Paul Herwig answered quickly and unmistakably.
"It's totally odd," he said about the subjective nature of his latest theatrical venture. "I keep going to Jennifer and saying, 'This isn't coming across as a big personal obsession, is it?'"
Jennifer is Jennifer Ilse, Herwig's partner in life as well as in theater, at Off-Leash Area. This weekend at the Ritz Theater studio, the troupe opens a new dance-theater piece inspired by Herwig's failing eyesight, "Now Eye See You, Now Eye Don't." Herwig plays a painter who is slowly losing his vision.
However, do not suggest to him that he's somehow brave for baring his real-life situation.
"I'm very uncomfortable if someone did say that, because there are people who live with greater disabilities, and I can actually get around and see and read," he said.
Herwig cannot drive and is legally blind if he removes his contact lenses. He can read large print but has trouble making out signs or faces across the street. Nearing 50, he understands better than most people the minefields of aging. Still, he bristles at the idea that he might be exploiting himself for art's sake -- it's not his style, nor is it the physically presentational aesthetic of Off-Leash.
"He is definitely uncomfortable with the autobiographical piece of it," said playwright Dominic Orlando, who's helped Off-Leash develop a script. "But as I've told him, you can't write a play about an artist who is going blind and say it's a coincidence."
Herwig needed glasses before he was a year old. When he was 40 and 42, he had cataract surgeries. Two years ago he had a bad retinal tear and needed surgery to save the vision in one eye. Ironically, because he is in good physical condition, he healed fast, and that caused scar tissue that needed another surgery. Because of the shape of his eyes and his age, he's susceptible to retinal tears.
"One surgeon told me that once the retinas start to go, that's usually it," he said. "So I don't know. I may stay like this until I die or something else may happen."
There's a story in this
As Herwig and Ilse navigated the surgeries and the Byzantine health system and pondered "all the crazy stuff they do to repair the retina," they started to think there was grist for an Off-Leash show.
During a recent rehearsal, Ilse and Erinn Liebhard portrayed tap-dancing health-insurance bureaucrats detailing the cost of surgery while Herwig -- his eyes padded with gauze -- lay on a recovery table. Earlier, actors representing art agents and patrons had swarmed Herwig's character like ravenous birds.
This athletic, slightly fantastic style ("physical shenanigans," Herwig said) defines Off-Leash's work. Also, Herwig makes design an important part of the show. In "Now Eye See You," a giant eyeball rolls around the stage on casters. Their approach has helped Off-Leash win Ivey Awards and State Arts Board Initiative grants. Herwig was a McKnight theater fellow in 2009.
The stylization allows Herwig to keep some distance from the subject. He talks about broader themes -- perception, facing life challenges, reacting to limitations. He also visited BLIND Inc., a Minneapolis training center that teaches skills to people who are blind or losing their sight. He worked with canes and masks, and talked with counselors who implored him to steer clear of clichés that some sighted people have about blindness.
Making it a play
Orlando, a member of the Workhaus Collective, said he has enjoyed the challenge of fitting Herwig's story into a play. Though he's given Herwig's artist a few accents of flavor, Orlando said he's really writing a journey rather than a character.
"The piece is definitely a swirl of chaos, and I enjoy that looseness," Orlando said. "Dance-theater people think a writer comes in and it's all about text, but it's about structure. I love how a play can be made better with movement."
More challenging than the stage dynamics is the notion of Herwig getting comfortable peeling back his skin. After sharing long stories with Orlando, Herwig was slightly surprised to find them verbatim in the script.
"I was like, 'Wait a minute, this was not supposed to be a personal indulgence,'" Herwig said. "But Dominic said, 'How could I write this any better by not using your words?'"
So Herwig is caught in this Twilight Zone of his own making -- which is often the fate of artists who take on the risk of dissecting their own experience. He hopes to avoid sentimental clichés in "Now Eye See You, Now Eye Don't" and will get a big assist from his Off-Leash mates. But if the piece is to land with audiences, it will be due to the real, personal story at its center. And that is solely up to Herwig.
"People [watching rehearsals] tell me it's going well, but I can't trust it like I usually do," he said. "Jennifer told me I need to create an avatar of myself, slightly removed."