Kevin Kling’s work for NPR and his book, The Dog Says How, have all been high-profile. But his work with Interact Center’s Performing Arts have been more Down Under the Radar. The work with Jeannie Calvit that went from Australia to the Frozen North ended up on the Dowling Stage at the Guthrie as "Northern Lights, Southern Cross." This is how they got there.
Jeannie Calvit is the Artistic Director of Interact, which has an art studio and theater company that develops the skills of people with disabilities. Calvit is an innovator and revolutionary in the field. The performing arts wing has produced memorable shows that have toured to London, Norway, Sweden, British Columbia, and Australia.
Kling was asked to join forces by Calvit, who had corralled allies in Australia. Pat Rix runs a similar theater company called Tutti, and Pat brought aboriginal performers together with some Native Americans gathered by Calvit. Kling had worked with Calvit and Company before his near-fatal motorcycle accident, and his recovery had made for a significant re-direction in his work.
Through Calvit’s ministrations and Kling’s inspirations they recently did a show, Northern Lights, Southern Cross, which played at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It examines the underlying spirituality that encompasses people who have survived trauma, whether it is personal, tribal, or global.
In a conversation, over tuna burgers and malts at Joe’s Garage, we plumbed the depths of this topic. Here are excerpts from that luncheon.
Seal: Tell me about the show. Did it come out of your hospital experience?
Kling: You know what? No. It began long before this. For me, the jump off point was when the Australians came to Minnesota, and we went dog sledding. There was, like, 11 performers with disabilities, and staff from Tutti came and we went up North. That was amazing, and we went ice fishing, and that's where we met Al Baker (Native American medicine man), and got tied into the Native community here. Then, all of a sudden, that started to become the idea: how do indigenous cultures tie in with cultures with people with disabilities and with survival? And then Sindebad (Minneapolis artist) and I went to Australia last year, and they kinda did to us what we did to them. They took us to the Outback, and we really got to know the members of their indigenous community. Jeannie and Pat Rix, they brought these two forces together; and then we started working on the sending of ideas back to Pat, who did the music.
Calvit: Pat's the main collaborator, and she's a composer. She's the mover and shaker over there, and she and I wanted to do it Obijwe wanted to do a real co-production, that involved our two companies.
I was thinking about things we have in common as two cultures, and it is that we were (countries) settled by white people, who almost destroyed our indigenous people, and I feel that there is some underlying spirituality that's still left over from them . I think that, if you really look into the New Age Stuff, the same stuff I was learning at my New Age church was exactly what Al's teachings are about, and so I felt like that sad aspect of our two cultures was interesting.
Seal: When did you add the idea of the global and personal trauma?
Kling: That was after. I was looking for what connected these communities together. What do the indigenous have, because they're born into it, and then what people with disabilities have, either born into it, or acquire it. The story starts from my motorcycle accident; so it's acquiring a trauma, and then when you're in a coma or you're trying to come out, you end up going epic to survive.
Calvit: I remember the light bulb. Al started talking about the Haioka, Hai-yo-ka. who were contrary - in the Native American culture, they are like spiritual teachers; they do things backwards. They're annoying; they press your buttons. And suddenly the concept of the Haioka, if you look at the origins of the clown - the clowning, the kind of clowning I did at Jacque LeCoque school was about that because he's a little bit different, that's why he gets away with it because he's a little bit crazy.
Kling: Like Lear's Fool.
Seal: He's got license. Like the court jester who can say the unsayable and not get his head cut off.
Calvit: And so, that was just like, "O.K., I know what I'm gonna do! I'm going to create a clown chorus with these disabled artists.”
Kling: Acknowledging both that you are a contrary, and that there are contraries that you can learn – whether it’s Haioka, or Fool, or whatever you want to call it – there is the idea of learning from people who have a foot in two worlds, and you are looking at this world through a prism; and by doing that, you can turn and look at the world you live in. Without that, you are in the world, but if you go through a prism, you can turn and then look. That’s one of the things that Haiokas, contraries, or people with disabilities – one of the things they have to offer is the ability to turn and look at a parallel universe.
Calvit: In the play, There’s a woman who met him (Kling) when she came over to the states. She got caught in a snowstorm. And then she’s telling him, “Don’t ride your motorcycle!” Of course he rides his motorcycle, has the accident, and goes into the coma. That’s when he’s over in the other world, where he meets up with all these Aboriginal and Native American guides, and all these things happen to him.
Kling: I think what the main part of the show was not that we are in trauma; but how you heal from trauma. It did deal with trauma on a cultural, global and personal levels. And How Do You Heal? And the fact that the two ways I found that you heal: Sense of humor, and knowledge of self. Knowledge of self comes from tradition, and stories, of where you come from. That concerns me a bit about America, because I think our kids are born into trauma, now, from 9/11. And the two things they’re going to need; a sense of humor- when you talk about the indigenous culture, the survivors are all hilarious. And the other thing is, knowledge of self; many are also still steeped in the traditional methods. I think storytelling is so important in this day and age because we need to find out who we are so we can survive. And so I think that’s why we’re turning to the indigenous cultures, at this time.
Seal: There’s another thing that you said, that’s this healing thing – in my Chaplaincy training, one of the things they talk about is that Doctors are about Curing, Nurses are about Curing and Healing, and Chaplains are about Healing. Healing can happen even as someone is dying – you can heal relationships, heal your soul…
Calvit: That was a big thing about his play – you can’t cure a disability, but you can heal it – you can’t cure trauma, but you can heal it!
Seal: ….but healing takes on a whole, new meaning when you’re not talking about curing.
Kling: It’s not about that!
Calvit: There’s this beautiful bit at the end of the play – Kevin had gone into coma, has a fever, and the doctor doesn’t think he’s going to live. And there’s a metaphor for the Windigo (the Windigo is an Ojibwe mythical figure that devoured everything), and the mystical thing is that the Windigo came and took Kevin away when he was in a fever, but then we did an incantation with Larry Yazie, the fancy dancer, who got rid of the Windigo. The Windigo left and Kevin was sent back to Minnesota, and at the very end of the play, he’s standing there, and we have Northern Lights, and heavenly music, and then the clown chorus, the leader of the clowns. When Kling came out, he had this hat on…this little guy comes out, and there’s this beautiful aria happening, and the little guy tips his clown hat to Kevin and goes back, and Kevin says, “I came back, but I’m not the same person that left; I’m a Haioka, now.” And then all of the clown chorus comes over and puts their arms around him….so hugely moving. (pause) It was hard coming back to reality, to work
Kling: It was crazy to let it go!
Calvit: And we weren’t the only ones who felt it. Like the people in the choir, who wrote little notes when we left – everybody felt it, I think the audience felt it!