Kevin Kling and the 2008 Hoosier Storytelling Festival

Storyteller Kevin Kling

Last Saturday afternoon I drove downtown for the main and final day of the 21st Annual Printing Partners Hoosier Storytelling Festival.  This event is a pleasure that I look forward to all year long.  I haven’t been able to go to every festival since the beginning, but I have been to a lot of them over the years. 

Because of a commitment at my day job Saturday morning, I arrived at Military Park too late on Saturday afternoon to hear Gene Tagaban tell again.  However, I was just in time to hear Kevin Kling.  He is a popular commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” but I was hearing him for the first time. 

I had met Kling at Tagaban’s program at the Eiteljorg Museum earlier in the week but all day on Saturday I kept calling him by the wrong name.  By the time Saturday evening rolled around and it was time to say goodbye, a line from a Doors’ song was running through my head:  “Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name?”

I don’t know why it was so hard for me to remember the name “Kevin,” but I do know that I was completely in love with Kevin Kling and his brilliant, hilarious stories after just one day. 

The stories are all exquisitely, satisfyingly layered.  His telling style is fast-paced, with a Gifted and Talented Child’s intelligence and easy command of the English language.  In some ways, he is a rascal, and his stories and telling style reflect that.  However, his style is also well grounded in adulthood.  Both his stories and his telling style are filled with the compassionate insights and gratitude and humor that come from having met a lot of challenges.  On top of all this, his Minnesotan accent is a delight.

Jenny, his driver for the week of the festival, told me that Kling had never told to audiences of all children and teens before coming to Indianapolis.  This made me think that Ellen Munds, the director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana, had taken a risk in hiring him.  Munds only hires featured tellers that she has heard several times before in other venues such as the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.  However, it is not enough to be a good storyteller.  To be a featured teller at our four-day festival you have to have enough material in your repertory so as not to repeat a story, and you have to be able to engage student field trip audiences as well as public (general, family, and adult) audiences.

The risk paid off, though, because according to Jenny (I will add her last name here when I remember it!), the elementary school and teen audiences that were bused to our festival earlier in the week loved Kevin Kling. 

Munds told me that his adult audience at the Writers’ Center of Indiana last Wednesday night also loved him.  By the way, he is playwright as well as a storyteller.  (One more reason I’m smitten with him!)

On Saturday afternoon he told to a general audience on the National Bank of Indianapolis Main Stage under a huge tent in Military Park.  He had a plan to tell family stories, but other stories kept jumping into his mind, so he told us those, too. 

I barked with laughter as he told us about his experience of running a marathon.  I laughed even more when he told us about family car rides when he was growing up.  “Long before there was ‘Jackass,’ the movie, there was me and my brother, Steve,” he said.

In another story he described a dog that “wouldn’t bite a man if he were wearing a bacon jacket and pants.”   I love his use of language!

He also told us his “Taxidermy” story, which he said has brought him more responses – not all of them positive – on NPR than any other.  Oh, my, it was funny!  I laughed great, deep, freeing belly laughs, listening to it. 

It is about him and his brother and their scout troop creating a holiday display out of squirrels they had stuffed themselves.  You know me, I love live performances best, but I enjoy good recordings of storytelling, too.  This story is available on his “Home and Away” CD and/or iTunes.  His website also offers several other CDs, downloads, and books.

He closed his Main Stage session with a story of a softball game told from a thespian’s point of view.  It was a hoot for this theatre addict to hear about athletes wearing “magnificent codpieces.”

Later in the day, I went to the tent sponsored by the Indiana History Center to hear Kling tell on a smaller stage.  In this program he featured love stories.

I melted when he told about his first kiss, not just because of the way he told it, but because it was connected to art.  “Art and love go hand in hand,” he told us at the end. 

Then he grinned and added, “As you get older, what you give up in passion you gain in craft.”

Yes, indeed.

He also told us a moving story based on a real event, about a man whose wife’s foot got caught in some train tracks as the train was approaching.  The man, when he realized that there was no way to save her, chose to hold her in his arms and die with her.  Kling hinted that he loves and is loved by someone in his life, too, and therefore can sympathize with the desire of the man in the story to be with his beloved just a little longer.

He told us about the special delight of snow days (days off from school due to snow are rare in Minnesota!) and about the special disappointment of sending away for a Muscular Dystrophy Carnival Kit.  “It was like getting sea monkeys all over again.”  

Yes!  (I thought.) I was disappointed when I was a child and got my sea monkeys, too!  They did not have the cute faces or crowns like the advertisement in the back of the comic book.  My fifth grade science teacher told me they were actually just brine shrimp.  Fooey!

Kling recited a couple of beautiful love poems, including one by Rumi and one by a friend of his. 

He also told us a folktale.  It was one I had heard and loved before – the one about the water bearer valuing the cracked pot because its leak had caused flowers to grow along the path to the well.  I love that Kling started it by saying, “Long ago, when pots and pans could talk, as indeed they still can…”  I love even more that he ended by saying, “The man and the pot lived happily ever after.”

However, the story took on special meaning when he told us a little about his work with a theatre whose artists all have some kind of disability.  He himself was born with his left arm shorter than the other and with no wrist or thumb.  A few years ago, he was in a motorcycle accident and lost the use of his right arm completely.

He said that he and his colleagues in the theatre company have lived with chronic pain for most of their lives, but when they are on stage, they forget the pain. 

“There is nothing like storytelling (and theatre) to take over pain,” Kling told us. 

He also said, “Storytelling is the art form that shows us how we belong…It is also the art form that lets us control things that are larger than us…It lets us know we are not alone…It shows how we fit together.”

I agree with all of that. 

But also I want to say this:  Kevin Kling’s stories are hugs.  They make you want to use your own arms – or whatever you’ve got – to hug him back.

Kevin Kling will return to Indy on Saturday, February 21, 2009 as part of the Storytelling Arts of Indiana Barnes & Thornburg Storytellers Theater series.  He will share “The Dog Says How” from 7:30-9:30 pm on the stage of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center Basile Theater.  To purchase tickets call 317-232-1882 or visit this page of the Storytelling Arts of Indiana website. 

You may also join him for “Talk of the Town: the Annual Benefit of Storytelling Arts of Indiana” beginning at 5:30 that same day.  For more information call 317-576-9848.

Hope Baugh –

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