Industry Pro: Writer-Director-Producer Jason Neulander
Today’s profile subject is one of the rare people who took a strategic and direct path from college to doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. The struggle came much later, when it stopped being exactly what he wanted to be doing. The opportunity to do a commercial theatrical production of one of his works in New York looked like a dream come true and then fell apart with the economic downturn, sending him on a frantic job search. And in that frantic job search, he found the best opportunity of all, right in his own backyard. It’s a good story, at least as good as the story in his Live-Action Graphic Novel, The Intergalactic Nemesis, currently touring the country and soon the world. Read on for more…
Current position and/or recently completed project or projects: I’m the writer, director, and producer of a Live-Action Graphic Novel theatrical presentation, ”The Intergalactic Nemesis.”
Hometown: Montvale, New Jersey
College and degree: Brown University. Both undergraduate and graduate degrees are in Theatre.
Did you have an internship while you were in school? No, I didn’t.
What made you want to work in theatre? When I was in second grade, I was in the class play. I think I got the bug from that. In high school, I realized I was interested in directing, and my freshman year of college really solidified that for me when I was in a couple of plays where I had a miserable experience as an actor, as a result of terrible directing. I felt I could do a better job and started focusing on directing.
In college, I was part of Brown’s amazing student theatre, Production Workshop. Paula Vogel was the professor who ran the playwriting program and she put together the New Play Festival where Brown students wrote, directed, and acted in eight different plays. I learned the basics of being an actor and ultimately directed a couple of shows, then ended up on the board of Production Workshop. I was probably involved with six to eight theatrical productions a year at Brown. I produced my first show independently there when I was 19. There was no budget to speak of. It was me, a friend of mine who wrote the play, and some actors. We just did it. CNN did a little story on it. That planted the seed for me that I might also be able to produce.
So what was your first paid job was in the entertainment industry? When I was in graduate school, I did my master’s thesis on this theatre company in Providence that came and went, analyzing why it failed. In the process of doing that, I identified a way to run a small theatre company professionally, successfully, and sustainably. That planted the seed for me to start Salvage Vanguard Theatre.
As I was finishing grad school, I started researching which city would make the most sense. There were three criteria: It needed to be a town that didn’t have an established theatre scene, that had a young population who would be interested in seeing plays by, for and about young adults and, because my only transportation at the time was a motorcycle, it had to warm. Austin was the only city I found that met all three of those criteria. So I moved there and founded the company.
So your first paying job in the industry was running your own theater company? Well, I worked odd jobs and did Salvage Vanguard on the side for three years. In 1997, when I was 27, I got a grant that specifically covered my salary. Since then, I have been paid full time to do what I do.
Tell me about “Intergalactic Nemesis,” your touring stage production. It’s a radio play that came out of Salvage Vanguard. In 2008, I left the company to focus exclusively on “Intergalactic.” It looked like it was going to open commercially in New York, but long story short, the economy fell apart and the project didn’t open there. After that, I was looking kind of desperately for work. I brought my resume into The Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin. Instead of giving me a job, they offered me their 2400‑seat theater to stage “Intergalactic Nemesis.”
That venue was way too big for the intimate experience of watching a radio play performed. In that first meeting, I came up with the idea of projecting comic book artwork to tell the story visually and to create a spectacle to fill the room. They agreed to that idea. It took about 15 months to create the artwork. In September of 2010, we premiered the live action graphic novel version of “The Intergalactic Nemesis.” It was a huge success and there was immediate interest in booking venues around the country and touring it. For our first season of touring the show, we went to 30 venues around the U.S.
So what do you consider your big break? There have been a bunch of them, but in light of the fact that I was at a crises moment in my career, I’d say a turning point was when I was invited to bring “Intergalactic” into The Long Center. Not only did the executive director commit to bringing the show into the venue, he ultimately hooked me up with the people who became the investors in the project and allowed me to get paid to work exclusively on it. Also, The Long Center made the show a part of their season, put up the marketing budget, and made their venue available for rehearsals. That all amounted to dollars that I had didn’t have to raise. Also, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, this really cool movie theatre in Austin, invited me to do live shorts before screenings of certain films that they were doing, so I could test the material out in front of an audience.
Let’s back up and talk a little about the highlights and lessons of running Salvage Vanguard. I ran that company for 14 years. Years ago, a friend of mine years ago said something that was meant snidely and ironically, but I think it’s true. He said, “All theatre is community theatre.” Salvage Vanguard was about creating work by, for, and about my community of peers. And considering the inherent limitation of theatre, that it’s an in person experience and only a small number of people can attend on a given night, I focused on embracing the community and making it a personal experience. I remember taking my oldest daughter, who at the time was four, to Disney World. Disney is so good at creating experiences throughout your entire time at the park. For Piper, meeting Cinderella was like if we were in a room with Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep walked up and said, “Oh, my gosh, it is so great to finally meet you.” That was the experience for my four year old with Cinderella: “Oh gosh! She knows me!” I realized that we could create that experience for the audience at Salvage Vanguard Theatre.
The moment the audience walks up to Salvage Vanguard, they are immersed in the brand and in the experience: We did live preshow performances in the lobby. We did the show itself. We did post-show Q and As with the performers after every single performance. I was there each person who walked through the door. We got to a point where we had 85% attendance for our work and I am certain it is because the audience started to own the experience of coming to a Salvage Vanguard Theatre show; they really felt like it was their company.
I have applied that lesson touring “The Intergalactic Nemesis.” Merchandising is a big part of what we do with “Intergalactic.” After every performance, the entire cast comes out to sign whatever merchandise the audience buys. Usually it lasts about an hour after the show. And then you have the social media component of it, where people are telling their friends. So this year the project will actually recoup the investors’ money. This season we did a 30‑city or so tour. Next season we’ve already got about 40 venues lined up ‑‑ in the U.S. and now Canada, then also internationally. And number of the venues that have brought us out have already committed to bringing out the sequel.
That’s wonderful. Let’s cover some more questions. What’s the best career advice you have ever gotten? It wasn’t career advice, per se, but I have used it over and over again. My high school choir teacher was all about discipline, and the idea that you can only become really good at something if you are totally disciplined about it. That principle stands at the core of everything I try to do. To me, it means you are your own worst critic and that you are relentless about making something as great as you can make it. You set goals and then figure out steps to achieve those goals and you don’t deviate from the long‑term goal even as other things crop up. To me, discipline is all encompassing.
That’s great advice. You can take that everywhere in your life. Yeah, exactly.
So now I’m looking for a eureka moment, where you changed course or you realized that you did or didn’t want to do something or wished to do something differently. My eureka moment is definitely wrapped up in this project. It was coming back to Austin after having tried to take the project to New York, and getting this opportunity to reinvent my career. And in the process, having this Dorothy-Gail-in-the-”Wizard-of-Oz” moment of realizing that everything that I ever needed was actually right in my own backyard. I had always dreamed about my big break being theatre in New York, not realizing that I had cultivated all of the resources I needed in what had become my hometown. And once I tapped into them, it was so easy. In addition to that, the new resources will then naturally come along. That has been the amazing thing about this project. I’ve worked very hard, but it always felt so natural and so organic, very much ‘one foot in front of the other.’
Describe a typical workday in your current position. A huge part of the fun for me is that there isn’t a typical workday. I’m wearing multiple hats – writer, director, and producer – and every day brings new interesting stuff. On any one day, I might be on the phone making deals with venues for the tour or working on our marketing manual or doing a video for our YouTube channel. A while back, I had two straight weeks of putting together the projections for the sequel, which involved intense 12 hour workdays of basically editing while revising the script for that. And, of course, lots of meetings at The Long Center about the premier of the sequel, and how to promote it.
Okay. Worst job or worst day in your career, in the entertainment industry. At the end of my time at Salvage Vanguard Theatre, it took me about two years to realize I had to leave. I was trapped, really. Struggling to find inspiration, I let the programming deviate a little bit from the mission of the company. I finally realized that I don’t do well unless I am inspired. In my last couple of years, I found myself more and more depressed, burnt out, unhappy. Next time when that happens, I will see the signs of it earlier and know it’s time to move on, but because I founded the company, I hadn’t even conceived of leaving.
Best job or best day in the entertainment industry. In the last year and a half, I have had so many good days. I think maybe the happiest moment of possibly my entire life was when we premiered the live action graphic novel version of “The Intergalactic Nemesis” at The Long Center. To start with, having over two thousand people in a single room seeing my work and then to witness their reaction to it… It was amazing.
What’s the best thing about your current job? Almost universally, people seem to love the show.
Worst thing about your current job / what you do? There’s really not a lot. There was a window there where I was really worried about the sustainability of the project- whether or not it would continue to tour ‑ but that passed. I’ve got to tell you. There isn’t a day that has gone by since January really where I haven’t been like, “Holy crap, I’m the luckiest guy in the industry.”
That’s great. Now I’m looking for a brush with greatness. It can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do? For me, I think it was hearing Lawrence Kasdan speak a couple of years ago at the Austin Film Festival. I am a huge fan of his writing, particularly the stuff from the ’80s. He said that even at the height of his career, he still had to put the project together himself, to find the producers and put all the pieces in place. I had always thought that sooner or later, somebody would recognize my talent and I wouldn’t have to worry about doing the shit work anymore. To hear one of my idols say that even he still had to do it was a huge relief. I never had to dream about that again because I knew it was never going to happen. So now, I could focus on reality and really get my career going.
What do you think makes you good at what you do? Or, to put it another way, what is the secret of your success? I think it goes back to that high school teacher’s idea of discipline. I try to learn from my experience and get better from them.
What advice would you give somebody just starting out; either in entertainment in general or on the same path as you? If you’ve got a vision, just go for it. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it for you.
What’s your next move? Or your next five moves? My long term goal is to be behind the camera in film. I’m trying to use this project to make that career transition. We’re seeing if we can’t get interest in the film version of this story and characters and then, in the meantime, I’m just trying to work on proof of concept with this project. We’ve got the sequel premiering now and then in 2014, we will premier “Book 3″ and then that will be the end of “Intergalactic Nemesis.” So that’s kind of it; focusing on this project and trying to expand media.
For more information on “The Intergalactic Nemesis,” including the touring schedule, please visit the website.
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