For years James Braly ’86 was a successful speechwriter for pharmaceutical company executives and motivational speakers who lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park—until he moved into his building’s storage unit in order to devote himself to creative writing full-time. His first project, the monologue Life in a Marital Institution—“20 years of monogamy in one terrifying hour”—debuted at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is now running through Aug. 31 at the SoHo Playhouse.
“I’m in what I call the ‘Golden Mean,’” he said. “I’m old enough so that I can talk to someone in their 60s as a fellow grown-up, but not so old that people who are younger can’t relate to it—for them I’m like the canary in the emotional coal mine. I have guys coming up to me, asking ‘What happens in a relationship, dude? I’m thinking of getting in one.’”
Born in Texas, Braly grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and Denver with, as he terms it, a “challenging family life.” After graduating from high school he planned to go either east or west, to Harvard or Stanford until he found out just before graduation that, although he had high SAT scores, his GPA placed him 51st out of 52 students. “‘I suggest you come up with Plan B,’ the principal told me,” he said. To bolster his transcript, Braly attended a Long Island college preparatory school, graduating in a year with a 4.0, and eventually applied and was admitted to the School of General Studies.
“I visited Columbia, saw the course catalog, and thought ‘This is it.’ I knew I was in for a sparring, a challenge—someone did threaten to kill me in one of my philosophy courses, which I took as a compliment. I started out in philosophy but switched to English when I realized that what I had been looking for in philosophy was available in English literature—the books were like a delivery system for philosophical ideas that were attached to human beings and actually functioning in human life.”
While still a student Braly put on his first play through a work-study job at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. “Here I was, this spindly, unqualified, Led Zeppelin-listening white guy with all these Puerto Rican and black kids,” he said. “Eventually I decided that I was going to write them a play using their words, so I started interviewing them about their day-to-day lives. One kid told me a story about all the kids at the video game parlor that were trying to sell him drugs, one kid told me about her ‘friend’ who got home late and hadn’t done the dishes and was beaten by her father—but all the vignettes kept coming back to them calling their buddies as the one thing that they could count on. So I put together something that was five or seven scenes—I edited and shaped it, but mostly it was their words, verbatim. And then they performed it in a sold-out auditorium, with all the child-beaters and drug dealers in attendance. Everyone likes to see themselves onstage.”
After graduating from GS, Braly found a niche writing speeches for pharmaceutical executives and motivational speakers on the lecture circuit. “I wrote the marketing launch speech for VP of marketing for Viagra and worked on the launch of Levitra,” he said. “I’m also the first person to write a rap for company values, as far as I know.”
Over time, however, his dissatisfaction with the work grew. “I had been struggling with being in the industry for a long time,” he said. “I was working for all the companies I had been demonstrating against as a student—for divestment, cigarettes. Meanwhile, my wife had kids and loved her job as a mother. I saw that and was like, ‘Wow, you love your job. I hate mine, and I’m paying for yours—why is that?’ And my kids were starting to get older—one, two years old. One day my son saw me typing and said, ‘Is that all you do? Punch buttons?’ And I tried to explain to him … but eventually I just said ‘If not now, when?’”
Braly then moved out of his apartment—but not his building. “The day I moved out was the day I moved in,” he said. “I was on the co-op board, and I knew that there was no provision against self-storage. I was in the same building as Keanu Reeves and Jerry Seinfeld—nobody could imagine living at the standard of storage. I moved all my stuff down to the unit, and the super came up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘It’s all right here in the lease—in fact, I wrote it. I’m not going anywhere, my friend.’
“My overhead went down 60 or 70 percent in a stroke. I had a whole new life, and that’s when I started to pursue writing in earnest.”
As he began to write, Braly drew from his experience participating in open-mike nights at The Moth, a New York storytelling organization—in fact, The Moth’s influence is perceptible in the interwoven stories that make up Life in a Marital Institution. “It’s set in my dying sister’s hospice room as she prepares for a deathbed wedding,” he said. “My family comes together for the first time in 40 years, and that sparks memories of my marriage, then I go back home with that knowledge and go back to face my wife.”
Contrary to what one might expect, the show is a comedy, although some of the humor is as dark as the subject matter. “There’s some very high-stakes stuff in the show,” he said. “People die—it’s very high-stakes, but very funny.
“But what I try to do first and foremost is animate myself with just the joy of the telling. It’s a value-free zone: not tragic, not comic, just joy; before we ever talk about what the content is. For the next 65 minutes, I want to give you the ride of your life, with stuff you’ve never heard before about a place you’re totally glad you visited and elated that you never had to live in. I’m not there to bum people out, and I’m not there to bum myself out—I’m there to have joy with the contact of performing.”
Life In a Marital Institution website, with ticket information: http://www.jamesbraly.com/index.html
The Moth: http://www.themoth.org/