TLD Interview: James Braly’s “Asylum”

James Braly

Master storyteller and performer James Braly is at Dixon Place for the next few weekends with his new show, Asylum. The show is described as, “The darkly comic true story of a high school pothead who checks himself into the only place he can’t get high: a psychiatric hospital. There, he makes the disturbing discovery that some of the patients are actually crazy and some of the counselors are nuts – but they’re all more sane than his family.”

Braly’s first one-man show, Life in a Marital Institution, (which also originated through workshops at Dixon Place) premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, sold-out 59E59 Theaters in New York City, and transferred Off Broadway to the Soho Playhouse in 2008. (Read a NYTimes review here.)

I recently sat down with Braly and his director, Seth Barrish, as they were preparing to preview the new show at Dixon Place:

The Lo-Down (TLD): How is rehearsal going?

Seth Barrish:  Well, rehearsal in this case is, pretty much, writing sessions, it’s all dramaturgy. James works from an outline and he comes in and shares what he has goin’ on and we talk about the structure and kick around possibilities and then he goes away and reconfigures things – and sometime he takes pieces out, sometimes he finds new stories – and you know, it’s fun and easy.

James Braly: For you.

Seth Barrish: (laughs) For me.

TLD: So that’s what you guys are doing today, even though your first performance is tomorrow?

James Braly: Well, (our first performances) are previews, so we’re really treating them like previews. And there may be shifts between the show on Friday and the show on Saturday.

Seth Barrish: There’s a spontaneous component to what he (James) does anyway, even if the structure is sound and locked in, moment to moment there are things that can happen and are varied.

James Braly: Yeah, I mean this gets down to process, I guess, but if you can follow this process (as an actor) and you don’t let it vaporize you – and you’re actually present to stuff – at the perfect moment you are both creating and kind of mastering the creation at the same time, so it’s a writing session in front of the audience. You’re aware of what you’re coming up with the moment before the audience knows it and that allows you to control it, so it’s not raw. But that’s in it’s perfect incarnation. Which is why it’s very risky and why Seth is the perfect person to take this risk – because he’s inured to it – he has a background in clowning, among other things so he has given me liscense to discover it this way.

TLD: So… it’s a writing session but it’s also a performance?

Seth Barrish: Yeah, but it’s not like we’re going up there with a blank slate…even the details within the structure are largely codified, it’s just that it may not be verbatim.

James Braly: I mean, Life in a Marital Institution was completely locked down, totally memorized – and there are obvious virtues to that approach and there are some drawbacks. One of the things I think I learned from that whole process was that the audience tracks subtext, not text – so they’re really experiencing you on an emotional level. If you’re having fun, that’s what they’re getting. That’s actually the emotional exchange that’s happening.

Seth Barrish and James Braly at a Technical Rehearsal for Asylum

Seth Barrish has become well-known for directing solo performers (beginning with Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part).  I asked him about his involvment with performers who may be performing and re-working a piece for very long periods of time:

Seth Barrish: Well, when I finished working on “Sleepwalk with me” (written and performed by Mike Birbiglia) which was a four-year process where the performer/writer was on the road touring the show for three years, just trying things like crazy, at all these different venues and every once in a while he’d have something happen where he’d call me and say “this was amazing tonight”…and it could have been amazingly good or amazingly bad…and then we try to figure out the science of it, what’s making it work, what’s funky – and from that, keep piecing together a structure.

TLD: If it’s constantly evolving like that, how do you know when it’s finished?

Seth Barrish: I think you go into it like – it’s never finished, but at some point an audience starts to tell you, “Put this up in front of us, we’re really getting something out of this,” and the changes start to become smaller and smaller. It’s also in the nature of story telling – I think James is interested in experimenting with this form because it’s closer to, in some ways, his storytelling roots (as a longtime performer at The Moth and a contributor on NPR).

TLD: What works, what is it that you like, about this process between the two of you?

James Braly: From my perspective it’s basically — the director is going tell you what everybody else (the audience) is thinking before they get a chance to think it. He’s your prophylactic measure against public disaster.

Seth Barrish: I’ve never been called a prophylactic before but ah, now, that’s “on the record.”

James Braly: (laughing) Another way of saying the same thing is that you achieve this kind of Vulcan mind link (with each other) and you have to trust his taste.  So – my job is trying to keep people engaged for an hour – and I’m performing to Seth and he’s telling me, “This is what I got out of it – I was engaged here and I wasn’t engaged there and let’s try to decode why. So I’m investing in Seth the trust that he is a man who’s attention is worth engaging.

TLD: So James, is this piece, Asylum, something that really happened to you when you were growing up?

James Braly: People always ask me, about my other pieces, as well, “Is it autobiographical?”  And what I would say is this: What happened or didn’t happen to me, and you may or may not believe this — doesn’t matter. From my perspective, that’s the only way I can do this work. The point is to find some third place out there, where I’m looking at it and the audience is looking at it at the same time. They’re not looking at “me,” they’re looking at “that” and we’re both walking around it together. There’s plenty of space between me and “It” and plenty of space between “It” and the audience, and I just happen to be using personal experience to extrapolate stories and themes that hopefully will resonate with other people. I liken it to sharing your enthusiasms –  (like) when I found a snake in a river bed when I was nine or ten years old, which was totally cool, and with childlike enthusiasm ran back to the apartment and held it up and said, “Check it out!” and half the peple recoiled and freaked and the other half were like, “Wow!”  That snake is not you – it’s just like saying, “I dig this. I am really excited about this – check it out!”

Asylum runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00pm through May 22. Tickets: $15