Charles Lewis III brings us a special report on the rebirth of Theater Pub’s performance branch.
Right now I have three distinct memories stuck in my head.
The first takes place a few years ago when I found myself crashing on the sofa of Clint Winder (tech guru for PianoFight) and his roommate, Rob Ready (the artistic director). It had been a wild night of inebriated debauchery in which I probably did one or two things I’d probably regret if I could remember them. Needless to say, I was grateful to Clint for taking mercy on me and letting me sleep it off at he and Rob’s Chinatown bachelor pad. When I woke up the next morning – throat scratchy from weed and head throbbing from drink – I’ll never forget the first thing my eyes focused on was the blueprint on the wall. For quite some time, the PianoFighters had been talking about having their own piece of real estate. Not just being renters like every other non-profit indie theatre company in the Bay Area; no, they this was going to be a full-blown theatre owned and operated by PianoFight. It would have, as was described to me, “an upstairs, a downstairs, a full bar, a cabaret space, and different stages going all at once”.
Of course there were quite a few naysayers. Several theatre people (who shall remain nameless) laughed at the idea that “the Delta House of Bay Area theatre” could pull their shit together long enough to even get this ridiculous idea off the ground, let alone actually succeed. They thought PF’s plans were just a bunch of talk and waiting patiently for them to fail spectacularly. Me? I couldn’t predict the future of the space one way or another. I just know that the blueprint and the idea behind it were a pleasant sight to see first thing on a Sunday morning. That, and I really needed a Tylenol.
The second memory is walking down Market St. over the past decade. Even as a born-native San Franciscan, I’d never been in Hollywood Billiards. I had nothing against it, I just never found my way inside. I usually met friends at bars of their choice and our pub crawls never went down Market. Maybe it was my lack of any tangible connection to the place that kept me from lamenting its passing. I mean, its front doors had been replaced with a cool psychedelic mural that, to me, actually improved the walk down Market. The changes in my city irk me more than most, but still… those eyes, man. Those eyes were where it was at.
The third memory takes place several times in 2014. I’m at a bar with other theatre folk, in a kitchen with other theatre folk, or at a backyard party with other theatre folk. We’re all drinking, as we are wont to do, and throwing out ideas for theatre ideas we each think would be pretty cool. A full-length adaptation here, a night of hilarious shorts there, the occasional suggestion for a one-(wo)man show – the usual stuff. None of us are as dismissive as we usually are, no matter how ridiculous the ideas. All we need is a place to put it on and some folks willing to sacrifice their dignity to make it happen. It’s only a matter of time before someone grips their drink tightly in one hand, yells “Fuck!” whilst swinging their other hand, and laments “This would be a perfect show for Theater Pub!”, at which point we all mourn the fact that at the time that name only applied to the very website you’re now reading.
All three of these memories are on my mind as I walk toward the former home of Hollywood Billiards this past December. The psychedelic eyes are long gone, there isn’t a pool table anywhere to be found, and the inside is full of local eateries. When I was in Stuart’s play Pastorella one of my co-stars had told me about the changes, so I began stopping by every now and then. The place is okay, I think. I can’t mentally compare it to what it was before, but I’m more interested in how it will look in the future. As this was December, we were a few weeks removed from both the Thanksgiving announcement that this would be one of Theater Pub’s two new homes, and the original staged reading [/LINK] of our first new show, Satyr Night Fever. I look around and don’t see any place for a stage or a band, but there’s lots of room to maneuver around the way we did in our old space. I have no idea how this is going to work and, now considered an “official” member of Theater Pub, I have the presumptive gall to think “What the hell has Stuart gotten us into?”
There’s been a lot of talk about when (if ever) Theater Pub would come back and what form it would take if it did. That’s the think about talk: there’s rarely any requirement for it to be more than just that. But as I sit in the newly-dubbed The Hall sipping boba tea and munching a fish taco, the idea of a staging a romantic comedy about a lovelorn goat-man and a walking tree spirit doesn’t seem so crazy. I don’t know how it’ll happen, but I’m glad to hear people talking about it.
Three months earlier I’m at SF SketchFest to see a show featuring PianoFight’s all-female troupe, Chardonnay. It was a really funny show. Afterwards we all head to a nearby bar and I catch up with everyone. Having known most of the members since 2009 at this point, it’s a bit of a trip to see how many of them have… I’m trying to think of a better term than “settled down”. That implies that they’ve somehow lost their edge and become a shadow of their former selves, and that sure as hell ain’t true. One thing I learned from the baudy show put on that night is that no one at the company is ready to give up on the raunchy satire that is their bread ‘n butter. But there’s definitely been changes in the PianoFighters themselves. Quite a few of them have gotten married, nearly all of them have gotten new jobs, and the new space is their base of operations after wandering through different venues. No, “settled down” isn’t the right term. “Grown up” fits better.
By December I’d toured the new space as it was a work in progress. Wires needs to be connected, walls needed painting, and pieces of wood were everywhere. But the Californicorn was up behind the bar. PianoFight’s logo is the California grizzly with added unicorn horns and angel wings. To christen their new place, they commissioned a mosaic of the logo by performer/artist extraordinaire Molly Benson. It’s really purrty. More importantly, it’s representative of how serious the company is to make this place work. They’ve planted their flag and staked their claim in the middle of the Tenderloin. Quite a few theatre people talk about what they’d do if they had their own space, but know they’ll always be at the whim of dickish landlords and a shrinking number of viable spaces. PianoFight decided to stop talking and actually make one of their own. Is it any surprise that we all thought “Wow, that place would make a great home for the new Theater Pub”?
That question was briefly on my mind last Saturday. This was the long-awaited day Satyr Night Fever made its debut at The Hall. It was the first ‘Pub show since December 2013 and the first ever “matinée” show, starting at 2pm. There was brunch, there were laughs, there were a few technical SNAFUs that were easily covered up by ecstatic moaning off-stage. Complete strangers who’d just stopped in for a quick snack wound up staying for mimosas and goat-man love. Familiar faces like such as Claire Rice, Marissa Skudlarek, Matt Gunnison, and Christian Simonsen could be seen all around. Most importantly, San Francisco Theater Pub was back and we were all happy to see it.
Two days later I was sitting in the new PianoFight space getting a drink from Les, the sweet old guy who served us many a pint in the ‘Pub original heyday. Now here he was, beneath the Californicorn as Tonya Narvaez, one of our new co-artistic directors, gave the crowd the rundown for the evening. The last time I was part of Theater Pub, I directing Eli Diamond to not give any attitude to his ornery old granny. Now I was watching him be hit on then berated by a vivacious tree nymph in a horrible Christmas sweater. By the time Meg Trowbridge, our other new co-AD, gave her closing speech and hit up our audience for money, rest assured that they’d the single best Greek mythology love story that one could ever find in the cabaret space of the theatre building owned by a raunchy San Francisco independent theatre company. They had something to talk about.
In case you couldn’t tell yet, lots of talk annoys me after a while. I say that as someone who does a great of talking all the time. That doesn’t change the fact that it annoys me. Maybe it’s the person talking that gets to me, maybe it’s what they’re saying, maybe it’s the time of day when it was said – those things can count for a lot when someone is expecting me to listen to them ramble on and on. Hell, I consider it an act of faith that you haven’t clicked away by this point. The reason I bring this up is because the thing I most remember about Theater Pub is what people said – before the show, after the show, and what was said during the performance. We’d talk dreams and talk shit with equal aplomb. That’s what I missed most about Theater Pub going away, talking with everyone. Talking about Theater Pub was what I most loved and hated about the time when it didn’t have a stage home. Talking about it is what I look forward to most in its new incarnation.
None of us are the same as we were back then. We’ve changed, we’ve grown, we’ve transformed into things that would hardly recognise the people we used to be. There’s no guarantee of where we’ll go from here, but I can’t wait talk about where we are now.
Charles Lewis III will be at the final performance of Satyr Night Fever tonight if you want to talk to him. He’ll understand if you don’t. It’s at 144 Taylor St. in San Francisco. The show starts at 8pm, with a $5.00 suggested donation at the door.