The Geniuses

2011 Stranger Theater Genius John Osebold

John Osebold
John Osebold

John Osebold


Wrote and starred in:

Two lo-fi musicals in the last nine months.

Says about auditioning for commercial acting jobs:

"I'll never do that again if I can help it."

Is going for:

"Humor and beauty, to be completely blatantly honest."

Projected onto a large screen, over darkness, the words "Jose Bold" with botanical flourishes blossoming in the corner. Then a lens flare wipes the screen clean. Then "presents." Then in big, shapely, inspiring, timeless red letters, moving slowly up the screen, one at a time, S-P-I-D—eeeeeeeeeeerp!—an error sound over an error screen, a long awful beep over "PLEASE STAND BY," and then a janky white screen with Spidermann written in what looks like the clumsy square paintbrush on MS Paint.

These are the opening seconds of Spidermann, John Osebold's parody—performed last January—of the U2 musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which at the time was literally hurting people. One of the recurring jokes in Spidermann was a loud construction crash every so often, as if a human being and two stage lights had just fallen from the rafters. The New York Times' arts section was dark with the news of Julie Taymor's expensive disaster—you couldn't help but be in awe of the Shakespearean darkness, the spectacle of it, the story within a story. What was surprising was to read about it in the New York Times and then go see a musical in Seattle the same night making fun of the cursedness of it, mid-catastrophe. The audience laughed with the intensity of the electrocuted.

Osebold had two weeks between having the idea and putting on the show—two weeks total. That itself was hilarious, because Spider-Man's creators started working on it in 2002.

Osebold's sheer generative ability is staggering, especially because he's pretty nonchalant about it. (Asked how many songs he writes in a given year, he guessed 30, but then I pointed out he wasn't counting the two musicals he wrote since last fall.) He constantly seems like he's just walked into a lamppost and banged his head, but instead of birds and stars flying around him, there are new songs and jokes, and all he has to do is grab one out of the air. People who work with him on projects, even other artists who are good at making things quickly, marvel at his speed and inexhaustibility.

Osebold is a jokester, a don't-take-yourself- too-seriously-ster, a goof, a cat with a ball of string, a genius at riffing. His response to the biggest theater story in the country was to make merciless theater. For Spidermann, he riffed on spiders, digging up spider footage from the Prelinger Archives, an online database of vintage advertising, educational, and industrial videos. Transitions between Spidermann's acted scenes were handled with overlapping clips of, for instance, a science video from the 1950s about how spiders work, a home video of someone's brother killing a spider with his foot, an outdoor spiderweb with dew on it, all set to music.

"I've been using-slash-abusing the access that they give to their videos," Osebold says. "I've read and reread the rules for use, and again and again I'm amazed that it's just like, Hey, here's this stuff, it's public domain, use it. This guy Rick Prelinger is absolutely amazing about making all this stuff available."

In Spidermann, Peter Parkre—pronounced park-ruh—gets his superpowers by drinking a beverage handed to him. Parkre's first line is "It all started about eight seconds from now. I was minding my own business when I was approached by Radioactive Steve Winwood." Steve Winwood of "Back in the High Life Again" and "Higher Love" renown, except radioactive, busts out and sings:

You gotta drink this!! Oh yeah!!

Just go on and drink this!!

Hey hey!!

What's with all the questions!!

Questions are for mothers!!

Mothers who are married to lawyers!!

Drink this!!

Osebold and a band of friends staged Spidermann at the Satori Loft in Pioneer Square, and then took it to The Tank theater in New York City, just four blocks from the show they were making fun of. It was a lo-fi, low-budget, last-minute thing, and it could have been a complete failure, except that Osebold is a last-minute laureate. Spidermann wasn't just the product of someone who works well under pressure; it was also about working under pressure, and in some cases the lyrics were not just parodies of the themes of Spider-Man but parodies of Osebold trying frantically to write something, thus all the comically redundant lyrics.

"I make the kind of work that people look at and say, 'I can do that.' It's so transparent. You can see the strings attached to the marionette. I feel inspired thinking, I'm going to go home and make something in other people—that's the greatest thing I can do," he says. "And I guess I create stuff that's a little more surreal, isn't bound by the same rules. I really like humor and beauty, to be completely blatantly honest. I think beauty and humor are the two things I'm trying to achieve, and it just so happens the way that translates onto the stage is a garagey-looking thing, in terms of budget and scale. Sometimes, singing a song about mermaids on a stage that is not elevated above or expensive—it's just right in front of you, with a couple tin-can lights—somehow allows people to access their own imaginations more clearly? I'm just guessing. But I suspect it makes things simpler for people." He stops and looks around his apartment, and adds, "I feel like one of those artists who doesn't know how to explain themselves very well."

He was born in Iowa City in 1976 and raised in Spokane. His dad is a surgeon and watercolorist, his mom makes "beautiful Japanese dolls of her own design out of paper." (Osebold is half Japanese and half German; people mistake him for Native American.) He and his brother and sister all grew up playing musical instruments.

Every December for the last nine years, Osebold has made an album of new songs under the name Jose Bold—his all-purpose name for the music and shows he writes—and released it for free on the internet, at www "You know how people always say, you know, 'Just make me something'? So I decided to make a gift for as many people as possible. Most of it was inside jokes and voice-mail messages. And for me, it was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and force myself to make a new album." He cites Charles Ives as a musical inspiration, a composer of the 1890s who made "really discordant, fantastic music. Mostly I love his symphonies. They're really funny. He'll try to imitate the way that fire works, but musically. Or there's a song that's supposed to sound like one marching band coming down the street and another marching band coming from the opposite side of the street and the two together just sound horrible... Forgive me, I have to play you some of this," he says, walking to his stereo. It sounds like something from Looney Tunes. There's a little extra noise at the end of a song, and Osebold says, "And he would write stuff like that in, the one saxophone that doesn't realize it's the end of the song and keeps playing for two more notes."

In addition to the December project, he's been a songwriter and performer for years in the art band "Awesome," whose name was put in quotes "so that no one would take us seriously" and whose finest moment was surely the first stage show they ever did, Delaware, which was an extended riff on whether or not the state of Delaware exists. "Whatever people were good at is what we did," he remembers. Osebold met someone who "was a wonderful waffle chef, so we brought him in to make waffles" every night for the audience during the show.

"I really don't think of myself as a very good actor," Osebold says, describing himself as "too selfish" to "just be a vessel in someone else's interpretative vision." Osebold's accomplishment with Spidermann this year was rivaled by his accomplishment with Mountain, another musical of sorts about Mount Rainier and mountains generally that he wrote and set to Prelinger Archives footage as well, and performed at ACT's cabaret space along with "Awesome" bandmate Kirk Anderson. It was as hilarious as Spidermann, but something about it seemed more timeless, more out-of-nowhere, more beautiful and beguiling. Unlike Spidermann, it showed no sign of the strain its creator had been under. "Both Spidermann and Mountain were products of being under duress and having no resources," Osebold says. "I think that's the only way I want to make work now. It's sort of like being a shark. I feel like if I stop making work, I will die." recommended