PianoFight to shut down SF and Oakland venues in the latest blow to the Bay Area scene

PianoFight Artistic Director Rob Ready takes care of the Tenderloin Place Bar. Photo: Michaela Vatcheva/Special to The Chronicle 2022

in late december, PianoFight Artistic Director Rob Reddy He told The Chronicle he wasn’t sure how long his Tenderloin place could last.

A month later, he has an answer: PianoFight will close its Taylor Street space, which has three stages plus a bar and restaurant, March 18. Auckland city center space, Formerly known as the Flight Deck, it will remain suspended until the end of the school year so that Oakland High School of the Arts can continue to use it. Then it will also shut down.

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

Since the pandemic first shut down stadiums in March 2020, co-founder and CEO Dan Williams said, the executive team has been “playing around with how the bleeding history begins.” The leaders, who also include Chief Financial Officer Kevin Fink and Chief Operating Officer Duncan Wold, have called their balance sheet a “bleeding balance sheet”.

PianoFight was finally able to reopen on a regular basis last February, but ticket and bar sales only rebounded to 35% of pre-pandemic levels and then plateaued. By November, “we just realized the expiration date wasn’t easy anymore,” Williams said.

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

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

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

The shutdown, announced on Tuesday, January 24, is hitting an independent theater scene still reeling from the December shutdown. Eddie Street Theater Director, which was just around the corner from PianoFight.

The audience watched “Tinder Disrupt,” a dating PowerPoint presentation at PianoFight. Photo: Ethan Sopp/The Chronicle 2022

“I spent months convincing people to book here,” Reddy said.

“Not just anyone, but the people who were in the director,” Wold added, quoting the improvisation company. night as an example.

“It just felt really awful,” Reddy said. “I felt like letting people down, they should turn around and say, ‘We can’t accomplish this thing that we said we were going to do.'” “”

Since its 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 O’Dell hosts a class on improvisation at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Photo: Ylonda M. James/The Chronicle 2018

“You can go in there, and chances are there’s someone out there working on something else,” said Nicole O’Dell of the comic strip company. kill my crab, which used both PianoFight venues as home bases and must now scramble to find other theaters for its year of showing.

The leaders of PianoFight describe their ethos as saying yes to the artists everyone else has rejected; Their community, said Reddy, was the “anti-theatre crowd”. Company titles and performances 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 live recording to podcast about menstrual periods, a dating show It aims to disrupt dating apps and San Francisco neo-futurists30 games in 60 minutes.

The variety of shows on any given night – magic, improv, musicals, drag and comedy – means the artists are broken out of their silos.

Drag artist Elsa Tosh, who has been performing at the venue since 2017, said, referring to her recruitment to PianoFight. “short term” Short-play competition is an example.

Rose Osser hosts “Tinder Disrupt” at PianoFight. Photo: Ethan Sopp/The Chronicle 2022

Fink, Reddy, and Williams co-founded PianoFight in 2007 believing that, as Reddy said, “I bet there’s a bunch of people like me who would like to do some art or write some stuff but can’t send their powers—to ACT.” -Market Theater in the South of Market neighborhood Being nomadic, they rented the Taylor Street property in 2012, hoping that a stable property would allow them to spend less time and money finding space and more energy making art.

By 2020, the model was crowded and they could afford to hire other employees to work night shifts. Now they see themselves as victims of the pandemic.

“What’s really hard about this particular one is, what could we have done?” He said ready.

“The desire to help in places and places affected by COVID has dried up,” Williams added.

They also blame the city for failing to effect meaningful change in their otherwise challenged district homelessness And Outdoor drug markets It became more noticeable during the pandemic as travelers and theater-goers stopped going to downtown San Francisco as much.

“It’s really upsetting to think about all the money that’s being spent, like ambassador programs, and how that’s all band-aid,” Williams said.

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

Touche called the closure a loss Tenderloin which includes part of the transgender area. “The members of PianoFight went to great lengths to center the weird stuff,” she said.

“I was running the Code Tenderloin from the back seat of my car when[Ready]invited me to share a free space for him,” said Dale Seymour, founder of the nonprofit Workforce Development Organization. He praised PianoFight’s relationship with its neighbors, stating that “street folks can always stop by to get a decent toilet, a snack, or a few bucks without being judged.”

The four leaders declined to give details of their leases, and were unable to say what would happen to the property after they left. Likewise, they are unsure of the next step for themselves, saying they want to focus on closing the business responsibly first.

In the meantime, venues are still open for rent, and the team plans to host jam nights, alumni rallies, and a grand closing party, among other events.

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

  • Lily Janiac

    Lilly Janik is a theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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