PianoFight closes SF and Oakland venues in latest blow to Bay Area theater

PianoFight artistic director Rob Ready tends the Tenderloin venue’s bar. Photo: Michaela Vatcheva / Special for The Chronicle 2022

In late December, PianoFight’s artistic director Rob Ready told The Chronicle he wasn’t sure how much longer his Tenderloin venue could afford to stay open.

A month later, he has an answer: PianoFight is closing its Taylor Street space, which has three stages plus a bar and restaurant, on March 18. Its downtown Oakland space, formerly known as Flight Deck, will hang around until the end of the school year so subtenant Oakland School for the Arts can continue to use it. Then it also closes.

Dan Williams, co-founder of PianoFight, who was among 150 property and business owners of the newly formed Tenderloin Business Coalition demanding a refund from the city for their 2022 taxes due to not getting their money’s worth, including inadequate police protection. Photo: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle 2022

Since the pandemic first closed the venues in March 2020, the executive team has been “playing how we kick out the expiration date,” said co-founder and CEO Dan Williams. The executives, who also include CFO Kevin Fink and COO Duncan Wold, even call their balance sheet a “bleed-out sheet.”

PianoFight was finally able to reopen on a regular basis last February, but ticket and bar sales rose to only 35% of pre-pandemic levels and then plateaued. In November, Williams said, “we just realized that the expiration date is not so easy to postpone anymore.”

Then in early January, the four learned they would be getting less than they had hoped from the California Venues Grant Program.

“We don’t have any more handles,” Williams said.

They declined to say how much debt they have taken on individually, but Williams said, “It’s devastating.”

The closure, announced Tuesday, Jan. 24, hits an indie theater scene still reeling from the December closing of Exit Theatre’s Eddy Street venue, which was around the corner from PianoFight.

The audience watches “Tinder Disrupt,” a PowerPoint dating show on PianoFight. Photo: Ethan Swope / The Chronicle 2022

“I’ve just spent months trying to convince and entice people to book here,” Ready said.

“And not just any people, but people who were at the exit,” Wold added, citing improv company Leela as an example.

“It felt really, really awful,” Ready continued. “It felt like letting people down, having to turn around and say, ‘We can’t deliver on what we said we were going to do.'”

Since opening in 2014, the Taylor Street space has been more than just a venue. As a gathering place, it was a destination even if you didn’t have a show to attend. Where other theaters might half-heartedly try to turn their bars into legitimate hangouts, at PianoFight, the idea actually worked.

Nicole Odell hosts a drop-in improv class at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle 2018

“You can go in there and chances are there’s someone in the room working on something else,” said Nicole Odell of the sketch comedy company Killing My Lobster, which used both PianoFight locations as home bases and now has to fight for to find other theaters for its year of performances.

PianoFight executives describe their ethos as saying yes to artists that everyone else said no to; their community, Ready said, has been “the anti-theater theater crowd.” Company and show titles have included Drunk Theater and Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors Night, both of which are exactly what they sound like. But the venue has also hosted everything from a live taping of a podcast about menstruation, a dating show aimed at disrupting dating apps and the San Francisco Neo-Futurists’ whirlwind 30 plays in 60 minutes.

The variety of shows on any given night – magic, improv, music, drag, comedy – meant artists broke out of their silos.

“They have all these creative performing arts weirdos in their space, and there’s some cross-pollination that happens,” said drag artist Elsa Touche, who has performed at the venue since 2017, pointing to her own recruitment for PianoFight’s “ShortLived” card – gaming competition as an example.

Rose Oser hosts “Tinder Disrupt” on PianoFight. Photo: Ethan Swope / The Chronicle 2022

Fink, Ready and Williams co-founded PianoFight in 2007, thinking that, as Ready put it, “I bet there’s a lot more people like me who want to make some art or write some stuff, but who cannot send their s- to ACT.” After both running the Off-Market Theater in the South of Market neighborhood and being nomadic, they rented the Taylor Street property in 2012, hoping that stable property would let them spend less time and money finding space and more energy to make art.

By 2020, the model was humming and they could afford to hire other employees to work the night shift. Now they see themselves as a pandemic victim.

“What’s really hard about this is, it’s like, what could we have done?” Ready said.

“The appetite to help venues, places affected by COVID, has dried up,” Williams added.

They also blame the city for not making meaningful changes in their neighborhood, whose challenges with homelessness and outdoor drug markets became more visible during the pandemic, as commuters and theatergoers stopped coming to downtown San Francisco as often.

“It’s really sobering to think about all the money that’s being spent on things like ambassador programs and how these are all Band-Aids,” Williams said.

Del Seymour, a recovering addict and founder of Code Tenderloin, speaks during a press conference outside City Hall, calling on the city to keep the Tenderloin Center, which serves 400 people daily, many homeless people who use drugs, open until it creates a replacement in the area . Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle 2022

Touche called the closure a loss for Mørbraden, which includes part of the Transgender District. “The PianoFight people really made an effort to center queer things,” she said.

“I was driving the Code Tenderloin out of the back seat of my car when (Ready) invited me to share his seat pro bono,” said Del Seymour, founder of the workforce development nonprofit. He praised PianoFight’s relationship with its neighbors, noting, “Street people could always stop in for a decent toilet, a snack, or a few bucks without being judged.”

The four executives declined to disclose the details of their leases, nor could they say what will happen to the properties after they are vacated. Likewise, they are unsure what is next for themselves and say they will focus on closing the business responsibly first.

In the meantime, the venues are still open for rentals, and the team plans to host jam nights, alumni gatherings and a big closing party, among other things.

“We all started out as artists and then we saw an opportunity to make a business out of this and create our dream jobs for ourselves,” Williams said. “Operations at 144 Taylor will cease for PianoFight. But we are still artists.

  • Lily Janiak
    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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