In Conversation With : Herein Lies the Truth Writer & Performer Aaron Pang

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Herein Lies the Truth ran April 18th – 28th at Riverside Theatre. Read our interview below with Writer/Performer Aaron Pang and Riverside Theatre’s Marketing Intern Tony Carter Walsh.

TC: Thank you for taking the time to talk today. To begin, could you talk a little bit about how the play started and how it evolved?

AP: Sure. I think the show is an idea I’ve always had. I’ve always enjoyed performing but I think about my start at The Moth Radio, where the format is traditional. Very straightforward storytelling on a stage. Not formulaic in content, but in pacing. Everything is about 12 minutes. You can basically only tell one good story in 10 or 12 minutes, and so it becomes this very interesting challenge. It’s a nice constraint but it also it can be limiting, right? It’s a format we are all very comfortable with. It’s easy to tell stories in that fashion but open mics are really open-ended and they’re also story slams. It’s a competition technically speaking, so people vote on what they like, and then you start to understand the audience’s instincts clearly. The stories that win are either the funniest ones, or the stories that rend your heartstrings the most intensely. Even then, usually the funny stories win out because people want a good night out and people want to vote for the thing that makes them happy. And so, I think my play became a challenge to understand how to play with the audience’s expectations. It’s walking that fine line of always understanding how to never lose them. I’m never going to lecture you, but I do lecture you to a degree in this show. I say, let’s see what’s the minimum amount of sugar I need to feed you to get you to take your medicine. That’s how I think about the message of the show. But when it comes to the joy of the show, it’s more about, what are some practical jokes that I can play on the audience? What are some ideas that can begin to play with their expectations of this image? Of me? I’ve always thought about falling on stage, and asked, just what does falling on stage look like? In the preparation for the show, we must prepare for what would happen when I fall. Which is not a thing you have to prepare for with a fully able-bodied performer, right? Falling is hard.

The show came from a two month stay in LA where I went and did open mics for a whole summer. Two to three a night for about two months, trying to do five, six days a week. And you get five minutes, six minutes to go on and do some jokes. Most everyone’s telling pretty traditional jokes. And then you’re like, how can I, how can I stay within that form, while still doing the manipulations that I want to, or playing with the expectations that I want to? So that’s like a big part of how the show works.

Where it starts with is just wanting to play with the able-bodied expectation of the disabled body, and then wanting to again, couch a message that is quite complex. And it requires a lot of self-reflection on the part of the audience. The challenge is: how do I make the audience reflect on how they feel without lecturing them about it? Without them realizing it I’m asking them to consider their own assumptions. I came to Iowa to write. I came to the Non-Fiction Workshop to write this story. I knew that I wanted to write about sex and disability, and you know, I love the idea of a bunch of people having to think about disabled sex when nobody thinks about disabled sex. It’s very funny to me to be like, you have to now. To think about this thing. Right? And people think about it and their brains kind of break a little bit.


TC: Something that really struck me was the vulnerability. There’s a lot of actual intimacy and exploration of the theme of intimacy, and the moment where you sit on the edge of the stage and you remove your brace and then you walk without any of your armor, so to speak, is really moving. And I think that that if there was any space between you and the audience before then, it evaporates. I’d just like to know a little bit more about how that moment evolved.

AP: I think that it isn’t vulnerability. Because it doesn’t hurt. I don’t need the audience to treat that experience like that. That’s just how I walk. That’s I think the key piece of it, which is I understand that the experience is different because there’s discomfort, right? There’s discomfort in watching the disabled body. That is always true when people see “disabled bodies.” People get uncomfortable, right? People get uncomfortable with things that don’t look “normal.” And part of the play’s ambition is to invoke the discomfort. When that moment happens, and I say, “I can walk without these, it’s just more exciting.” And everyone, everyone is ready. I already teeter when I walk. And there’s the moment when I walk close to the stage with all these tools. There is the anticipation of worrying that I might fall, right and then you raise the stakes a little bit. And I bring the audience way, way closer, but in some ways, I’m dragging them with me, right? I’m not letting them in. I’m just forcing them to experience this thing that is supposed to feel vulnerable, but is also uncomfortable, not just from watching the body, but worrying that I might fall. And you push, and you pull on that and the razor’s edge of this thing and the audience might react by saying “Oh, how vulnerable,” but then there’s a part of me that thinks, is that right? That’s in the first half. That is part of the manipulation. It’s supposed to ask, why is that vulnerable? Why is me just walking without a brace vulnerable? These tools are practical for me. They help me move faster and easier through the world, but I don’t need them. Like I would prefer to move through the world without these tools. Not because I’m ashamed of them, but because sometimes the brace can be uncomfortable. So, again, those assumptions of vulnerability or even assumptions of like, it’s funny because yeah, a lot I get a lot of people saying, “You’re being so vulnerable in this show.”  I’m choosing to tell you this. That aspect of opening-up is already done. Does that make sense?


TC: The spectacle, the one in my head, is what struck me. The way I was raised, I remember at a very young age being scolded and told not to stare if I looked at someone with a visible disability. That even the act of observing is rude because there’s an assumption that there’s judgment being passed. By a four-year-old.  In the play, there’s this same sensation—not voyeurism, but adjacent to voyeurism—when you have a group of ostensibly able-bodied people watching a performance, a performance of disability. Not performative in the pejorative sense. It is a literal, and also dramatic performance of disability. As an audience member, I faced some emotional hurdles.

AP: That’s really great. Because the staring is not staring right? Who’s staring why are they staring? It’s about that moment of, of education right where the child stares, right and then the parent instead of saying, “Don’t stare,” instead they can be like, “Why are you staring?” And then she’d be like, what is that? And then you have that conversation, right? And we’re like, why does he look like that? Or why does she look like that? Again, that’s only visible disabilities. You’re talking about performance of disability as in theater. But it is also performance of, can this body do this thing? And it’s so blurred, because in the way we’ve prepared with the artistic team is just this very interesting, complex process of, we check in with my body every single night to be like, can you do all the things you want to do? Our warmups have me standing from the ground? We do all the exercises to understand if I feel okay for the night. And there’s the internal, complicated struggle of being like, I want to be able to do this piece of art every night, but sometimes, there might be a day where I fall really hard and I just, all I can do is just sit out on the chair and tell the story. And it’s this really interesting, complicated dance.


TC: At the end of the play, there’s a choose your own adventure moment where the audience votes on what direction they want the play to go. Can you talk about that?

AP: Sure, it’s a choose your own adventure that isn’t a choose your own adventure. We know what choice is going to be made. That’s what’s really funny about this. Or not funny. It’s actually kind of sad, right? The choice is real, but what’s going to happen, what we are going to choose, is what we’ve been taught. The fact that it happens just validates the critique in the show. That’s how easily we fall back into our love for happy endings.