Reading the announcement that PianoFight is closing its SF and Oakland venues was akin to watching a family heirloom fall in slow motion: You think if you move fast enough you can catch it, but by the time you reach out your hands, it’s already shattered on the ground.
PianoFight’s Theatre Was Independent, Creative, Accessible — and Necessary
Perhaps I should have seen it coming. After all, I’ve been writing about the troupe-turned-multi-venue company for nearly a decade. I wrote about PianoFight’s battle to open a new theatre space in SF, about that venue’s evolution into a community hub — and, always, about how much fun it was to attend and perform in shows in that building. Now, I have to write about it shutting down, the story I never wanted to do.
Before PianoFight even had one venue, I knew founders Rob Ready and Dan Williams, along with Financial Director Kevin Fink, from when we all regularly performed in the Off-Market Theatre in the mid-2000s. They were the raucous guys across the hall who had the sketch comedy troupe ShitShow (later MissionCTRL), the choose-your-own-adventure play Forking, and did the short play competition ShortLived, where the winner had their entry made into a full production the following year.
I finally worked with them in 2010 as part of their group-collab comedy Ménage-À-Plot: A Surf-N-Turf Adventure (in which three writers linked with three directors to make three different short plays that all mashed together in the same location). The show was crass, goofy, and featured an inexplicable dance number set to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had.
It wasn’t long before the guys began pitching the idea of having their own venue, complete with a full restaurant. See, one of the things people often overlook about going to the theatre is what to do after the show. Sure, several venues allow drinks, but you’re still crowding the lobby, and indie companies are likely just renting. Mingling is even tougher in SoMa and the Tenderloin, where your companions may complain about a great bar being a dive (The Tempest), being too far away (The White Horse) or too expensive (Parc 55).
That was PianoFight’s advantage: for one, the company allowed — nay, encouraged — patrons (and performers) to get soused up before, during and after a show. And two, the space was always open to the public. Strangers passing by would pop in to buy drinks and sandwiches as they sat for free music they saw on the cabaret stage through the window (leave your tips in the funny hat). Actors and audience members could chat after a show over a shared bowl of curly fries. Anyone and everyone could feel comfortable sharing the gender-neutral restrooms. It was an annual venue for SF Sketchfest, a photo-op for mayors Lee and Breed and an invaluable resource for the unhoused community via a partnership with Code Tenderloin.
The often-insular nature of the theatre industry frequently leaves creators — especially avant-garde and indie creators — at a loss for how to get “regular” people to discover their work. PianoFight did that by merely existing. If you think that sounds easy, then you’ve never worked in theatre before.
My PianoFight memories are so varied because I was often there in a variety of roles: actor, director, writer, tech and even box office rep.
I was in the now-defunct troupe that created "Pint Sized Plays." I’ve watched drag queens and Game of Thrones premieres; I watched ShortLived with my then-girlfriend on the main stage and sweated it out as Captain Hook on the poorly-ventilated smaller stage. I had countless drinks beneath the bar’s gorgeous “Californicorn” mural (PF’s logo is the California bear with wings and a unicorn horn), created by the amazing Molly Benson.
Of course, the pandemic changed everything for theatre, PianoFight included. The vaccine rollout of 2021 seemed to suggest a return to normalcy — until the Delta variant canceled those plans. When the company expanded by purchasing The Flight Deck in Oakland, it was a reason to be optimistic. But as it turns out, that just means losing two vital venues instead of one.
In fact, it isn’t lost on me that PianoFight’s closure announcement came the same day as that of Harvey’s in The Castro (and the day state Democrats proposed a wealth tax). In a city with more billionaire residents than any other on Earth, independent, non-franchise businesses are being left to fend for themselves. And they’re losing.
It’s been almost a decade since I crashed on Rob Ready’s sofa and saw the 144 Taylor Street blueprints on his wall. That blueprint would bring me in touch with strangers who remain great friends and an untold number of performers and techs who entertained the hell out of me.
Even at my most optimistic, I’m hard-pressed to find a silver lining in the closure of PianoFight. It’s not just that it was a performance venue — sadly, we’ve gotten used to those vanishing — but the fact that it was, for lack of a better term, “everything else”: an after-work bar; a pre-show place for a drink; a welcome stage for burgeoning stand-ups, musicians, whomever. It was a community. And the back-to-back loss of both EXIT Theatre and PianoFight leaves a void.
These places were warm. Voids are very, very cold.
PianoFight’s venues will officially shutter March 18, according to the founders’ announcement. Find the current show calendar here.