are a lot of venues out there that are looking for work that’s just different than anything else, that can maybe draw an audience that doesn’t normally come to the theater,” he said from his offices in Austin, Texas. “ ‘Intergalactic’ definitely fits that — we’re one of a kind. For the audience, it’s just a lot of fun ... it doesn’t purport to be anything other than that.”
Old radio style
Neulander expects some people will like the big graphics, the earnest actors. He’s hoping they’ll be amazed by the homemade sound effects, which were staples of the live radio shows of the 1930s and ’40s.
“There’s the sound of a train, and what we do to do that is a toy train whistle, and then our Foley artist shakes a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese kind of just so to make the sound of the train on the tracks,” Neulander said.
To fully understand the effects, people must fully understand the job description “Foley artist.” Neulander said the title is a salute to Jack Donovan Foley, who developed many sound-effect techniques used in early Hollywood filmmaking. During early sound films, Neulander said, microphones on indoor and outdoor sets could only pick up voices. Foley and his crews recorded separate tracks for sound effects, and used tricks such as squeezing cornstarch boxes to sub for walking in crunchy snow and slapping leather gloves together to mimic the sounds birds make as they flap their wings.
“We use these plastic tubes and swing them around our heads for the sound of hypnotism, for example,” Neulander said. “They make this kind of ‘woo-woo-woo’ sound. And we’ll scrape a pot lid across a metal surface for hatches opening and closing.”
People are also supposed to get a kick out of the graphic images projects on stage, and actors playing roles in back of oversized, old-fashioned microphone stands.
“It’s actually not a film, it’s the world’s most sophisticated PowerPoint presentation,” Neulander said. “Every image that you see is cued by a sound in the show, and that sound could be a line of dialogue, it could be a sound effect, a music cue or an audience response. That allows us to keep the show super-duper tight.”
Audience responses are encouraged. Like people watching spaceman Flash Gordon during the 1936 serial or the jet engine-propelled title character in the “King of the Rocket Men” in the 1949 films, loud reactions to heroines and heels are part of the show. “The more vocal the audience is, the better,” Neulander said. “We did a show recently where the audience was actually booing the bad guy and we were all for it. But it’s a pretty funny show, so the audience laughs their way through it.”
In video clips from the shows, actors Chris Gibson, Danu Uribe and David Higgins seem willing to lay on drama, charm and humor in assorted roles. That’s something Neulander has seen in some of his favorite films.
“For me, the show is very much inspired by ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and all the movies that inspired those movies,” Neulander said. “It definitely has a cinematic feel to it.”
A science-fiction feel, too. Neulander believes the genre is still riding the popularity of the “Star Wars” films, the first of which was introduced in 1977. The seventh film of the series is expected to be in theaters in 2015.
“There are people who have never seen ‘Star Wars’ but even they know every single plot point in the movie,” Neulander said. “They all know what a light saber is, they know what ‘The Force’ is. That’s one of the reasons that nerd culture is so big right now — it’s because we all grew up nerds.”
And if “Stars Wars” can add new chapters, so can “Intergalactic Nemesis.”
“There is one more coming, to round out a trilogy,” Neulander said. “We have already started working on that, and it premieres in September 2014.”