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Re-mixed media: DJ spins book into a live robot musical

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Adaptation comes with strings attached.

A disc jockey, a film-maker, and a string quartet will turn a comic book into a cinematic puppet show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 17–20. “Nufonia Must Fall,” based on a graphic novel about a love-lorn robot by turntable-ist Kid Koala, was inspired by some of the dee-jay’s seminal musical memories.

“Some of my earliest record experiences were storybook records — those read-along records that had sound effects and narration and a theme song,” said Eric San, a Montreal disc jockey who spins under the name Kid Koala and wears a full-body koala suit while he works. “It was like a little universe that I could escape to.”

San drew on those influences for his wordless 2003 graphic novel and its companion album about a down-on-his-luck, tone-deaf robot writing a love song for the girl of his dreams.

San teamed up with production designer K.K. Barrett, who worked on the movie “Being John Malkovich,” to adapt the illustrated narrative for the stage. They first planned to use human actors, but puppets proved more practical.

“Being on tour as much as I am, I said “I don’t know how we’re gonna move this around,’ ” San said. “We decided to shrink everything into cases that we could carry.”

During the show, puppeteers animate the dolls while a film crew shoots the performance and displays it on an overhead projection for audiences to watch in real time. Meanwhile San — who is also a trained pianist — and the Afiara Quartet perform the “Nufonia Must Fall” album as a live score for the otherwise silent show.

The live multimedia show is a total juggling act, San said.

“The thing is, it’s one take,” he said. “It’s not like we’re shooting a movie. There’s a live audience there. I always have one eye on the string quartet, one eye on the main screen, one hand on the piano, and one ear out for a sound-effects cue.”

The performance at BAM is the show’s U.S. debut, said San. And the Brooklyn version will be more refined and intricate than ever.

“The first version of the show was six cases [for puppets, sets, and gear] now we’re up to 12 for the 2.0 version,” he said. “It continues to grow and continues to evolve and get closer to the book. It’s alive.”

The show will be a homecoming of sorts for the Canadian-born musician. When he was 12, San’s mom drove him from Washington D.C. to Bensonhurst to buy his first turntable, he said.

“I knew all the DJ shops were in Brooklyn from the back of rap magazines,” San said. “It was the cheapest turntable I could find that was, quote, semi-professional. I figured we’d go there, maybe we’d be able to haggle for the price, because there were so many music shops. He moved a bit, but in hindsight maybe we got hustled because they could tell how green we were.”

“Nufonia Must Fall” at the BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. between Rockwell and Ashland places in Fort Greene, www.bam.org, (718) 636–4100]. Sept. 17–19 at 7:30 pm and Sept. 20 at 3 pm. $20–$45.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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