Psych ward to stage: New one-man play to turn JCC auditorium into a Madhouse

Meet Joshua Walters’ neurotransmitters.

When he was 16 years old, the dopamine in Walters’ mind detonated like a bomb, a mental blast that shattered his sense of balance. He didn’t eat or sleep for a week. In the aftermath of his first manic episode, he found himself in a youth psychiatric ward for two weeks.

Doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. In the seven years since, Walters has been hospitalized two additional times, seen six psychiatrists and tried a dozen drugs. He almost didn’t finish high school.

But today he’s healthy — has been for five years — and will be a college graduate after the San Francisco State University commencement ceremony Saturday, May 24.

One day later, the 23-year-old will debut his one-man show in Berkeley.

The frenetic pace of the weekend is perhaps appropriate for the creator of “Madhouse Rhythm,” which explores Walters’ bipolar mind and winds through the maze that is the mental health system. The performance, 8 p.m. Sunday, May 25 at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay in Berkeley, is part of the JCC’s Prism Stage series.

“He’s incredibly motivated and has an ability to focus on his work that is very unusual for undergraduate students,” said Amy Kilgard, a professor of performance and communication studies at S.F. State.

For the past four months, Walters has met with Kilgard weekly to work on the script, sound, lighting and stage direction for “Madhouse Rhythm.” Walters has performed it for an audience only a few times; once as a “work in progress” at the JCC in Berkeley and, more recently, in full for one of Kilgard’s classes.

In both instances, he’s answered audience questions after his performance, and has asked for their feedback on how to make the show better.

“People have told me that the play has given them insight into bipolar disorder and has helped them understand so much more about what it’s like to live with it,” he said. “But what’s even cooler is when people say to me, ‘That’s my story too.'”

Walters has striking green eyes and a mop of curly brown hair he affectionately calls his Jewfro. In person, he’s warm and thoughtful. He grew up in Moss Beach, a few miles north of Half Moon Bay and where he still lives, in a culturally Jewish home with parents who had Shabbat dinner every Friday.

“There have been times I’ve been in despair, but I’ve always had my mom and dad,” Walters said. “A support system can make or break you.”

He talks openly about his mental health on stage and off. A manic episode appears to an outsider as though a person has completely lost touch with reality, he said, but “inside your mind, it’s like the whole planet is changing, and everything makes sense.”

“Madhouse Rhythm” has been a work in progress for two years. Some of the show’s dialogue is original, and some has been adapted from poems Walters originally wrote for spoken word performances and competitions. It also showcases his sense of humor, beat-boxing skills and an original soundtrack by Gabriel Aranda, a hip-hop musician Walters has known since high school.

Ilya Tovbis, the director of programming for the JCC East Bay, described the play as unconventional, engaging and moving.

“This is one of the only pieces I’ve seen where a person with a real mental challenge — not somebody outside of that community — describes his own experience,” he said.

Walters hopes to perform “Madhouse Rhythm” at Bay Area theaters this summer. In August, he’ll be in Israel on a Birthright trip; after that, he would like to take his show on the road, starting with college campuses and fringe festivals.

“I think this show could open up a topic up that’s vitality important and so often taboo,” Kilgard said. “We don’t often talk about mental illness and it’s so important, especially on college campuses where funding for mental health counseling has been cut. I’m seeing more and more articles about students who have mental illness and who are negotiating a system with no resources to give them help.”

“Madhouse Rhythm” debuts 8 p.m., Sunday, May 25 at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Tickets $8-12. To buy tickets, go to or call the JCC at (510) 848-0237. For more information about Joshua Walters, visit

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.