Joshua Walters is a thin, rubbery 24-four-year-old with a mop of strawberry blond ringlets. At sixteen, he says, he became convinced for about a week that he was Jesus Christ. Walters, who is Jewish, says he was so utterly married to the idea that he managed to persuade several other sixteen-year-olds to do his bidding. He had a group of acolytes at his San Francisco performing arts school, and more than a few detractors. "I was vocal about it," Walters said. "I was prophesying on the mountain top. I had prophets. I had people who I conducted into my way of being. I had people who believed that I was someone special — that I was like a messiah. And then I had people who I was scaring away, and like, terrifying." Once the illusion wore off, Walters found himself in Herrick Hospital. He'd hit rock bottom. Two more hospitalizations and a lot of meds would follow before he figured out how to channel these manic episodes.
The Jesus story would ultimately inspire a one-man autobiographical show called Madhouse Rhythm, in which Walters incorporates spoken word, comedy, and beatboxing into a script about his bout with bipolar disorder. "It's kind of backward, being bipolar, and taking drugs for it," he says in one scene of the play. "I take drugs to be sober. And then when I'm sober — it looks like I'm on drugs!" Walters currently takes several medications, and compares their effect to "the adventures of a hibernating bear." He says he's happy to sacrifice the manic episodes (the highs aren't worth the lows) and live a somewhat normal life. Nonetheless, madness permeates most of his creative work. It's become an obsession.
Madhouse Rhythm resulted from a books' worth of spoken-word pieces, all based on Walters' high school experiences. He developed them onstage at the Berkeley Poetry Slam, bringing a new piece in every week and testing it out for an audience of fellow poets. Between 2006 and 2008 Walters managed to flesh out eighty minutes' worth of material and give it a coherent narrative thread. He premiered Madhouse Rhythm at Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, later brought it to San Francisco's Climate Theater (where he is now an artist in residence), and currently tours it at high schools and colleges throughout the state. It's a hit, partly because Walters has the kind of vocal intonation that makes his silliest points sound emphatic. He over-amplifies everything. He always appears to know what he's talking about. Best of all, he brings the romance of the old term "manic depression" into what's now a clinical disorder known as bipolar disorder.
Recently, Walters got bored of being the bipolar guy. He decided to apply his interdisciplinary style to a more lighthearted form of solo performance. His new bits feature shaggy-dog tales about everything from sex to food, having low blood sugar and watching a porno film with his grandmother (by accident). Walters mixes in a lot of beatboxing to give these stories a bit of a groove and make it seem less like a guy pouring his guts out on stage. There was a point in life when he wanted to be that guy, but now he seems to be waffling.
Sitting in his living room on a recent Wednesday, Walters tried to explain the themes that tie all of his work together. Most of it is still about madness, he said. It's also about finding musical depth in your own eccentricities — which is where the beatboxing comes in. "Beatboxing is my version of humming," Walters explained. "It's my version of singing to myself. I beatbox in the shower. I beatbox in the car. I beatbox when I'm walking down the street. I talk to myself and beatbox at the same time." That's a pretty safe way to process emotions, he said, because once you take the beat away, you're left with, well, a guy talking to himself — i.e., madness.
"I have a theory that the more musical you are talking to yourself, the less harmful it is in the world," he said. "A guy singing a song with no words is the most harmless you can get." He mimics the voice of Gene Kelly, contentedly humming the melody of "Singin' in the Rain." Once you add words, he says, people start to look at you funny. "People are like, 'Okay, he's singing to himself, but he's still singing a song. ... That's the middle level. Then the most mad way you can express yourself in society is to talk to yourself with no music." Walters trades his sweet Gene Kelly for the voice of a psychopath. "I'm singin' in the rain!" he shouted, allowing his voice to crescendo. "I'm singin' in the rain!"
Walters realized pretty early on that people were more likely to accept the "mad" side of his personality if it were filtered through some form of music — hence the title of his first show. Now, he's deemphasizing "madness" and accentuating "rhythm." Walters' next show, the "Scorpio Spectacular" (which happens Thursday, November 19 at Ashkenaz), will set him alongside two other beatboxers, John Staedler and Bronkar Lee. All three of them mix vocal percussion with some other skill: Walters specializes in storytelling and spoken word, Staedler plays guitar and saxophone; Lee is a beatbox juggler. In keeping with the theme, Walters plans to tone down his act and focus on quotidian stuff that has little — or nothing — to do with mental illness. He opens a small pocket journal and shows some of the ideas he's jotted down: There's one about buying a falafel in Jerusalem and discovering the place where Jesus was buried. There's another about fake-crying to get out of a $600 bar tab. Both seem relatively innocuous compared to a show about manic episodes and crippling hallucinations.
But there's a kind of emotional darkness — call it madness — that informs even the most banal parts of Walters' repertoire. A lot of his stories are ostensibly about one thing while really about something else (discomfort, alienation, unease). After all, Walters' mental illness was the genesis of his theater career — and to this day the two things seem inextricably linked. It takes an exhibitionist personality to decide that you're Jesus Christ and actually round up a flock. But it translates well on stage.
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