Acting the Swan to Overcome the Duck Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling says developing a "persona" is the best way to beat a disability. Kling found inspiration in Shakespeare's Richard III.

Acting the Swan to Overcome the Duck

Acting the Swan to Overcome the Duck

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Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling says developing a "persona" is the best way to beat a disability. Kling found inspiration in Shakespeare's Richard III.


Living with a disability can be maddening. Storyteller Kevin Kling was born with his left arm shorter than his right. Four years ago, a motorcycle accident paralyzed his right arm, and the event inspired him to develop an alter ego.


Part of everyday life if you have a disability is frustration. And at these times, it's imperative to have an advocate, somebody who can think clearly and speak for you in times of need. And if you can't find a person, develop a persona. I have an alter ego, and he's based on Richard III, the ruthless king depicted by William Shakespeare. And my Richard is from northern Minnesota, tough country, where carpaccio is still made with real carp, and `Now is always the winter on dis continent.' There are parts of your body you don't feel for six months at a time, and Richard from up north--I call him Dick the T'ird(ph)--he's tough, so don't give him that `If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere' like they spout out there in Sondheim and Gomorrah, 'cause, hey, your cat suit and greasepaint don't mean squat ice-fishing at 30 below.

When I was a kid, I remember my mom read the fairy tale about the ugly duckling, a story about a hideous, huge baby duck that can't fit in with the other ducks. He steps on them and breaks everything until they finally found out he's a beautiful swan. I actually liked it better when he thought he was an uberduck that was large and superior to the other ducks. When it turns out he's a swan like all the other swans, not a duck, what's that do for me, hope a ship of aliens lands that look like me and says, `Hey, you're really one of us'? Meanwhile, I'm stuck living with the ducks.

Fairy tales usually end up bad for guys with disabilities: Snow White trades in seven perfectly good small guys for one big, handsome one; Rumpelstiltskin actually grabs one leg at the end of his story and rips himself asunder--all right, I kind of like that one. But in the '70s, there were these cop shows. Every demographic had a cop. There was Shaft; trailer park denizens had Rockford, tropically challenged had McGarrett. Marital bliss? McMillan. Cowpokes had McCloud. Teen-agers? The Mod Squad. Bald Greeks? Kojak. Mental illness had Columbo. Everyone had Angie Dickinson.

We had Ironside, dang! Now I always liked Raymond Burr like a poor man's Lee J. Cobb, Perry Mason, father figure. But Ironside's named after a battleship. I want my cop in a Lamborghini, not a van. I want chicks to swoon over him.

Then I saw Ian McKellen play Richard III and I thought, `Oh, there's my man.' Now granted he was played by an able-bodied actor, which to me is like watching a white guy play Othello, and he did a bit where he put on a glove with one hand that sent the audience into hysterics. I thought, `Man, if this place saw me put on socks, there wouldn't be a dry seat in the house.' But I thought he did a good job for an able-bodied guy. His ruthlessness was fun to watch, and it was easy to cheer for him. He seduced a hot girl whose boyfriend he'd just killed. People feared and despised him. Man, this was my guy.

Look, I know he's not for everyone; it's a matter of perspective. I mean, the only difference between a dripping faucet and a peaceful Japanese fountain is perspective. But Richard never fell in love. And the whole reason Richard III gives for his revenge is that no one loves him. He says right off the bat he can't find love, and it's better to be a villain than be ignored. And it's true; disliked is better than to disappear.

In "Frankenstein," the creature tries to get a mate the conventional way, but he keeps accidentally killing people. Like Lenny in "Mice and Men," he simply pets too hard. So the monster asks his creator, Frankenstein, to make a creature like himself, someone to love. Now Dr. Frankenstein learns the dilemma of creation: When you've created a monster, how do you stop? Mary Shelley wrote this book when she was 19? How did she know so much about guys? Now that's what's scary.

My favorite ending is "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." It starts out with the description of the cemetery. At the end of the 15th century, the formidable gibbet was already very much dilapidated. The beams were wormy and the chains rusted and the pillars green with mold. To that deep charnel house, where so many human remains and so many crimes have rotted in company, many great ones in this world, many innocent people, have contributed their bones. As for the mysterious disappearance of Quasimodo, this is all that we have to be able to discover.

About 18 months or two years after the events which terminate this story, they found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons was that of a woman; the other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

So there we are, the grotesque grabbing on to beauty, beauty embraced by the grotesque, the light surrounded by the shadow, our lives rounded by a little sleep.

NORRIS: Storyteller Kevin Kling writes plays and consults his alter ego in Minnesota.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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