The Storytellerís Art

After a life-changing accident, performer and author Kevin Kling will never tell another tale the same way again

On August 11, 2001, my Goofus got on his motorcycle and my Gallant put on his helmet. When I came to the intersection of Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street in south Minneapolis a car pulled in front of me and before I or Goofus or Gallant could touch the fully functional brakes, I crashed.

Over the next several hours I was in sections of the newspapers I'd never known and headed for one section I very much wanted to avoid.

Kevin Kling, from The Dog Says How

Daniel Corrigan
Daniel Corrigan

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Writer and performer kevin Kling may be the second most popular storyteller in Minnesota (we'll leave it to you to figure out the first). For a quarter-century he's been a sought-after ticket on local stages, a mainstay at the annual Fringe Festival, and a well-known commentator on NPR's All Things Considered, sharing tales about the nooks and crannies of life growing up in Minnesota and dealing with a disability (his left arm is about three-fourths the size of his right, and has no thumb or wrist).

Since August 2001, however, there's been a new topic in his life, after he survived a horrific motorcycle accident that led to months of hospitalization and the loss of the use of his previously good arm. All of this plays out in his first book, The Dog Says How, which will be released in October by Borealis Books. He will present stories from the book at the Fitzgerald Theater on October 2.

"About half are stories [in the book] I've told for years and years, and the others follow from the accident. But even the pre-accident stories have a different depth than they had before," says Kling while sipping a Coke outside of Bob's Java Hut—a biker coffee shop mentioned several times as a favorite hangout in his stories—near his Uptown home. Since the accident left his right arm useless, everything he does is now a struggle, from finding change for his drink to opening a pop cap.

"It did leave me in touch with the other side. Once you have had a near-death experience, you never come back fully into this world. And that's true of anything. Once you've fallen in love for the first time, or had any kind of life-changing experience, you can't go back to the person you used to be. An artist working at full tilt is someone who walks in two worlds," he adds.

Talking with Kling is very much like watching his performances. He dances off onto different topics on a dime, barely leaving a listener time to catch up. Often he pauses only to let the noisiest of the late-afternoon traffic on Lyndale pass before jumping back to his point, be it about his experiences growing up, the ancient art of storytelling, politics, local theater, or a multitude of other topics.

In The Dog Says How, some of the pieces have long been part of his performances, but that doesn't mean he isn't still discovering what they mean. "You have to tell a story 10,000 times before you find out what it is," Kling says. "Look at The Odyssey. It was probably told for 800 years before Homer wrote it down. It can be hard to read on the page, but when you read it aloud, it makes complete sense."

Some of the pieces in The Dog Says How have been part of Kling's repertoire since he first started spinning tales at the old Brass Tacks Theater in Minneapolis. Looking back, even his early plays—works like the MTC-centric 21A—were largely monologues, setting the stage for his later works. And all of it builds on his Minnesota youth, growing up in Osseo and listening to the stories told by his family.

The Dog Says How includes more than 30 short pieces—many drawn from Kling's live performances or his commentaries on All Things Considered. Some of these are typical of a suburban/rural Minnesota upbringing: being consigned to the card table at Christmas, trips to the drive-in, where the movies were the least interesting part of the evening, or listening to WCCO for school closings on a snowy winter morning. Other pieces move beyond the expected. There are stories about hanging out at the Uptown Bar before the neighborhood became a yuppie haven; traveling to communist Czechoslovakia, where the biggest censors were the U.S. government; and traveling down the Mississippi with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater on a sinking circus boat.

Still, he found the act of taking his verbal stories to the printed page a daunting task. "When you tell a story, you use pace and inflection," he says. "Writing is a visual medium. It enters your brain through your eyes. So it takes different talents to bring [the stories] to life."

An example Kling uses is the very structure of the book, which opens with the story of the fateful August day when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle. "In storytelling, it's important to have a good invitation [in the tale] for the audience. Opening with that story would be giving away too much, but in the book, it becomes the hook."

While worries about the new medium may have frightened Kling enough to keep him from working on the book, once he got started the fears drifted away. "I thought I would get frustrated and that it would be hard to write, but I found the opposite to be true."

Like his recent shows, which have compared his experience to a trip into the classical underworld, The Dog Says How examines Kling in his post-accident world. It changed his perspective on nearly everything in his life. "I used to have to run marathons to get the same rush as I do now with simple tasks," Kling says.

Kling notes that while his own experiences may be unique, the feelings surrounding them are universal. "My accident happened a month before 9/11. And in the time after that, as I went through all the symptoms of trauma, I watched the country go through the same thing. We've changed. We can never be the same as we were. So my stories are personal, but people understand trauma, as a culture and a country."

And there's one reaction Kling always hopes to hear.

"I hope people laugh," he says. "These days, people need to laugh."

His most recent piece, "Come & Get It," played at Open Eye Figure Theater last month. The work featured collaborations with musicians Michelle Kinney and Simone Perrin, a direction Kling hopes to continue in future shows. The Fitzgerald gig is just the first of a fall full of performances for Kling. The weekend after, he'll be in Jonesborough, Tennessee, for the 35th National Storytelling Festival. He'll follow this up with more festivals and a number of bookstore appearances for The Dog Says How. He says he'll try to use the book to tell the stories, but "at this point I don't need it to tell the stories."

For Kling, what Americans have done to storytelling is similar to what we did to music with jazz—taking the form in new directions, with unexpected twists along the way.

"When our ancestors came here, they had their stories," Kling says. "There was a different energy in America, and that changed their stories."

Storytelling, Kling has found, has a strong sense of humor and a strong sense of self, which can explain why the art form has endured for so long. "Storytelling helps tell us who we are. It's not the false sense of nationalism, but who we are as a people. And within the stories, you can find that the big questions are being asked. And if you don't find the answers, you at least know that you are not alone."

Regardless of the place or time, stories can have a universal appeal. "I told ice-fishing stories in the middle of Australia," he says. "At first, they wouldn't even believe that it was possible, but then they picked up on the sense of isolation, and that a change in the weather could kill. That was something they could believe."

Kevin Kling performs at 7:30 pm on October 2 at the Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E Exchange St, St. Paul; 651.290.1221

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