Nemesis Brings a 1930s Adventure Story to Stage, and Sludge Monsters to Earth (Seven Days)

Originally appeared in the print version of Seven Days on Jan. 18, 2012.

Theater audiences can’t help but shift to the edge of their seats when they hear these four sounds: Thump … thump … thump … creeeeeeeeeeeeeak. The combination conjures up images of castles, Igor and ominous wooden doors with deadbolts, doesn’t it?

That’s exactly what Foley, or sound-effects, artist Buzz Moran will be counting on in an upcoming performance of The Intergalactic Nemesis at Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. Originally a live radio play in Austin, Tex., and now a touring stage show, Nemesis is billed as a live-action graphic novel. The sci-fi story, set in 1933, features a reporter and her assistant, a mysterious librarian, and sludge monsters from the planet Zygon that are, of course, threatening planet Earth. Hence the “intergalactic nemesis.”

The show is performed with three stationary actors, one keyboard player and one Foley artist. The stage backdrop features more than 1000 hand-drawn comic-book images projected in high def.

The projections set the visual scene, but Nemesis isn’t a play or a film, so it also depends on a symphony of Moran’s sound effects, created on stage by Cami Alys. A trained musician, Alys uses “instruments” for the performance that fill two 8-foot tables, travel in military-grade suitcases with special foam cut-outs for each object and include slide whistles, plastic baby books, and boxes of mac-and-cheese (add a whistle, and you’ve got a surprisingly realistic speeding freight train).

Moran and Nemesis creator Jason Neulander started making the sound effects in 1996, when their radio play was often performed live in coffee shops around Austin. In the beginning, Neulander and his cowriters were so enthusiastic about the sound effects that they frequently “wrote in everything including the kitchen sink, and then I’d have to find a way to create it,” says Moran.

These days, they’ve pared the sounds back to a more manageable frequency, abiding by George Lucas’ decree to “only use sound effects when they further the audience’s imagination.” So you won’t hear every single whir and hum mentioned in the script, but keep an eye — or, an ear — out during the performance for thunder sheets, a “creak box,” shoes traversing various surfaces, cinderblocks and balloons. And, thanks to the staging of the show — Alys will be in the spotlight as much as the three actors — you’ll probably be able to watch most of those objects in action.

“Sound definitely plays a big role throughout, and in some ways it really becomes a character in its own right,” says Neulander. “Just the noise of two cinderblocks rubbing together can evoke the opening of a secret passageway door so convincingly that it transports you there immediately.”

Some of the sound effects, such as the rosin-coated clothesline that creates the creak, are part of any good radio artist’s toolbox, while others are handmade or everyday objects found by Neulander or Moran.

“I’m not always consciously looking for a specific sound, but if I go to a store to buy a Thermos, I’ll pick them all up and knock on them to see what they sound like,” Moran says. “If I’m going to buy a metal bowl, I want to be sure I’m getting a nice-sounding metal bowl, you know?”

As a result, Moran’s house is packed with surplus kitchen utensils, kids’ toys and other devices that evoke particular sounds he’s storing away for future inspiration. The objects themselves are critical to the sound created onstage, but equally important are the timing and intensity with which they’re played. When training to take over for Moran, Alys had to learn not only when to activate the object, but also how intensely to play it.

“There’s a definite crescendo and decrescendo for each sound, and the more shows I do, the more sensitive I am to the dramatic arc,” she says. “And, like any actor, you build up a relationship with the audience that affects how you perform each night.”

Laughing, Alys adds, “I love using the thunder sheet, because the volume and intensity of it really takes people aback. I hold the sheet with both hands and use my whole body to put a lot of character into it; it’s spectacular and ominous and a great opportunity to set up some comic fear in the audience.”

“Sometimes it’s important to just have an escape,” Neulander told National Public Radio’s Margot Adler on “All Things Considered” last Thursday, January 12. “In the times we are in, it really can’t hurt … to go on a pure, unadulterated adventure.”

"The Intergalactic Nemesis." Thursday, January 19, 7:30 p.m. at Flynn MainStage, Burlington. $15-35. flynntix.org