Traditionally an ephemeral storytelling experience, theater operates by temporarily immersing the audience into a world conjured by the collective brains behind the production; once the curtains are drawn, the audience has only the paper programs and emotional imprints of the performance to go home with. Of course playwrights create scripts, but theater is first and foremost a live, visual artform. Graphic novels, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. Telling their stories through physical formats, readers can return to their illustrated worlds as easily as opening up a book.
Beyond simply adapting a graphic novel for performance, DJ and producer Kid Koala, and Academy Award-nominated production designer K.K. Barrett have fused these creative formats for the stage. Together, they collaborated on an interpretation of the former's graphic novel, Nufonia Must Fall, and the result is an evolutionary expansion into the future of theater. The Creators Project documented the project, and discussed with the artists the challenges of translating illustrated text to the live scene. Watch our documentary above, and continue reading for a deeper understanding into the experimental spectacle.
For three nights in a row this past June, the Montreal-based turntablist (né Eric San) and Barrett (of Stop The Virgens and Her acclaim) performed a "live silent film" in front of an audience at the Luminato Festival in Toronto. Interpreting the narrative of the Kid Koala's 2003 graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall in real time, the artists transformed the illustrated protagonists into puppets, and the comic panels into miniature stages, all of which were filmed with a custom camera setup that allowed the action to be projected on a big screen. Alongside an orchestra, Kid Koala used an array of specialized instruments to add diegetic sound effects to the live-scored performance.
"This is a live silent film with live performance, live editing, live sound effects, live music played by a plethora of instruments by Eric," Barrett told The Creators Project. "It's the most complicated show I've ever been a part of," Kid Koala added. "It's like an eight-ring circus. There's this amazing energy and chaos on stage, but what we hope above it is a fluid, unified feeling that we create for the audience to drift away in."
The narrative itself traces the story of an earphone-wearing robot who wants write love songs for a girl he likes. His only problem? He can't sing. "Underneath it all you could call it a good old fashioned love story, a coming of age story," explains Kid Koala. To bring this story to a stage, the artists could have fashioned giant, bulky costumes for actors to work in, but instead, they embarked on a medium-warping experiment.
The creators used twelve mini sets, lit with tiny LEDs and battery packs to turn Nufonia Must Fall into Nufonia Must Fall Live. As new scenes began, the sets rotated, and the crew followed them with a camera on a mobile dolly track. Puppets would emerge from beneath each new "stage," and a camera tethered to a switcher zoomed in and out of the dioramas to create the live setting's cinematic moments.
"Everything was a constraint and a plus," says Barrett. "Since it's a silent graphic novel and a silent movie with puppets, [the performance] transcends what they're made of. You don't project on to the puppets, but into them." Furthermore, he added that each performance was different, and the audience became a part of the story. If the crowd found a certain moment particularly funny or tragic, the crew could prolong moments through lighting, camera techniques, and the live score, making the Nufonia interactive and not stuck within a fixed narrative framework.
"Every time I hear someone telling me the story back, I'm happy when they're telling me a different story from what I have in my head. It's not locked in," Barrett told us. "When you're live, the audience is part of the performance."
It's a multi-media piece like few others. Not quite cinema, not quite theater—nor is it a simple adaptation by any definition— Nufonia Must Fall Live is a sui generis performance format, expanding our conceptions of storytelling the same way both Kid Koala and K.K. Barrett have expanded their respective artforms. While the robot puppets will lay inert until the next performance, our minds are reeling at the thoughts of how these artists would interpret Watchmen or Akira.
This project was originally co-commissioned by Luminato Festival, and co-commissioned by Adelaide Festival, The Banff Centre, Internationales Sommerfestival Hamburg, Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival Groningen, Roundhouse UK and Santiago A Mil.
"Nufonia Must Fall Live" will continue to tour this summer, including dates at the following below:
August 18, 2014 UK Premiere at Roundhouse, London, UK
August 21, 2014 Kampnagel, Hamburg, Germany
August 22nd, 2014 Kampnagel (6pm show), Hamburg, Germany
August 22nd, 2014 Kampnagel (9pm show), Hamburg, Germany
August 23rd, 2014 Kampnagel (6pm show), Hamburg, Germany
August 23rd, 2014 Kampnagel (9pm show), Hamburg, Germany
August 28th, 2014 Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival. 9 pm, Groningen, Netherlands
August 29th, 2014 Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival. 9 pm, Groningen, Netherlands
August 30th, 2014 Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival. 6 pm, Groningen, Netherlands
August 30th, 2014 Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival. 9 pm, Groningen, Netherlands