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Pregnant or Not, the Show Must Go On for Kim Porter
By Kathryn Guta
In the dark, predawn hours of March, solo performer Kim Porter, 34, found herself clutching an application and waiting in front of the Exit Theater in the Tenderloin District. She had given up the comfort of her Noe Valley bed, braved the cold, and even witnessed the nocturnal meanderings of rats on Eddy Street -- all in the hopes of being among the first 30 entrants in the popular avant-garde San Francisco Fringe Festival.
The strategy worked, and she was chosen to give one of the festival's 250 hour-long performances on five stages in four theaters (all downtown and within walking distance of the Exit).
Now all she has to do is perform, even though she will be seven months pregnant when the lights come up on "Knock on Wood," her one-woman show playing at Il Teatro from Sept. 9 to 19.
Although she will be great with child, Porter says she has not given Baby X a role in her Fringe comedy. "And none of the characters I bring to life are in fact knocked-up," she jokes. Instead, the work speaks to an earlier time in her life when she developed a compulsive habit of knocking on wood whenever a negative thought entered the stormy atmosphere of her young and humid consciousness.
"Everyone knows that pride goeth before the fall," she says. "And nobody likes a show-off," especially not god(s) with a capital G.
Her 23-year-old mind reasoned that the best way to deflect the random irony of the universe was to beat it to the punch. Worry and negativity became talismans against all the bad things that can happen to a person, like being run over by an ambulance or struck by lightning. In a vain attempt to neutralize the evil messages, she knocked on wood constantly, soon de-
veloping a bruising 200-knock-a-day habit.
Although Porter never imagined herself to be a champion of New Age beliefs, her performance piece shows the way out of the morass of obsessive thought and toward an acceptance of oneself.
"I finally had filled up my mind with every possible worry in the book, and I broke open like a vessel," she recalls. "I realized I had become my own worst enemy as well as a desperate people-pleaser, so I decided to be my own best friend. After all, what held me down were only my own thoughts."
Porter found her new self-esteem just in time to have it tested at the hands of casting agents with rigid ideas of what an actor could or could not do. She admits it was demoralizing to be overlooked for acting jobs because she weighed too much or, at 25, was either too old or too young for most parts. Solo performing proved to be a perfect match for her writing and acting talents. "Now I can work, no matter how old I am or how I look, even if I'm pregnant."
Growing up in Texas at a time when suburban sprawl had begun to shrink the cotton fields back home, Porter says her work is rooted in the windblown landscape of her early life: tornadoes, cowboys, rattlesnakes. Her father was a hippie drug addict with a stinging wit. "I had to be funny to fight against his cruelty."
Her older sister, Jean, fashioned herself to be Annie Oakley and convinced the young Porter that the family's tract home was actually located in the Wild, Wild West. "Jean taught me how to handle a case of rabies. 'Just tie me up and shoot me,' she'd say."
When Porter came of age, Jean helped her move to San Diego to pursue an acting career. But Porter was soon discouraged with acting and tried moving back to Texas. On her return, she noticed that the Rush Limbaugh bumper stickers greatly outnumbered those for Hillary Clinton, and once again she packed her bags for California.
Porter has been living in Noe Valley for the last six years. She and husband Ben Kaplan are nesting in a home that overlooks the Upper Noe Rec Center on 30th Street. The place is perfect for their soon-to-be-born tyke, who thus far has performed for audiences only on ultrasound.
Since arriving in the city, Porter has written and performed two other solo pieces: "Miss Betty" and "Tattle Tale -- A One-Girl Show." She also has workshopped "Knock on Wood" for a year or so at various Bay Area venues, including the Marsh on Valencia Street. (She does comedy twice a week with the Marsh troupe Club Solo.)
Entering the spotlight when most pregnant women crave only a good nap and a back rub can be hard on even the most determined of performers. Has the stress reawakened the urge to knock on wood?
"I find it hard to know what my body can do right now because of the pregnancy. I did have a superstitious system of eating and resting so that I would peak for a performance at just the right time."
Performing for two has made Porter's body unpredictable, but she finds that the lessons she has learned about self-acceptance still apply.
"When I found myself getting anxious over a bout of sciatica, I gave myself permission to sit down in a chair and tell my story. The anxiety that had been paralyzing me went completely away."
Kim Porter will perform "Knock on Wood" at the San Francisco Fringe Festival on Thursday, Sept. 9, at 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 12, at 1 p.m.; Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 10 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 19, at 4 p.m. All four shows will be at Il Teatro 450 at 449 Powell St. (third floor). Porter says her show contains adult language and is not recommended for kids under 16. Tickets are $6 ($5 for Frequent Fringers) and can be purchased 30 minutes before showtime. For information on the Fringe Festival, call 415-673-3847.
Excerpt from Kim Porter's solo comedy
'Knock on Wood'
I'm driving in my car on my way to work when I suddenly think a not-negative thought. "Well, at least I'm not the worst driver," I think. And so that my sudden lapse into excessive pride can't jinx me (after all, pride goeth before the fall), I reach down to knock on wood....
That was the day I finally realized that the wood grain around my car stereo was actually plastic! -- always had been, always would be ... plastic -- and I went berserk.
You see, I knocked on wood all the time. Constantly, in fact. I knocked on wood easily two hundred times a day.
But I hadn't always been like that. When I was a kid, I was still sane, and I just knocked every now and then like normal children do, with a fascination for the remote possibility that fate's little elves, powerful little elves, might be listening to every single word I said.
The first time I ever knocked on wood I was at my grandmother's house, in the dining room with my mom and all of her sisters. I was watching them play canasta and listening to family gossip while my cousins played out back in the ditch.
My cousins hated me. They said I was a goody-two-shoes, but they always wanted to do stuff that would get us in trouble, and I hated getting in trouble.
My cousin Kirk was the worst. I remember when we were 6 years old and we were out in my back yard and I was telling him what my dad had just told me. My dad had said, "Kim, I know you love to eat this ice." He was pointing to the coils in the top of our refrigerator. This was one of those old pre-frost-free refrigerators. I used to scrape my fingers along the coils and pull off handfuls of this dingy gray ice, which I ate all the time, even though it did taste kind of bad.
"I know you love to eat this ice, but never ever lick it with your tongue. Because if you lick it with your tongue, those icy metal coils will rip the very skin from off your tongue."
So I was warning my cousin Kirk, right: "It will rip the very skin from off your tongue!"
"Yes, my dad told me. It will rip the very skin..."
"Your dad's a liar. I'll show you." And he goes marching into the house.
"KIRK, NO." I wanted to rush after him and stop him but I was paralyzed. I just hovered 10 feet away from the back door....
Then I heard the screaming. Then I heard the muffled commotion of my parents. Then Kirk appeared at the back door and there was blood running down his chin, his throat, and all down the neck of his stretched-out tee shirt. He was crying and sputtering blood and he was pointing at me, "Thee made me thoo it. Thee thold me thoo."
"Not to! I told him NOT TO!"
And my dad said, "Lena Kim Porter! You just had to start trouble, didn't you?"
There's no justice.