True courage is a characteristic of the strongest heart, and those involved with Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts have the strongest and most dedicated hearts I’ve ever come in contact with. My first exposure to this small organization of nothing less than wonderful people was, to put it lightly, absolutely inspirational! The grit these individuals show with each performance is a clear testimony to their desire not be silenced. They have something to say and they’re going to say it, regardless of the limitations life has tried to put on them.
I must be honest. I had no idea what Interact was when I was given the opportunity to attend their latest production at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. My partner had a vague idea of the group from having heard the name mentioned in passing conversations, but he was also rawly exposed to it when he attended with me.
Beginning as a small theater company in 1992, their mission is: “To create art and change society’s view of people with disabilities.” This flock of people (and the term “flock” is quite appropriate considering the nature of this production) is made up of persons with every kind of disability you can imagine, from Down syndrome to traumatic brain injury survivors like myself, who with the help and guidance of loving people like artistic director, Jeanne Calvit, and executive director, Gregory Stavrou, get themselves up on stage to put on such a memorable performance that those in the audience can never be the same again. Their efforts have not been in vain. Their message will be heard throughout the world. This September, they have been granted the honor of representing everything that is honest and pure in America at the Above and Beyond Festival in Cheltenham, England—I can’t think of a better window on our country than this.
“Cloud Cuckooland,” the whimsical title given to their musical comedy, is an absolutely hysterical interpretation of the story of Creation, as told from the Greek perspective. Zeus and Hera rule the world, a paradox in and of itself, as the concept of Creationism is taken out of right-wing Christianity and given to more liberal characters—with a central character as feared and hated as Lucifer himself as the modern-day head of our country. The writers named the character “Shrub,” which requires no explanation, and gave a very political theme to the story. The president stumbles with issues and, quite literally “dances” around questions by the press, winds up in the “Hot Place,” and is finally sentenced to spend eternity in Cloud Cuckooland—where the birds of the world reside in peace and harmony, ruled by the Cardinal. Of course, Shrub corrupts the residents of Cloud Cuckooland with his wicked wiles and gets them all banished to fend for themselves on earth where everything isn’t bliss.
That’s the basic story. But the theme that underlies the harsh political tone is one of a softer message that hits harder than the heaviest stone: There is perfection in imperfection. Hephaestus, played by Kevin Kling, is Hera’s physically imperfect son, banished for his imperfections to the Hot Place by his mother. We are surprised to find he actually enjoys the Hot Place, makes friends and even sings a little ditty (“Go to heaven for the climate, go to hell for the company”) about it with his fellow residents.
Kling’s character is a fairly recent addition. According to the play’s program, last fall he was asked by Calvit to join Interact for the next run of “Cloud Cuckooland.” He admitted that his upcoming surgery might preclude him from taking part in the production, until Calvit added, “Too bad. You would have played a Greek god.” Kling’s response, “… I’ll be there.”
Kling, nationally known essayist and recurring commentator for “All Things Considered” on NPR (www.npr.org/about/people/bios/kkling.html), suffers from injuries (doctors had to rebuild his eye socket and reposition his teeth) from a near-fatal motorcycle accident last summer. He recalls a vivid conversation with Death, who gave him the choice of returning to us or simply moving on. He chose to come back, even though he knew there’d be “consequences” and difficulties, though it’s difficult to harbor any kind of self-doubt when faced with a sparkling personality like Kling. His humor about life—it’s triumphs and turmoil—just makes you want to go out and live, regardless of your circumstances. Which is why, I’m sure, he was the choice to play lovable Hephaestus. Yet this story is not, and should not, be centered around one voice. Kling’s presence merely enhanced the already brilliant cast of characters who, in this writer’s opinion, are all stars in their own galaxy.
As I left the theater, I was overwhelmed with the desire to become involved with Interact. Yet I found myself in paradox. I have lived and worked so hard all my life to make the world see me not as a disabled person, but as just a regular guy. And my friends often tell me that they do not see my disability at all, because who I am and what I do outshines it. Yet here is this wonderful group of people who not only recognize their disabilities, but embrace them, themselves and each other. I see now that there are, in fact, possibilities. Being disabled does not mean an inability to lead a full life. All it takes is courage and a little help from people who care.