BERKELEY -- Funny thing about 21st century technology: the more it's used, the easier it is to escape, well ... 21st century technology.
Theater director Jason Neulander experienced that very incongruity while developing "The Intergalactic Nemesis: Book One: Target Earth," the retro-techno graphic novel radio show Cal Performances will present in a SchoolTime performance on Nov. 13 and a one-night-only 8 p.m. performance on Nov. 14 at Zellerbach Hall.
The Austin, Texas native's wild ambition, to transform a coffeehouse-sized serial radio play into a megalithic live-action touring production, required a serious technical upgrade.
"I had to get a new computer, just to handle a few of the images," Neulander says.
The artwork, supercharged comic-book illustrations by Tim Doyle, is projected onto an enormous overhead screen while down below, live actors stand at vintage microphones, performing a 1930s radio play.
Accompanying them, Foley sound effects by Buzz Moran are created by Cami Alys, and composer Graham Reynolds's music is performed by Kenneth Redding Jr. With 1,250 images, Neulander's old laptop was headed for the dustbin.
If the show's artwork demands gigabytes, the sound effects insist on remaining mostly low-tech. Foley art, developed by Jack Foley during the silent film era, had sound crews projecting a film while making and recording a live studio audio track perfectly timed to sync with actors' and objects' movements.
Neulander says many of the sounds come from surprising sources.
"A train rushing down the track is a Kraft Macaroni and Cheese box, shaken in just a certain way," he says. "It has to be Kraft -- and an old kind they don't sell anymore."
Hypnotism is represented by a plastic tube, whirled overhead.
And a "creak box," made of wood with an inserted dowel, clothesline and connected bolts to adjust tension, is perfect for a squeaky door. Giant, slime-covered balloons are rubbed and burst. A "thingamagoop" remains a mystery, despite Neulander's efforts to describe its LED-lit antennae and strobe sensor.
"The spirit of the sound effects comes from when Buzz and I would rummage through his kitchen drawers, in a last-minute panic to find something for that night's show," Neulander says with a laugh.
The three actors join the transformation theme. Each plays up to 10 roles during the evening-length show. In one scene, actor Chris Gibson takes on three different characters -- all talking to each other.
Neulander says the casting is the most terrifying part of the process because finding time to rehearse understudies who could step into the demanding production is nearly impossible while touring.
"The current cast are all actors I invited to audition," he says. "I gave them the material and had one table (sit-down, read-through) a month before rehearsals started. If I have to, I can get an actor ready in three days, but only if they've already done the book learning."
The script was originally episodic, but now follows a larger story arc reflecting Neulander's cinematic, "Star Wars"-loving childhood desire to be transported.
The plot begins with the expected: Sludge monsters from outer space (Zygonians) threaten to take over the planet Earth.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan, her assistant Timmy Mendez and a Flagstaff, Ariz. librarian, Ben Wilcott, travel through Romania, Scotland, Europe, North Africa, and the tongue-twisting Effdillinplitzenpire Galaxy to battle their lubricated, but lethal foes.
"I'm a huge fan of golden age Hollywood movies," Neulander admits. "We (Chad Nichols contributed to the series) looked at movie scripts. Our goal was to make the dialogue crackle and let the characters drive the story."
Intergalactic now has two books touring, with a third in development for September 2014.
The shows have exceeded the $500,000 revenue goal Neulander set for the year and memories of his two years per script and one-and-a-half years to turn scripts into comic-book format are fading.
Left behind is just the wonder and the sweetest memory to date: the audience member who approached Neulander after a show and said he felt the way he had felt when he was a kid, watching "Star Wars."
Cal Performances presents "The Intergalactic Nemesis: Book One: Target Earth" at 8 p.m. Nov. 14 at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. For tickets and details visit ticketsatcalperformances.org or call 510-642-9988.