BD: Told through monologues, comedy and a 13-piece orchestra, your new show, Now I’m Fine, is described as “musical theater,” but I’m guessing we are not talking Cats.
AO: It’s certainly not Cats, but the music definitely aspires to some of the grandeur of traditional Broadway musicals. The first album I ever bought when I was a kid was the soundtrack to West Side Story, and while I try to capture some level of that big, bright, bombastic nastiness throughout the music of this piece, the non-musical portions are a different thing altogether. I brought the term “experimental” into play when describing the piece only to not disappoint anyone who would go into it expecting Cats. Essentially, what you will see on stage will be an orchestra playing music and me telling true, honest and hopefully moving and funny stories. I am aware that when its laid out like that it begins to sound much less grand but what I am trying to do is walk this really fine line where the audience feels the piece as both this grand gesture and an intimate one man show. The real challenge is making this whole thing cohesive because there is a linear narrative—it’s a little hidden and I stray from it from time to time—but it’s there. Executing this whole thing in a way where the audience remains in that universe through the dramatic shifts in scope is my main goal.
BD: In 2006, you went through a divorce, the death of your father and the sudden onset of an autoimmune disorder that caused your skin to dissolve. How did that horrible year become a performance piece?
AO: Well, most of the pieces were conceived around the same period of time. I had this bizarre disease where my skin began to rapidly dissolve, I lost most of the skin on my face, hands, feet... and some other areas we won't get into. After spending some time in the hospital, it was determined that I was not going to die and that my skin would regrow and once that was decided, I was sent home skinless with a big bottle of Dilaudid [an opioid pain reliever] to recover on my own. At that point I had lost all of my fingernails so touching anything was incredibly painful, I had lost the skin around my mouth so I could no longer play the trumpet (my main instrument), I had lost a lot of my vision so I couldn't really read that well and I just couldn't do anything.... The only thing that I could really do was play simple chords on this little Baldwin organ I had in a closet of my apartment because the action was light enough that it didn't hurt my fingers. I would literally just sit in a dark closet, playing a series of repeated chords while thinking of jokes and stories for hours at a time, lost in a prescription drug induced haze. Eventually when I recovered I snapped out of the opiate cloud and kept finding these notes I had written with joke and story ideas and these little melodies that I had recorded onto my voicemail...a lot of them I had no memory of doing. And all of these pieces were just significantly different than anything I'd done before so I didn't know what to do with them and most of them just sat there for years till I eventually developed them one at a time... but always with the idea that they were part of something bigger.
BD: Was there a silver lining to the flood of personal woes?
AO: I did have a really hard year when these pieces were being created. There was a lot of pain condensed into a very short period of time. But I think when you go through that, you don't think about those events as extraordinary, you think about them as completely ordinary because you realize that almost every person on the planet will have to go through that same level of pain and loss in their life. It definitely would have been easier on me if those events were a little more spread out, but having them be so condensed really just shocked me into getting much closer to the core of my humanity, it made it easier to just say “this is who I am! Flaws intact,” because I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. I think an artist makes a huge leap forward when they stop being afraid of who they are.
BD: I know musicians Evan Flory-Barnes and Okanomode are involved in the project. Which other other Seattle performers are helping out?
AO: Evan Flory-Barnes is a sort of musical life partner to me, he is a major part of a good portion of my musical endeavors and Okanomode has been so essential in writing lyrics for the music and really making those songs his own. They are major players in this, but there are so many amazing musicians working on this project. Sam Boshnack, Scott Morning, Nathan Vetter, Naomi Siegel, Jon Hansen from Tubaluba, Monica Schley, Sam Anderson from Hey Marseilles, and the list just goes on. There really isn't one musician working on this who isn't one of the best in the city, I feel unbelievably fortunate.
BD: What do you hope viewers will walk away from the performance thinking about?
AO: I hesitate to say what I hope viewers will walk away with… There is a very clear idea of what I hope people will gain through this show but I don't think it will do anyone any service for me to say it explicitly. I guess a more general hope is that people will be touched by the level of vulnerability in the show. I hope that people feel how much I care about this and that they feel some sort of connection to it, that they are able to see a part of themselves on stage and that they view it as a documentation of the human experience and not just a guy talking about sad stuff on stage.
SEE THE PERFORMANCE: 12/9. 7:30 p.m. $5. Town Hall, 1119 8th Ave.; 206.652.4255; townhallseattle.org