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Robot romance unfolds live on stage

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Graphic novelist, DJ and music producer Eric San (aka Kid Koala) describes Nufonia Must Fall as “a quiet love story about two awkward, introverted characters”. They also happen to be puppets.

The 2015 Adelaide Festival multi-disciplinary show, created by San and directed by KK Barrett (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), incorporates puppets, film, live music and 12 miniature sets lit by LED lights. The resulting performance has won impressive reviews overseas, and the trailer alone (see below) is likely to sell tickets.

San says Nufonia Must Fall is the most complicated project he’s ever undertaken, yet he also describes it as his dream job. And that is a big call coming from a man who, in addition to creating live shows, has toured with bands such as Radiohead and the Beastie Boys, contributed to scores for films including The Great Gatsby, and composed music for everything from Sesame Street to fashion runway shows.

Below, San tells InDaily more about Nufonia Must Fall, including how the Adelaide audience’s response may influence the performance.

Nufonia Must Fall began life as a 350-page, dialogue graphic novel which you have described as a thinly veiled autobiography.  What is the story at the heart of the work?

At its core, Nufonia Must Fall is just a love story.  It’s a story about a robot trying to find his voice.  Even though he can’t sing, he eventually stumbles on an authentic way to write a love song for Malorie, the lady who is the apple of his eye.  Y’know, just like real life!

The stage show is a live performance featuring puppets, with the action projected on screen.  How exactly does it all work?

It’s essentially a live silent film.  The puppets are manipulated live within a series of miniature sets, one for each scene in the story.  The action is captured in real time and projected on a large cinema screen above the stage. All the while everything is musically underscored live by the musicians.

It’s a team of 14 performers on stage all making it happen at once.

In such a highly technical live show with so many different layers, it seems there’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong – have you had any scary moments during the live performance?

Absolutely!  It’s kind of like a five-ring circus.   We each have our own departments to handle but it all has to synchronise to create this fluid cinematic experience on the screen.

The fun part is the audience also gets to see the stage and watch all of us frantically running around changing sets, setting up lights, readying focus points, switching cameras, switching instruments, etc.

There are several scary moments in each show, and each performance is different.  Anything can happen from a string breaking on an instrument, a record skipping, or even an arm breaking off one of the puppets!  But whatever happens, it is still a live theatre/cinema/music experience and we have to roll with it.

I believe you sometimes adapt the live performance in response to audience response – can you give an example of how that works?

Some audiences are romantic.  Some more cynical.  Some love technicality.  Every show is this live organism and it’s easy to create dynamics.  Because it’s all being done live, we can stretch out a joke if the crowd’s really going for it. Or if they’re a romantic crowd, we can change the style of playing in the music to make a poignant scene feel even more intimate.  Since everything is done live, there’s a lot of room for spontaneous dynamics.

How much more difficult is it to tell a story without dialogue? Does it become more open to interpretation by the audience?

Words fail me like crazy!  Dialogue-free storytelling has always come more naturally to me because I grew up watching Charlie Chaplin films.  I don’t know if it’s more or less difficult to write without dialogue, but it just worked out that way for this project.

It’s kind of a quiet love story about two awkward, introverted characters.  The audience needs to assign their own thoughts and words into the characters’ minds and mouths.  Hopefully it will resonate with their own experience with love and awkwardness.

That’s a feeling I’m quite sure everyone has experienced in one form or other.  Either way, we hope they find a connection with these characters.

Tell us about the music and sound effects, which seem to be integral to the live performance?

Some of the show is comedic, some of it is very poignant. There are even a few suspenseful moments.  So it’s a really fun show to play because we have to help raise the stakes on each scene.  I wrote themes and chord cycles on piano and the string arrangements were done by Vid Cousins.

The Afiara Quartet are a phenomenal musical force and their interpretation of the music takes it to whole new levels.  They are accompanied by myself on piano, turntable, and various sound gadgets.

In one interview, you described working on Nufonia Must Fall as your dream job, which is a big call for someone who seems to have had a lot of pretty amazing jobs.  Why do you love working on this production so much?

When I wrote the book, I never imagined it would ever change forms, or live outside of its comic-book realm.  When [director] KK Barrett and I talked about adapting it for the stage, it just opened up a whole new world for the story.

The team that was put together for Nufonia Must Fall is such an amazing group.  They all have amazing ideas and we synchronize on stage just like a band would.  I’ve been so blessed to be able to work with such talented designers, builders, puppeteers and musicians.  It’s an absolute dream.

Nufonia Must Fall will be presented in the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, from March 4-7 during the Adelaide Festival.

More Adelaide Festival stories:

Beauty and the Beast: true love in the raw

Gillard and Dessaix join Writers’ Week line-up

Black Diggers headed for Adelaide Festival

Blinc: Artist makes the microscopic monumental

Adelaide Festival unveils 2015 program

 

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