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TBA Online: News & Features: December 2014

#IfYouBuildIt: PianoFight's New Tenderloin Venue

Wednesday, December 24, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Lily Janiak

If you think PianoFight's new live performance venue, which just hosted its first shows this weekend, is a major undertaking for a small theatre company, consider that founders Rob Ready, Dan Williams and Kevin Fink first managed a downtown San Francisco venue, the late Off-Market Theater, when they were just 23.

According to company lore, the trio were about to begin rehearsals for their first show at Off-Market when its manager handed them the keys and moved south. Hard-scrabble as that time was—especially in the first few months, when the group made up shows on the fly to fill gaping holes in their rental schedule—it gave them a taste for having their own artistic home, where they wouldn't have to spend the majority of their time and money assembling a patchwork of rental spaces for rehearsals and shows.


Restaurant in PianoFight's new venue. Photo: Chris Alongi 

So in 2010, when Off-Market raised its rents and PianoFight left (and the space closed altogether shortly thereafter), it didn't take long for the group to decide that they didn't want to return to nomadism. But, four and a half years later, the building they're about to open, at 144 Taylor (where Original Joe's, the Italian joint patronized by City Hall politicos and late night theatre patrons, once lay), is an upgrade from Off-Market's small black box by many orders of magnitude. (The splashy official opening, where Mayor Ed Lee is rumored to be making an appearance, is slated for January.)

The new space boasts 5,000 square feet on the ground floor, which includes a 92-seat theatre, a 42-seat theatre, as well as a full bar and restaurant (featuring such dishes as the Californicorndog, a corndog with a gourmet sausage inside; it's named after company's mascot, the Californicorn—the bear of state flag fame, with a unicorn's horn and Pegasus wings). The dining area also has a cabaret stage, where bands and San Francisco Theater Pub will perform. Below is a 3,000-square-foot basement, with three private rooms for rehearsals and classes (which, like the theatres upstairs, are available to the public for rental), two dressing rooms, a co-working space and a film editing room. (The PianoFighters have translated the skills they've honed filming their own sketches and trailers into a moneymaker: They shoot and edit short films for corporations.)


The Californicorn, PianoFight's company mascot. Photo: Chris Alongi



It's a $1.2 million project, with $585,000 coming from equity investors, $400,000 from loans, $131,000 coming from Kickstarter (the highest the fundraising site has ever grossed for a new live performance venue, by more than double) and $75,000 from an SF Shines grant. They're now two years into a 10-year lease, with two renewal options of five years each. As Ready says, "We're here for the long haul."

The venue is "sporadically booked" for 2015, with Killing My Lobster, FaultLine Theater, San Francisco Theater Pub, Theater MadCap and EndGames Improv as tenants, but there remain "boatloads of opportunities," says Ready, for other artists to get involved, from rentals to coproductions to getting cast in PianoFight productions to taking classes or dropping in for artist meetups.

Throughout this process, the trio say the biggest surprise has been the help the community has given them—their more than 1,000 Kickstarter backers, the city with its grant, local groups who've been approaching the company about renting space before they've announced an opening date, Tenderloin neighborhood organizations who've put in volunteer hours, neighborhood residents and beat cops who've been supporters, workers at other local theatres—PianoFight especially commends Shamsher Virk of CounterPulse for the amount of work he's put into the venue—and of course, the Duggan family, the former owners of Original Joe's who first negotiated the lease with the three, as 26-year-olds. "They believed in us as people when not very many people did, because we were just starting out," Ready says.


One of the theatres in the new space. Photo: Chris Alongi


It was especially heartening to see the men of PianoFight—occasionally called, in this publication, "the bad boys of San Francisco theatre"—also credit their wives and girlfriends. The three agree that their toughest hardship and one of the biggest surprises of this project was how much time it's taken to get everything done. Their significant others, Fink says, are "putting in as much work as we are, just in a different way—by dealing with us always being preoccupied and all over the place and out until the middle of the night and stressed out all the time."

"Their sacrifice is great," Williams concurs. "That patience—You don't ask that of yourself, because you're doing it. What you don't realize is that you're also asking it of your partner."

What other insights might these three enfants terribles, now slightly older and slightly wiser, share with other young theatre companies who are considering staking their own claim on the local theatre world?

Fink, characteristically, puts it simply: "I would say—it's not a very good answer, but—just do it. Just get yourself out of bed, figure out what you want to do, and don't look back. We had a dream, and we didn't really know how we were going to get there, but we just took it one day at a time, one email at a time, one credit app at a time and just did it. See the end goal, don't get caught up on the day-to-day and just get there."

Williams puts that idea of the "end goal" slightly differently. "Your path is going to diverge," he says. "I'd say go back to the initial dream and reassess if you need to. But I think flexibility is key. I think it doesn't mean if you make some caveat here or take a hit somewhere else that you can't eventually get back. I can't tell you how many times we've been told 'no' and found a way to make it a 'yes' or found a different 'yes.'"

Ready offers two pieces of advice. "One," he says, "is to look around, figure out what everyone else is doing and then do something different. I think theatre as an industry needs that super-hard right now. It's starting to happen. Eight years ago, it was different. But in the last three years, there have been a lot of different kinds of art getting made, popularized and funded. 

"Two," he continues, "is to trust your team. We three all know each other from high school, these two from kindergarten, and there's a level of trust there that's really absurd. That's still tested on a daily basis. The thing to keep in mind is that Dan's going to go out there and kill it at whatever he does; Kevin's going to go out there and kill it at whatever he does. Hopefully I'm going to do the same. I think we all trust each other to handle whatever random crazy thing is thrown at us in a way that each other would be comfortable with. The PianoFight artistic company—these are our friends. This is an odd little family that we've created here. That community and that family—that's the thing to go after. That's what you want to create. Everything else is brick and mortar. But if you can build that thing, then the other stuff—good art, a cool space, hopefully, some money—will follow."


Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for publications including SF Weekly and HowlRound