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The Closing of San Francisco’s “Anti-Theatre” Theater Venue

San Francisco–based producing company and entertainment venue PianoFight closed its doors on 18 March 2023. Whereas many non-profit theatres rely heavily on grant funding and donations from individuals, PianoFight chose to operate as a predominantly for-profit business, supported by rentals, ticket sales, and the lively restaurant/bar. The business model, programming, and atmosphere established a decidedly “anti-theatre” culture. More details on the history and accomplishments of PianoFight can be found in the press release.

Following the announcement of its closure, local artist and frequent PianoFight producer Rose Oser conducted an interview with co-founders Rob Ready and Duncan Wold to discuss the bold ambitions of PianoFight and their reasons for shutting down.

Four performers standing together waving at the audeince.

PianoFight leaders Duncan Wold, Kevin Fink, Dan Williams, and Rob Ready on the PianoFight mainstage, bidding the audience a final farewell. 18 March 2023.

Rose Oser: To lead with the negative, it would be lovely to hear a bit about what you think is messed up about the nonprofit American theatre and what you were trying to do differently?

Rob Ready: It seemed like there was a lot of red tape and a lot of hoops to jump through to do anything. It felt like a lot of the joy of theatre was sucked out of the process. The process was devoid of play, which is right there in the fucking word. The more I read about it and saw stuff, I thought: This just looks really unfun. If you looked around, the only stuff that was worth doing was very, from my perspective, pretentious. I wanted to start something that wasn’t so hoity-toity that wouldn’t make me wanna die while watching it.

Duncan Wold: I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the nonprofit theatre model such as it is, but the other thing that I have heard Rob talk about a lot that resonates is how much older dead playwrights get produced over alive people. The hypothesis is that when you are funding theatres through foundations and donors, you are skewing the work that gets done. We have a much more populist attitude. I am in for funding for the arts, but we are into things that are populist in nature. It makes sense to base the artistic direction on the kind of stuff that sells tickets to audiences that want to be lively and patronize the bar and the restaurant. Our attitude has always been, “Let’s book the shit out of everything and say yes to everything.”

Rose: Were you ever worried about offending anyone with any of your programming? I know you didn’t have “hoity-toity” donors to worry about, but—

Rob: No. There was a goal to kinda offend some parts of the theatre community for sure.

Duncan: There’s a little punk rock in the thing. In the attitude.

Rose: And the result of that was it always felt like the crowd at PianoFight skewed much younger than other theatres.

Rob: It was a very anti-theatre theatre crowd, and it was a community that got built over fifteen years. And COVID really scattered it all over the place, which is why we are closing for the most part. But the thing is, theatre sucks so much in so many ways and was so lame and pissed people off to the point where people were like, “I will literally work with these nobody ass clowns”—referring to ourselves at this point—“because it is better than the endless stream of rejections from auditions or doing boring ass musicals that you’ve seen or done before.” They are just so turned off by that “theatre world.”

Duncan: There’s this sort of ethos around “the theatre.”

Rob: It’s very exclusive. People have to have the right this or that. Thinking about the auditions that we would run; those were the most fun auditions in the Bay Area by a mile. What was great about those too is that we cast maybe 80 percent of the people who auditioned.

Rose: You’re talking about New Faces Day, right? Because even in the name, it wasn’t like The Scary Auditions. It was, “Come meet other people who want to make art right now.”

Rob: Yeah. Put your face in our space!

Rose: Do you want to talk a bit about the structure of that day? I attended it before, but can you articulate it?

Rob: People came in and we did a group warm up.

Rose: I don’t think people even had monologues. I had a sketch people were reading at one point. What was the song people sang?

Rob: The song was based on Duncan’s friend. “Do you have any weed, can I borrow your car, what is your girlfriend’s number?”

Duncan: The dirt bag anthem.

Rob: We put that to a tune and made everyone sing it. And there was the damn game. And then we took old sketches and paired people up and they would read them and do them. It was really easy. There was no preparation required. They didn’t even need to have a headshot and resume because we had Mark taking photos. It was very come as you are. Assuming you’re a nice person, odds are you will get cast in one of the PianoFight gauntlet shows.

To get young people in a theatre, give the ball to young people.

Rose: It’s always been clear how you opened the space to artists, but when other theatres are grappling with the question of how you get young audiences into the space, what do you think the trick was?

Rob: The creators were young. PianoFight always had young people in positions of authority: writing, directing, creating the company, and pushing things forward. That never went away. Even this year, we are still working with people who are young and they get to decide what the show is and they get to make it how they make it and that draws a young crowd.

Rose: I don’t know, I don’t think that’s it. There are other theatres in town that are run by young people that don’t necessarily have a young audience.

Rob: It’s also the style and content. Sure, we did some plays, but it was a lot of comedies, game shows, site-specific stuff, magic, drag, and burlesque. A lot of these things are newer to the commercial mainstream than Broadway. If you give young people the ball and say “run with it,” odds are they are not going to do George Bernard Shaw. To get young people in a theatre, give the ball to young people.

Duncan: The space opened a month before I turned thirty. New groups of even younger people, including you and the FaultLine folks that were closer to the age when we started PianoFight as a production company, flooded in and made PianoFight the venue. The venue was spoiled by a new group of young people. One of the reasons for it not being able to continue is that for the last year and a half, we haven’t been able to get that next group of young folks.

Rose: Why do you think that is? Where do you think the next generation is?

Duncan: Either they don’t know about it, or they are not around San Francisco.

Rob: I think a lot of them live in Oakland. I think San Francisco sold its soul to tech in the last ten years and it had a bunch of unintended consequences like driving up the cost of living to the point that it's difficult for anyone to live here, especially fellow degenerate artists who want to play music with their friends at 11 p.m. on a Thursday. But it’s not one thing. It’s ten things. The barriers to entry now are higher than when we started because we had two to three years of people being like, “I don’t need to go out anymore,” or “I don’t need to go to the city because I don’t live there anymore,” or “I don’t need to go in to work anymore.”

Duncan: The New York Times had an article about how San Francisco has had the slowest recovery of any city. It’s more than just the young people, there's a huge loss of bodies in the city of all ages and dollars being spent on things like food, drinks, and entertainment. Where are the people and what are they doing?

Rose: And where is the nightlife?

Duncan: That includes the audience and the creators. Both sides of the equation.

Rose: Even walking around Union Square feels different. It doesn’t feel like a destination.

Duncan: And the audiences that do come participate in a different way. They don’t come as early; they don’t stay as late. A much higher percentage of the audience just shows up for the show and leaves right after.

Rose: Before the pandemic, I would come to that space even if I wasn’t planning on seeing a show. I would get some curly fries and get a beer and decide if I was in the mood for improv. Maybe I was or maybe I wasn’t. That just wasn’t the case for any other theatre. I would never enter a theatre for fun with no show in mind.

Rob: The restaurant and bar just felt like good business. In other spaces, you bring a crowd of fifty or a hundred people and then you give that business to someone else after the show. The people who are bringing the crowd of audience together should be able to benefit from that.

Someone sticking up a foam middle finger amongst a lively crowd at a bar.

Someone sticking up a PianoFight-branded foam middle finger amongst a lively crowd in the PianoFight bar.

Rose: So that’s our segue into business. Did it work? Were the curly fries and beers enough?

Rob: No. I mean, sort of. It was basically working in 2019 to a degree. We didn’t have to work nights anymore. We had managers. The whole organization was still running a deficit but if it had gotten another five years with similar business, would it have been okay? Yes. And a major disadvantage that we suffered from because we weren’t hoity-toity “theatre.” We did shows like Forking, Fork Off, and Shit Show. Funders, city government folks, and foundation folks did not take us seriously in that way, and I think neither did a lot of the theatre community.

Duncan: But Rob, you didn’t want to be taken seriously.

Rob: That’s not true. I wanted to prove there was a different way to do things—which we did—and I think that pissed people off or something. I am still shocked after all those years of Theatre Bay Area doing conferences and never asking us to be on a panel. Nobody! It’s not like they didn’t know it was happening. It felt like an inherent culture clash. They just didn’t like the fact that we went in a certain direction and did it. Did it work? In some ways, yes. In other ways, not at all. We are closing, so it didn’t work that well.

Duncan: I don’t think we ever wanted too much of that institutional money anyway. We didn’t want the strings that came with it. Did it work? The space ran from end of 2014 to beginning of 2020 and hosted thousands of shows during that time. It existed and it worked and it was there for you to come to Monday through Saturday and get curly fries and beer and see a show. It existed largely on the great sacrifice—timewise and financially—of the core team that ran it. People took lower paychecks. That was the real struggle of the space and the reason it worked when we were younger but had more problems the older we got. We can talk about if it worked or did not work from 2019-2020, and that’s an interesting discussion. Then we can talk about if it works today, and that answer is firmly no, unfortunately.

Rob: I agree. That’s where I am annoyed with funders in the city. In New York, the city would buy the building and lease it to us for a dollar for thirty years. They used to do it here to an extent, but they stopped doing that for organizations. There is a piece of me that is pretty pissed that you’re looking at the Exit Theatre closing, which is four stages, and PianoFight, which is three stages. That’s seven stages that were built and ran and are going to go away because whoever the backstop community of financing the arts in this region didn’t feel like those were important.

I fully believe San Francisco will be a thriving, vibrant city again. But what is it going to look like?

Rose: When you announced that PianoFight was closing, did you think the city would step up?

Rob: We asked the city, and we asked our funders. Everyone said no. I understand they don’t have the money…but they have the fucking money. San Francisco has an eleven-billion-dollar budget. I don’t know what Hewlett’s budget is, but it is much bigger than PianoFight’s budget, I’ll put it that way. I was like, “Are you down to let those seven stages just go?” And everyone was like, “Yeah sorry, I wish we could do more.” Well, do ya? I think it’s important to call it out. If you are person in the community who creates stuff, keep creating stuff. If you are a person in the community making sure it’s financially viable and you fucking whiff on seven stages in less than a year… I just don’t know what they are doing.

Rose: To take the heat off them slightly, I feel like in general you were pretty resistant to crowdfunding and going to individuals for donations. Yes, the institutional funders could have stepped up more, but did you feel like—

Duncan: What I would say to complicate the story is that we did ask funders for money, and we tried to give them an honest assessment of what that meant. We offered to do a one hundred thousand crowdfunding as part of what they could do and what we would do. I don’t want to go ask all my friends for fifty bucks or even five bucks and then shut down. So if the funders want to step up, that would be a rational play. But if it’s just our friends and family who get us three more months, that’s a disingenuous ask.

Rob: It’s not that we didn’t want to do it. It’s that it didn’t feel right to put it all on our friends and family.

Duncan: We are passionate. We have strong feelings. I know for myself that I feel extremely grateful. It’s stunning to look back on the friendships that went into making this place and the friendships that came out of running this place. We got through the COVID-19 closures and ran for another year and a half. That’s all pretty cool. I am stoked that it happened.

Rob: You can obviously tell that I am angry and sad and whatever, but it comes out of love and gratitude for having the job that we have had. It shows how much I love it because that is how angry I am about losing it. It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never PianoFight-ed at all.

A performer standing under spotlights on a stage in front of an audience.

Rose Oser hosting the thirty-fifth performance of Tinder Disrupt on the PianoFight mainstage on 16 March 2023. Photo by Clive Walker.

Duncan: We have to wait and see what San Francisco does. I fully believe San Francisco will be a thriving, vibrant city again. But what is it going to look like? It’s not going to look like it was in 2018 or 2019. I don’t know how many years it will take; it’s not going to be one or two or three years. We have to just sit back and see five years from now.

Rose: Then the robots will be running the city so we won’t be here anyway.

Duncan: What do the robots like to watch?

Rose: Drag shows!

Duncan: Do the robots like curly fries?

Rob: Yes!

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Great piece... Loved PianoFight which will be sorely missed... as will the Exit. The ethos of (real) "bootstrapping", independence & yes "punk rock" is all too rare in the theatre world. Over @ Shotgun Players we started from that same ethos s but it's a struggle to maintain it in the face of growth, the pandemic and the changes all around. I sincerely hope Duncan and Rob stay in the area and continue to make things - especially the kind of things that bring people together in new ways and provide something DIFFERENT. Monoculture is inherently boring and unhealthy.