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Collaborating and Confronting the Able-Bodied Gaze in Herein Lies the Truth 

The worlds of stand-up, monologue, and theatre have been circling and overlapping for a good while now, from Brother Theodore’s “stand-up tragedy” in the 1960s to Spalding Gray’s academic personal monologues to successful on and off-Broadway runs of pieces by standup comics Alex Edelman, Hannah Gadsby, and Ikechukwu Ufomadu. These pieces take the notion of theatre as a mode for intimate storytelling seriously, incorporating full design elements and honing the story via dramaturgical contributions and theatrical direction. However, these performances are frequently static affairs, with performers seated at desks and tables or in a setting serving as a simulacrum of a comedy club, with a stool and a microphone stand.

The physicality of stand-up is a well-worn cultural trope now, which creates a challenge for collaborations between directors and monologists: how does one explore physicality in a traditionally static art form? Further, how can that question be complicated with disability at the center of the story? In creating Herein Lies the Truth at Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre, director Johanna Kasimow and writer-performer Aaron Pang relied on improvisation and a “North Star of ‘do anything that’s true,’” as Pang puts it, to tell his story in an embodied way while critiquing expectations placed on disabled stories and performers.

Pang and Kasimow build an aesthetic of extreme earnestness, the ground on which the piece manipulates its audience. As an audience member, I am charmed out of skepticism by Pang’s sincerity and candor, while his goofy, well-honed comic persona provides deep belly laughs.

A man stands on stage in front of a projector screen of a dating app profile.

Aaron Pang in Herein Lies the Truth by Aaron Pang at Riverside Theatre. Directed by Johanna Kasimow. Scenic and projection design by Kaelen Novak. Lighting design by Haven Haywood. Sound Design and Original Music by Dakota Parobek. Stage Managed by Reese Morgan. Photo by Kaelen Novak.

Pang, a non-fiction writer and storyteller with no formal theatrical training who has toured with The Moth, approaches Herein Lies the Truth as an extended, physicalized essay rather than simply a piece of monologue. His collaboration with Kasimow, an assistant professor of Acting and Directing in the University of Iowa’s Department of Theatre Arts, began when the two were introduced by colleagues after Pang decided to create a performance for his MFA thesis for the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. When Pang expressed interest in enrolling in her beginning acting class, Kasimow thought formal acting training might not serve the needs of Pang’s project, leading the two to embark on a collaboration, working informally with an in-progress version of the text.

Audiences want…inspiration and therefore it suppresses the ability for disabled people to tell true, complex stories about themselves. 

Herein Lies the Truth is built around a question often asked of Pang by strangers: “what happened?” Pang, who has an incomplete spinal cord injury, wears leg braces, and uses a cane, sought to tell a story around sex and disability that also skewered the able-bodied world’s insistence on his disclosure. “Everyone wants to know what happened,” says Pang. “I walk onto a stage [and] everyone’s expecting that story. You walk into public spaces, everyone leans in.” Pang’s text satirizes the vulnerability expected out of disabled stories by “play[ing] the trope of the lonely boy who is always fucking up and trying to find love” who eventually “overcomes disability in some metaphorical way” thanks to the power of love. Accessing the aesthetic space of “inspiration porn” gives Pang the opportunity to turn the piece to larger questions about the integrity of the three-act structure, the exclusion of disabled people in sexual spaces, and the question of what a “happy ending" looks like in an able-bodied culture.

To Pang, “audiences want…inspiration, and therefore it suppresses the ability for disabled people to tell true, complex stories about themselves.” As Pang revisits the story over two acts, he leaves the audience with the choice of two endings: “new definitions of pleasure” or “continued frustrations.” According to Pang, he is “trying to confront the audience with their feelings in the moment” by toying with the perception of what a “disabled story” is, telling “stories with no redemption” in place of the feel-good tale that is the typical result of this mode of storytelling. I had the distinct pleasure of being able to watch the audience of Herein Lies the Truth at a performance midway through the run. Having attended a tech run-through of the show, I was acutely aware of the show’s secrets, all of which serve a pointed analysis of able-bodied audiences’ expectations. As a result, the audience’s preconceived notions of a “disabled story” made themselves readily apparent. Beats of deep vulnerability and disclosure from Pang were met with archetypal noises of performed empathy, from soft “mm”s in support of his struggles to teeth-sucking sounds at the antipathy of the able-bodied world. Ironically (or perhaps not), the well-intentioned audience upholds the passively ableist behaviors that the show critiques, precisely as Pang has planned it.

Kasimow, who has a background in devising and physical theatre, sees the collaboration as any other. While deferring to Pang as the “lead artist” through the whole process, she worked to cultivate the “feeling in the audience of not knowing what is real” in Pang’s performance, a tendency central to her practice. “Whatever is true for Aaron’s body” on a given night is woven in with choreographed elements, creating a hybrid of staged and improvised movement. By collaborating with such a movement-oriented director, Pang can push past the traditional aesthetic underpinnings of solo performance. “I [don’t] want to just stand there, I want to be able to show my disabled body in movement,” Pang says, as featuring simple movement serves as a critique of “how, inevitably, people get uncomfortable with” disabled bodies.

Pang and Kasimow’s goal in crafting Herein Lies the Truth is to instill a sense of precarity that is itself satirical of the expectations of an audience watching a disabled body on stage. Referring to parts of the play where he stands unassisted or drops his cane, Pang mentions that “everything precarious is intentionally precarious.” Kasimow skillfully links this to the mime tradition (re-popularized by Jacques Lecoq) of the bouffon, the archetype of the outcast whose social bumbling underscores the constricting nature of society. Where Pang’s text requires its audience’s full attention, he and Kasimow amplify this sense of precarity as a means of eliciting sympathy for the “lonely boy” who is unable to meet the standards of polite—or able-bodied—society.

A man in a red shirt stands on stage with a microphone.

Aaron Pang in Herein Lies the Truth by Aaron Pang at Riverside Theatre. Directed by Johanna Kasimow. Scenic and projection design by Kaelen Novak. Lighting design by Haven Haywood. Sound Design and Original Music by Dakota Parobek. Stage Managed by Reese Morgan. Photo by Kaelen Novak.

As staged by Kasimow and performed by Pang, actions as conventional as standing or his physical therapy routine build on the vulnerability cultivated by the act of storytelling, creating a captive audience. In the performance I saw, the audience quite literally leaned in to watch Pang remove his leg brace, stand up, and walk unassisted. Even Pang and Kasimow’s choreography instills the aesthetic of extreme vulnerability, which he brilliantly exploits up until the moment he makes the audience aware that they’ve fallen into his trap. 

Even simple movements are ascribed meaning under the able-bodied gaze, so a keen awareness of the relationship between meaning and movement became a necessary element for the gestation of Herein Lies the Truth. For Kasimow, “underneath it all… the idea of presence and play” is the central element in her work, so the formal specifics of Pang’s text did not come as a challenge. “In all theatre, how can it feel like it’s unfolding in real time?” Kasimow asks.

While an able-bodied performer can moderate their flow and rhythm to match the contours of a text, Pang believes that the text has to be tuned to the particulars of his performance.

Beyond the subject matter, disability is knitted into the play by way of pacing and delivery. “The point,” to Pang, “of what you’re supposed to be watching” is the act of sitting with a disabled performer in an unadorned space. “No matter how much I understand the theoretics of able-bodied gaze,” Pang admits that “once you know someone’s watching, you feel the inevitable shame” of falling, as Pang chronicles in his piece with The Moth. So why not make that central to the heartbeat of the piece? Pang, whose youth as a member of the Pacific Boys Choir is referenced in Herein Lies the Truth, is a trained musician, and has a keen sense of the utility of rhythm and musicality in his delivery. While an able-bodied performer can moderate their flow and rhythm to match the contours of a text, Pang believes that the text has to be tuned to the particulars of his performance. The question of “how do we adapt performance to the crip rhythm of my walking… to accentuate, to emphasize” certain phrases is at the core of both Pang’s revision process and Kasimow’s choreography as the text starts to be physicalized. “I’m stuck in book-world,” Pang shares demurely. 

A man sits on stage with a microphone in front of a projector screen

Aaron Pang in Herein Lies the Truth by Aaron Pang at Riverside Theatre. Directed by Johanna Kasimow. Scenic and projection design by Kaelen Novak. Lighting design by Haven Haywood. Sound Design and Original Music by Dakota Parobek. Stage Managed by Reese Morgan. Photo by Kaelen Novak.

In exactly the same way that Herein Lies the Truth toys with deception and perception, talking (and writing) about Pang and Kasimow’s collaboration itself can be deceptive. The collaboration between a non-fiction writer and a physical theatre director on a solo performance seems unlikely or incongruous at first glance. But Pang’s background in choir, high-school musical theatre, and dance has given him a strong foundation in performance. As Kasimow reminds him, he actually has a lot of performance training, which led to a career in computer science that involved a lot of public speaking. “That became especially clear when we had our first invited run,” Kasimow mentions. Pang’s “presence and response felt… alive. Someone who doesn’t have as much other performance experience” wouldn’t have the same presence, she believes.

Kasimow’s training, with its privileging of spontaneity and nimbleness, results in a responsive approach that allows Herein Lies the Truth to flourish in the unexamined aesthetic space between monologue, stand-up, and traditional theatre. At the end of the day, Herein Lies the Truth feels familiar to her because the “agency” of “an actor who’s also the creator,” as is the case with Pang, is a recurring theme in her devised work. Kasimow states, “I didn’t create an imagination for a piece outside of what we were discovering” through studio work and experimenting with the text. She saw herself as more of a performance coach than a director in the traditional sense.

Central to any artistic collaboration is the need to push a partner beyond their intellectual borders. When considering the tonal shifts of Herein Lies the Truth, Pang and Kasimow experimented in a way that she refers to as “testing the edges of possibility.” Pang seizes on this. “Until a second party tells you to do it… I’m limited by my own brain [and] instincts.” “You’re finding those edges without prompting,” Kasimow tells Pang. “Having the eye of someone who [can] enable and trust what… I think the audience is going to do is really nice,” says Pang.

But what is it that Pang really wants from his audience? Without going into detail on the surprises of Herein Lies the Truth, I can say that he wants us to think twice, maybe even three times, about not just our expectations of disabled people, but disabled stories. A well-deployed graph on traditional Aristotelian story structure asks us to consider what kinds of stories are rewarding. Is a happy ending rewarding to us solely because a reward is expected? What, precisely, are we being rewarded for? Taking the time to listen to the nice disabled boy spilling his guts? How does a happy ending benefit the storyteller? The multiple meanings of “happy ending” do a lot of heavy lifting in Herein Lies the Truth. The play’s about sex, after all.

Ultimately, Pang and Kasimow’s collaboration isn’t that unlikely. The specific context of Herein Lies the Truth, Pang’s disability, is the very thing that has required an adaptive approach to its staging, an approach inherent to Kasimow’s style as a director. Pang’s text plays with the expectations of a disability story, whether it’s what disclosures are appropriate for able-bodied strangers and spectators to ask of a disabled person, or the requisite vulnerability required for a disabled character or performer, requiring attention to detail that a story solely manufactured under the able-bodied gaze simply would not have.

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