In late December, PianoFight 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 will shut down its Taylor Street space, which has three stages plus a bar and restaurant, on March 18. Its downtown Oakland space, formerly known as the Flight Deck, will hang on until the end of the school year so that subtenant Oakland School for the Arts can continue to use it. Then it will close, too.
Since the pandemic first shuttered the venues in March 2020, the executive team has been “gaming how we kick out the bleed-out date,” said co-founder and Executive Director Dan Williams. The leaders, who also include Financial Director Kevin Fink and Director of Operations Duncan Wold, even call their balance sheet the “bleed-out sheet.”
PianoFight was finally able to reopen on a regular basis last February, but ticket and bar sales rebounded only to 35% of pre-pandemic levels then plateaued. By November, Williams said, “we just realized the bleed-out date is not so easily kicked out anymore.”
Then in early January, the four learned they’d be getting less than they’d hoped from the California Venues Grant Program.
“We don’t have any more levers,” Williams said.
They declined to say how much debt they’ve taken on individually, but Williams said, “It’s devastating.”
The closure, announced Tuesday, Jan. 24, hits an indie theater scene that’s still reeling from the December closure of Exit Theatre’s Eddy Street venue, which was around the corner from PianoFight.
“I just spent months convincing, cajoling people to book here,” said Ready.
“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 went on. “It felt like letting people down, to have to turn around and say, ‘We can’t fulfill this thing we said we were going to.’ “
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 make their bars into legit hangout spots, at PianoFight, the notion actually worked.
“You can walk in there, and chances are there’s going to be somebody in the space working on something else,” said Nicole Odell of sketch comedy company Killing My Lobster, which used both PianoFight venues as home bases and must now scramble to find another. theaters for its year of shows.
PianoFight leaders describe their ethos as saying yes to artists to whom everybody else said no; their community, Ready said, has been “the anti-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 menstrual periods, 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 that artists got 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’s been performing at the venue since 2017, pointing to her own recruitment into PianoFight’s “ShortLived” short- play competition as an example.
Fink, Ready and Williams co-founded PianoFight in 2007 thinking that, as Ready put it, “I will bet you that there are a bunch more people like me who would want to do some art or write some things but who can’t send their s— to ACT.” After both running Off-Market Theater in the South of Market neighborhood and being nomadic, they leased the Taylor Street property in 2012, hoping that stable real estate would let them spend less time and money finding space and more energy on making art.
By 2020, the model was humming and they could afford to hire other staffers to work night shifts. Now they see themselves as a pandemic casualty.
“What’s really hard about this in particular is, it’s like, what could we have done?” Ready said.
“The appetite for helping out venues, places affected by COVID, has dried up,” Williams added.
They also fault the city for failing to make meaningful changes in their neighborhood, whose challenges with homelessness and open-air drug markets became more visible during the pandemic as commuters, and theatergoers, stopped coming downtown San Francisco as often.
“It’s really aggravating to think of all the money that’s being spent on, like, ambassador programs and how these are all Band-Aids,” Williams said.
Touche called the closure a loss for the Tenderloin, which encompasses part of the Transgender District. “The PianoFight folks really made an effort to center queer stuff,” she said.
“I was running Code Tenderloin out of my car’s backseat when (Ready) invited me to share his space pro bono,” said Del Seymour, founder of the workforce development nonprofit. He praised PianoFight’s relationship with its neighbors, noting, “Street folks could always stop in for a decent restroom, a snack or a few bucks without being judged.”
The four leaders declined to state the details of their leases, nor could they say what will happen to the properties after they leave. Likewise, they’re unsure of what’s next for themselves, saying that they want to 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 events.
“We all started as artists, and then we saw an opportunity to make a business out of this and create the jobs of our dreams for ourselves,” Williams said. “The operations at 144 Taylor will cease for PianoFight. But we’re still artists.“