Clare Muireann Murphy: When The Signal House asked me to do an interview, they told me I could interview anyone I wanted. I had to pick Kevin Kling. Kevin and I met onstage at a storytelling festival in Tennessee. I was walking away from the stage as Kevin was setting up the next act, and his skills as compere, his way of making the audience pivot from the sacred to the profane on a hairpin, made me stop in my tracks. We’ve been friends ever since, but every time we talk I know there’s more behind the story. He has jumped trains, ran away with the circus, been protected by gypsies, died and returned, fallen in love with Ireland, speaks a little dog and some horse and a few phrases in cat, and has been in performance, writing, on stage or near stage with a pen most of his life. So here goes, I get to ask everything I want to know…
CMM: Kevin, I’ve seen you perform to 30 people and to 5,000 people. What’s your earliest memory of performance, yours or someone else’s?
KK: Even as a kid I noticed that art bursted from people, finding the easiest way out, a painter’s hand was always moving, a singer's breath took on the rhythms of the world and a dancer's whole body got to move. Our grammar school held two assemblies every year, one was a visit from NASA, where an aerospace engineer described the wonders of space travel, highlighting the event by dipping a grape into liquid nitrogen and then smashing it with a hammer. This led many to the space program. The other event was a dance piece called the Snow Princess. I had seen dance on TV but never thought it was real, it looked too perfect. Then the snow princess danced up and down the aisle and as she spun past I saw dark leg hairs poking out of her white tights. This wasn't perfect, this was a real person, and a modern woman. The NASA guy came back every year and we never saw the snow princess again, but she had already awakened in me a yearning that would not quiet.
My earliest performance I remember was in a production of La Petite Chapeau Rouge, (Little Red Riding Hood), in a first grade French class. I was originally cast as forest vegetation but an hour before the performance we found out that the Wolf had moved to California. I assured the teacher I knew the lines, the show was a hit, and my career was launched. That Wolf taught me that at all costs never let your understudy get the stage. That same teacher wrote in my grade card, "Kevin has no understanding of the material but I'm not worried about him."
CMM: As storytellers I feel a great responsibility to my audience to take them safely through the journey of the myth or the story. You’re more than a storyteller, you’re also a writer, an actor, a poet. What do you feel towards your audience?
KK: I feel a great responsibility. We are all trying to learn something beyond ourselves. Storytelling is what we have left of ritual.
A storyteller, like a good teacher, doctor, pastor, needs to be on the journey with you. The audience and the teller need to get something out of this, the losses and triumphs, experience the peril. Borges said, "The relationship between a storyteller and a listener is like that of [the] taste of an apple. Is the flavor in the mouth or the apple?"
Nabokov said a good story should. "Educate, entertain, and enchant".
Walter Benjamin said there are two types of storytellers "the farmers and the seafarers". The farmers tell us how we belong, the seafarers tell us what exists outside our comfort zone. We need them both, the nest and the vastness, the safety and the risk. Resiliency comes from belonging but our power comes from how we navigate beyond our realm of comfort.
In my own community, as the farmer, I serve as a reminder of what's funny, sacred, edible. Resiliency is defined as maintaining one’s shape, our shape is fortified when we are part of a family, faith, community. When we share laughter, loss, triumphs and hardships it makes us stronger. If we gain resiliency in belonging then we find strength in challenge, stepping beyond our comfort zones. So, in an evening of stories I'll also venture into the unknown, ...ask us to re-examine our values, heroes, beliefs, are these still valid or is it time for change?
As a seafarer I am the interloper, entering a community that is not my own. My first task in that case is to discover how we already know each other. What clay do we share? What questions? And when we get to "And Because of you I'm not alone" then we can get to work, and that's when the evening shifts. From connection to confrontation to compassion.
The ancient Greek word for stranger was the same as guest.
CMM: You and I have often talked about mystery. We talk of John O’Donohue and his great living relationship to mystery all around us. For me it keeps my work alive and my relationship to stage alive. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship to mystery.
KK: Yeah, this topic has led us into a decade of discussion that I would hate to punctuate. Some people need to follow a light and some of us find solace in mystery. Thomas Merton said he could never follow a god he could understand. That’s the point. You can put a hat on it but you can't bottle it. (I might need the rest of the time I know you to answer this properly, and even then I'm hoping for reincarnation for what I know will come to me later).
CMM: As an artist I feel like I am in a living friendship with all the artists who have gone before me. Their words and images accompany my doubt, support my ambition, and remind me when I am lost. Who are the ones you keep company with across time and space?
KK: Seriously, you know giving me this question is like what a laser pointer does to a cat.
Voltaire, Shakespeare, de Cervantes, Hildegard of Bingen, Isaac Babel, Gaston Bachelard, Jeanette Winterson, Calvino, Twain, Gogol, Allen Poe, James Baldwin, Steinbeck, Darwin, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, Rumi, Hafiz, Mann (Emily and Thomas), William Goyen, Dante, Chaucer, Vonnegut, Ionesco, August Wilson, Dorothy Parker, Black Elk, Lao Tsu, Pushkin, Kafka, Spalding Gray, Barbara Tuchman, Hugo, John Berger, Walter Benjamin, Plato, Virgil, Emerson, Chekhov, Swift, Molière, Beckett, Joyce, Yeats, Flann O'Brien...
I could keep going...playwrights, poets, short stories, spoken word, history, biographies, ...It feels like a man I heard about from Donegal who was known to have the most outlandish vocabulary, "Well, don't know about that", he said, "But I do hope to go through this life without repeating a word twice".
If, as scientists say, the universe was all one ball and then exploded into shards then I figure the more shards we collect the more we understand. Curiosity may have killed the cat but so far it's only dinged me up a little bit.
CMM: The Irish and the Minnesotans have a lot in common. A deep relationship to weather is one. Why is weather important to you and where else have you come across that relationship to weather?
KK: Living in Minnesota the weather is a constant topic. There are many ways the weather can lead to your demise. This leads to sense of humor. In the winter we live by the adage that if you're in pain you're OK but if you're feeling fine and all is right with the world seek help immediately that's hypothermia talking and you don't have much time.
One time I was in the outback of Australia and I was telling stories about ice fishing, an activity we do here in Minnesota where you walk out on a frozen lake, drill a hole in the ice, drop down a line and try to catch a fish. I was telling them in hopes it would blow their minds, but they were laughing like a bunch of Minnesotans. Everyone completely got the absurdity and humor. I asked how could they possibly relate, and was told, "you have to understand, mate, our weather can kill us too, only from the other end of the thermometer". I think weather and humor are directly related. Humor is not universal, it's very specific to family, faith, community. If you laugh with someone you are related. Weather.
CMM: I’ve heard you talk about hopping trains, catching boats, running away with the circus. What's the fastest thing you've ever caught?
KK: A glance, and in it, recognition. I'm catching something I have already noticed but this time I know it. Caught. But it starts at the speed of light. Image. Particle and wave, dreamer and dream, perception and perspective. My wife says humans are good at two things: humor and hitting a fastball. I think both of these are applicable here as well.
CMM: Where's/When's the loneliest you've ever been?
KK: Not sure if I've ever been lonely, I've been alone but lonely as in feeling in exile, I'm not sure I've actually had. Charles Bukowski said "When you have no one to get you up in the morning, or to wait for you at night, or to tell you what to do, is that freedom or loneliness?" So I guess I was free a few times, once in London on Christmas, it was terrible, not London, being free.
CMM: Do you remember what it was like when you died?
KK: I remember near death very vividly. I've known people that have had a similar experience and they saw a light. I didn't see a light but I was headed for an amazing sense of peace and was given the choice to follow the peace or to return to this plane of existence, where it was clear there would be consequences. And there have been.
I met a woman once who said she crossed over and made it to the pearly gates. She was about to step through when she saw a "no smoking" sign. She said she couldn't go through with it. And returned to earth. She still thanks smoking for saving her life.
CMM: When has a landscape moved you outside your expectations?
KK: There are too many to count. It's like the land turns into an emotion. The outback of Australia for certain. The boundary waters canoe area of northern Minnesota holds a special place in my heart, and Lake Superior, Gitchee Gumi.
There's a piece on the Isle of Skye that took me out of this plane of existence. Make that two places on Skye. The first is on the coast and I've been there six times and each time something shoots through me, vertically, an energy and I'm connected with my ancestors. I keep going back because I don't believe it happened and then it does again. The second place on Skye was where a friend of mine and I were looking at a lake. It was so pristine and beautiful and then the wind came up and the lake blew away. It was actually a cloud below us and a valley suddenly appeared. That was up in the far north of Skye.
CMM: What word do you love carrying around?
KK: One of my favorite books is by Italo Calvino. Six Memos for the Coming Millennium. In 1985 he was writing six lectures on the upcoming new millennium and the six words that he saw as leaders into the next era. I think of them a lot because when 9/11 happened so many of my words about the future changed on that day. My six words still keep changing… “resiliency”, “landscape”, have lasted. It's a fun exercise to update my list. It always opens what I hold dear and what has fallen off. Some words I keep for what they conjure, "family" and "love", some for power, "yes" "no", some are time sensitive like "truth", "compassion" and "beauty". I keep peoples' names for how they make me feel. I'll have to think more than this, I really love words, and their meanings, and where they came from, and the why and way of them. They are like a clay pot, it's not about the pot, it's more about what it holds.
CMM: Family comes up again and again in your work as a source of inspiration and comedy. You celebrate them constantly. Which family member played the greatest trick?
KK: My dad was a trickster but he often was on the receiving end of his own tricks. Like the coyote and roadrunner his tricks weren't on purpose he just led with too much enthusiasm.
We were the last family I knew to have a color TV. Every year we watched Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes from Kansas to the land of Oz everyone else's TV went from black-and-white to color, ours went from black-and-white to black and white. We begged and begged and finally one day my dad said ‘OK, I'll get us a color TV”, so he left the house and but came back with a sailboat. He said he saw it on the way and couldn't pass it up. We were so excited we never said a word.
Another time he and my mom went to get us a family car, all three kids were teenagers and it was crowded in the back of the Ford. So, he went out to get a station wagon and came back with a brand new 1967 Mustang. I remember we all knew we were going to learn to drive in that mustang. We went to church, took family vacations, with all three teenage kids jammed in that tiny backseat, but I don't remember anyone ever saying a disparaging word.
My brother is the true trickster. And he's good at it, like scary good. The first one I remember was when he was a kid. We had a parakeet and one morning my brother found the parakeet on its cage floor, it had died overnight. He knew our whole family would be so upset. So, he wrote a tiny suicide note and put it next to the bird, like it was the parakeet’s idea.
He is a great whistler, we would be driving with our family, my brother and I in the back seat, and he could replicate a police car siren, he would even change keys so it sounded like the patrol car was approaching. My dad's head would be on a swivel looking from a mirror to mirror and turning back and forth but never finding the oncoming cop.
One time we were at a bar in a town down south where one of my cousins lived and there was a group of guys next to us. One guy was bragging that his car was the fastest car in town. My brother said, "No, it isn't." Everyone turned, and my brother said in fact he could run faster than that guy's car. So, they made a bet and everyone emptied out of the bar and onto the street. They drew a line and the guy pulled his car up and my brother said, "now I get to choose how far we go." The guy said "It's not going to matter, you don't have a chance." So, my brother said "10 feet." The guy said "what?" And my brother said "10 feet." Now, you actually can outrun a car in 10 feet easily, the car won't even get going in that amount of space. But the guy was trapped and even his buddies had to nod and say "yeah you did say that." So, they dropped the flag and my brother ran 10 feet and kept going then yelled to me to "start running", he knew our lives were in danger and we did, we ran down the street of that town laughing so hard I could barely run.
I think my favorite though, is my neighbor Ralph. It was Christmas time and one of my neighbors was going on vacation over the New Year's holiday. He asked Ralph if he would watch his house, and Ralph said he would. When the guy was gone Ralph put a sign in his yard that said, "leave old Christmas trees here". It became a place that people could dump off their old Christmas trees. When the guy came back from vacation a week later there was over 100 Christmas trees in his yard.
CMM: Where would you go if you weren't here?
KK: Back to Skye. I can't believe that place is for real. At your house! With you and Matthew and a wardrobe! Anywhere. I love to travel to meet new people which often are the same people. My brother is the opposite, we can't get him to leave the state, or even his house. He always says, “I would go somewhere but it would be here.” I get that too. I feel so lucky to live where I do, you know that, and you also get connection to a land.
CMM: Which body part needs to be celebrated more?
KK: That's a tough question, some of them like to be recognized and others just want to be left alone. I usually celebrate one after it's done a particularly good job. I've taken to celebrating my arms, one for what it's given me, and the other for what it's giving me. I try to be kind to them all, and even if I don't know all their names I do remember all their birthdays.
CMM: What animal has taught you the most?
KK: I'm pretty sure it's dogs. Dogs are like training wheels for nature, a connection to our wild selves. They are great guides into parts of ourselves we don't remember. We had a dachshund who had the most can-do attitude in the most can't-do body I've ever seen. When you told him "no" he heard "try another way".
Horses have taught me how to read without words. When I was in the hospital after a motorcycle accident I saw crows, both in my dreams and out the window, I was worried because I know crows are harbingers of death, messengers to the underworld. A friend of mine is a shaman and he said that I had it all wrong, "Crows take away the things we don't want. So, the next time you see them load them up with your fear and they will fly away with it." So ever since then I've taken my fear to the crows. They seem happy to bring it wherever they go with it.
This interview was originally published in issue 6.
KEVIN KLING is a storyteller from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has performed throughout the world including Off-Broadway, The National Festival in Tennessee, the Cape Clear Festival, and Beyond the Borders. He has written five books and been published in The Blue Nib Magazine. He is most proud of his work with Interact Theater, a company of performers with remarkable abilities.
Dublin-born storyteller, CLARE MUIREANN MURPHY has told stories worldwide since 2006. She has performed in more than 20 countries to audiences of 5 to 5,000 people, and her audiences include President Mary Robinson and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team at NASA. Her work ranges from science-stories like UniVerse to socio-political pieces like The King of Lies to her beloved Irish mythology. She also teaches, trains and speaks publicly on the Power of Storytelling. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
(Image credits, from top to bottom: Laughing Clown, c.1900 (Buddha Museum), Stained Ivory Netsuke of a Wolf with Severed Head, c. 1870, signed Tomomitsu (Olympia Auctions), Netsuke: Boat with Dutch, c. 1700s (VAN HAM Kunstauktionen), Carved Ivory Netsuke of Fish, date unknown (Eastbourne Auctions), Netsuke Representing a Dog, Edo period (Cristina Ortega and Michel Dermigny), An Ivory Netsuke of a Bird, Meiji Period, signed Ranichi (Lot Art)).