Gallaga: Austin’s ‘Intergalactic Nemesis’ targets the digital mainstream

‘Nemesis’ artist hoping to raise a broad audience online

This is a common Austin artistic performer problem.

Performer creates a thing. It is small, perhaps not fully formed, but it’s a different kind of thing nobody’s done before. The performer’s work gains a local following. The performer starts to get some attention, takes the thing on tour, returns home to Austin for more performing.

And then what? What happens when the thing, however great it is, grows to entertain an audience? How does something like that go from a niche success, something a few people involved might be able to do for a living for a while, to a full-blown cultural phenomenon, the kind of thing that gets national attention and launches careers and makes a lot of money?

Jason Neulander is determined to figure out how with “The Intergalactic Nemesis.” What began in 1996 as a staged science-fiction serial modeled after 1930s radio shows with a small group of writers and actors has evolved into an Austin institution. The third part of a set of full-length theatrical shows, “Twin Infinity,” will debut Sept. 5-6 at the Long Center, capping off a long re-invention of the series after it was all but dead in the water in the mid-2000s.

Over the years, guided by writer and director Neulander, and with the help of sound effects wizard Buzz Moran, musician Graham Reynolds, writers Chad Nichols and Ray Colgan, visual artists, actors, musicians and crew, it has evolved into that rarest of things: a unique cultural experience that seems to be beloved no matter where it goes.

Intergalactic Nemesis,” which has run in multiple incarnations in Austin, has toured to 102 venues worldwide. It was featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and on “Conan.” And it works like this: Actors on stage each perform the parts of multiple characters, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter named Molly Sloan, a hypnotist and robots, on microphones. Foley artists create live sound effects as the show is going and, behind the performers, giant projections of gorgeous comic book panels are presented in sync with the action.

It takes a little while for one’s brain to adjust, but once it does, the effect of what Neulander calls a “live-action graphic novel” is to make you forget the individual pieces and to get absorbed in a serial with dramatic twists, dastardly plans for galactic domination and whip-smart banter.

But short of taking the show to another 100 or so venues (there are 40 already booked for next year), Neulander has been trying to find ways to break “Intergalactic Nemesis” into the mainstream. He wants it to be a hit. And doing that will require going beyond the stage production.

“That’s why I’m keeping this project alive,” Neulander said. “I’ve seen how much people love it. The question running in my mind is how do you take something people love but in small numbers and turn it into something large numbers of people will love.”

The effort to break “Intergalactic” wide has become an obsession, Neulander admits, and it has led him to the digital realm.

In the run-up to the final piece of the stage shows, Neulander and many creative partners have been busy building a universe around the plays for what he hopes is a new online audience ready to be sucked in to the “Intergalactic Nemesis” metaverse.

In early July, KLRU’s website launched a Web series version of the first show, “Target Earth.” Every week, a new episode, typically about five to eight minutes long, hits YouTube as well as KLRU’s many distribution channels, from its site to its presence on Roku and Apple TV streaming video devices to the PBS app on phones, tablets and game boxes like the Xbox 360.

Sara Robertson, vice president of production and technology at KLRU, said the 17 episodes for this first season of “Intergalactic Nemesis” appeal to the PBS audience, and the quality level has been high. “A lot of work goes into it,” Robertson said, “We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished. It was really important to maintain the comic book feel but really bring something new to the performance element.”

Three people are involved in putting the videos together along with Moran, who works on sound for the “Webisodes,” which faithfully recreate the stage show and its comic visuals with polished editing. In April, $26,730 was raised through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to help launch the Web series, which was shot during a rehearsal and performance in April with five cameras.

“They’re experts,” Neulander said of KLRU’s team. “The level of quality of what they’re doing, I’d never be able to do that on my own.”

Now, Robertson said, she’s looking forward to collecting the episodes once the first season’s run is complete online. “In the beginning we were just thinking of it being for the Web. But one of the perks of the crowdfunding was a DVD. We’re going to have it as a full-length feature, and we are definitely keeping broadcast in mind.”

The comics themselves, which began with art from Tim Doyle and have continued with Paul Hanley and Lee Duhig, are becoming available episodically on the digital comics service ComiXology and should be ready for pre-order by the time “Twin Infinity” is performed, Neulander said.

But perhaps the new project that may be most intriguing to longtime “Intergalactic Nemesis” fans is a spinoff called “Salt,” a podcast in 20 parts being released on the Austin entertainment website It’s focused on a character from “Target Earth,” Haitian slave Jean-Pierre Desperois, and plays out like a series of 30-minute monologues, but with sound effects from Moran and music from Grupo Fantasma vet Adrian Quesada. Neulander describes it as “Philip Marlowe meets ‘12 Years a Slave’ meets ‘Dr. Who.’”

Brian Salisbury, co-founder of OneOfUs, said he and his partner Chris Cox were already huge fans of “Intergalactic Nemesis” and were thrilled to host “Salt” on their site.

“When (Neulander) approached us and said he wanted to do this new show,” Salisbury said, “I said, ‘I don’t care what it takes, I want that podcast.’

“It’s film noir and sci-fi. What we’re seeing is a lot of people who aren’t local to Austin are starting to discover Jason and his work through the podcast. They don’t have to have seen it to jump in in the middle of it.”

The digital projects, in addition to a novel based on “Salt,” are keeping Neulander busy and continually reminding him that to get to the next level of success he needs partners and ways to work beyond the $750,000 annual budget that is used to keep the productions going and pay his salary.

The digital projects, he figures, are a way to expand the universe, “Star Wars”-style, and build a bigger audience while opening up the possibility of things like video games and more spinoff fiction set in that universe.

“There’s so much potential,” he said, “My job this summer is to move the ball forward as much as I possibly can. I love the characters and I love the story. How do I get it out there so that everybody has access to it?”

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