Don’t be embarrassed if you’re a lot older than most of the audience of “The Intergalactic Nemesis.” Even though it’s labeled “for young audiences,” the show was written for your inner 12-year-old, not for actual 12-year-olds.
The multimedia theater piece, playing at the Kennedy Center this weekend, started as a pseudo-radio play at a coffeehouse in Austin, Texas, in the 1990s. Jason Neulander, who was running an experimental theater company at the time, wanted to make a show that challenged the limits of performance while still remaining accessible.
“When we created this, none of us had kids, none of us were thinking about kids,” says Neulander, the show’s writer, director and producer. “We were just thinking about what would push our own entertainment buttons.”
Here’s what pushed his buttons: radio plays, comic books and sci-fi adventures. So, he smashed them together to make “Nemesis,” which combines huge comic-book-panel projections with audio provided by three actors at microphones, a piano and a Foley artist armed with a battalion of tools to create every sound effect imaginable. The show became an undeniable hit in Austin when Neulander added the comic book art to the existing radio play in 2010.
“Comic books are a purely visual form and radio plays are a purely audio form,” he says. “When you put the two together you get the best of all worlds.”
The show’s comics are drawn to look classic without evoking any particular decade, and they complement a goofy adventure about a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and the story she can’t stop chasing.
With its zany plot and cartoon backgrounds, “Nemesis” seems a natural fit for kids. But the show didn’t begin drawing younger audiences until a mom in Austin brought her child, then raved about the show on a network of homeschooling parents.
Suddenly, they were inundated with families, Neulander says. “There’s no foul language in the show, because when we originally did it we wanted to get it broadcast on the radio. We didn’t think about the fact that that makes it totally appropriate for children.”
The music for “Intergalactic Nemesis” is provided by a single piano, and the show has only a few pages of written compositions. “Several of the main characters and situations each get their own theme,” says creator Jason Neulander. “And once the pianist introduces a theme, he’ll start improvising the music to follow the drama” and the atmosphere of that particular performance.
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Fri.-Sun., $18; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom)