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Minn. Residents Who Stutter Praise ‘King’s Speech’

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(credit: The Weinstein Company)

(credit: The Weinstein Company)

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DULUTH, Minn. (AP) – In the opening scene of “The King’s Speech,” Prince Albert of Britain is supposed to give the closing address at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley on Oct. 31, 1925.

The audience looks on in growing discomfort as Albert, played by Colin Firth, fails to utter a single word.

That scene, portraying a man’s struggle with stuttering, resonated with University of Minnesota Duluth student Kyle Krzenski.

“You can tell the writer of it was someone who stuttered because during the opening scene I felt the same anxiety and fear that Colin Firth’s character felt,” Krzenski said.

David Seidler, who wrote the movie’s script, has said he had a “profound stutter” while growing up.

Krzenski, 22, is among the 1 percent of the adult population who stutters. He’s among the 20 percent of children who stuttered and didn’t “grow out of it.”

Kay Wallis, a speech pathologist who specializes in stuttering and has a private practice in Duluth, said that if stuttering doesn’t go away early, the individual probably will stutter for the rest of their lives.

“Once the individual has reached their 7th birthday, if they’re still stuttering it’s probably going to be a chronic condition,” she said.

Krzenski and Wallis are among people with knowledge of stuttering who are pleased with the movie’s portrayal of the condition. The Stuttering Foundation of America said “The King’s Speech” “has brought overwhelmingly positive attention to the plight of people who stutter.”

The movie, which is showing at Duluth 10, received 12 Academy Award nominations, more than any other movie, and Firth won a Golden Globe for best actor. It tells about Albert’s struggle with stuttering and the unconventional speech therapist who helped him. Albert reluctantly ascends to the throne as King George VI when his brother, King Edward, abdicates. The climax of the film shows Firth, as King George, delivering a radio broadcast to the British people at the onset of World War II.

But stuttering isn’t just a movie topic for some Duluth residents who deal with the reality every day.

Gabriel Mayfield Sr., 33, hasn’t seen the movie but can identify with Firth’s character. Mayfield, who is married with four children, is an actor who has performed in numerous local productions, currently in the Renegade Theater’s Company’s production of “Parade: The Musical.” He also coaches seventh- and eighth-grade basketball at Marshall School.

He has stuttered since he was in fourth grade.

“I couldn’t even say a word,” Mayfield recalled in a telephone interview. “My head would move to try to force it out. And sometimes my head would hit the table to try to get it out.”

Cindy Spillers, a speech pathologist and stuttering specialist in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department at UMD, hasn’t seen the movie but is familiar with the history behind it. She noted that not only did King George VI stutter, so did Winston Churchill, prime minister of England during the war.

Among other famous people who have struggled with stuttering: Vice President Joe Biden, actor James Earl Jones, singer Carly Simon, ABC newsman John Stossel and basketball player Bill Walton. Like Jones, Mayfield doesn’t stutter when he acts. “With theater … I don’t have to think about what I’m saying, it’s just the thing that I’m doing,” he said. “That’s why it’s so easy.”

The movie shows that before he became king, Prince Albert did everything he could to avoid speaking, especially in public. As a child, Krzenski did the same thing.

“I have this desire to be among people, but this speech disorder caused me to have to hide from that desire,” wrote Krzenski, who was interviewed by e-mail because of time constraints, not because he was unwilling to be interviewed in person. “I rarely called my friends, answered questions in class, and joined any extracurricular activities or anything that involved talking to people.”

The movie also shows Albert’s father, King George V, yelling at Albert when he was unable to complete his thoughts.

Mayfield experienced that as a child in Chicago, he said. “When I was growing up, I got a lot of yelling. And I’m learning now with my own children, they listen more when you talk quietly and calmly. Getting loud at me really didn’t help me. It made it worse.”

Mayfield’s stuttering began relatively late. Wallis said most people begin stuttering between ages 3 and 4. That’s how old Krzenski was when his stuttering began.

“When I was 3 or 4 talking to my parents and brothers, I knew right away that I didn’t talk like they did,” Krzenski wrote.

In “The King’s Speech,” Albert doesn’t stutter when his therapist gets him to sing and to swear — the movie was given an “R” rating because of two brief flurries of vigorous swearing. That tracks with Krzenski’s experience. He wrote that he doesn’t stutter when he talks to himself, talks to animals or swears.

All of that is typical, Spillers said.

“People who stutter tend not to stutter when they sing,” she said. “It’s one of those really weird phenomena of stuttering. People who stutter also tend not to stutter when they talk out loud to themselves or when they talk to animals or to little kids.”

Mayfield doesn’t stutter as much when he’s angry or excited, he said. He doesn’t stutter at all when he sings.

His acting career began when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He had transferred from a junior college in the Chicago area to study art and play basketball. He played Audrey II, the plant, in “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2000 at UWS under director John Munsell.

“He was the one who really brought it out of me because he also deals with a speech impediment that he overcame,” Mayfield said of Munsell. “He showed me how to use that in acting. … That’s when I knew I could do this all day. That’s when I got loud. It was like I wanted to speak then.”

Krzenski knows he probably will stutter all of his life. But his attitude about it has changed. “For years I wished it would just go away on its own, but when I finally realized that it probably wouldn’t just go away, (I decided) I might as well be happy with myself and the way I talk,” he wrote.

Krzenski, who grew up in Circle Pines, Minn., went to Bowling Green, Ohio, during his sophomore year in college for intensive therapy. Three of the four doctorate students who worked with him also stuttered, which influenced his career choice. He’s a senior majoring in Communications Sciences and Disorders planning to become a speech language pathologist specializing in stuttering.

While he was in high school preparing for his transition to college, Krzenski started a Facebook page called “Stuttering is Cool.” It has more than 500 members from all over the world.

Krzenski’s goal is to help those who do stutter avoid the hurt he experienced.

“It’s nothing wrong to talk the way they do,” he wrote. “I want them to live happy, full lives and not let it hinder them from ordering something they want, asking someone out on a date or calling people to hang out. I want them to say, `I stutter and that’s OK, because I’m not going to let it stop me from living the life that I want to.”‘

Mayfield is in his first year of coaching, and it’s more difficult for him than acting. His young players understand that he stutters, and he doesn’t mind if it makes them laugh. “Kids are going to be kids, so I let them laugh,” he said. “I just keep going and make sure I’m teaching them the fundamentals. I don’t worry about my stutter.”

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Information from: Duluth News Tribune

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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