Theater Around The Bay: Talk Is Sheep

Charles Lewis III brings us a special report on the rebirth of Theater Pub’s performance branch.

Welcome back, old friend.

Welcome back, old friend.

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.

PianoFight’s new Californicorn that hangs above the new space.

PianoFight’s new Californicorn that hangs above the new space.

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.

Yes, they made a stage.

Yes, they made a stage.

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.

It gave us all the feels.

It gave us all the feels.

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.

Cowan Palace: PianoFight Resolves to Open the Damn Venue

Things are changing in the San Francisco Theater scene and PianoFight needs your help! Ashley Cowan profiles the ambitious folks behind this ambitious attempt to open a new space in the ever-emerging downtown theater scene!

Happy 2014! If you resolved to see more theater this year or become a more active participant in the community, I may have a suggestion. The fellas at PianoFight (Rob Ready, Dan Williams, and Kevin Fink) have made the ultimate resolution: to open a landmark entertainment venue complete with two theaters, a full restaurant and bar with a cabaret stage, rehearsal and office spaces, and even a film studio. It’s going to be huge. It’s going to be epic. It’s PianoFight.

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In the midst of their fundraising, I had the chance to ask the guys a few questions this week and learn a bit more about the project.

To those who are unfamiliar with PianoFight, can you give us a brief introduction?

Sure! PianoFight is a San Francisco based production company. We produce theater, manage / build venues, play music and cut records, film corporate and other creative videos, produce comedy and interactive shows, stage dance, run a website and do other generally creative things. It’s fun and we make it a priority to have fun, and we’re committed to producing new work by new artists.

Super fun! Can you tell us a little bit more about your new space and what you’re currently working on?

The new space is at 144 Taylor Street, in the Tenderloin. It’s a 50-seat theater, a 90-seat theater, rehearsal spaces, office spaces, a film production studio and a full restaurant and bar with a cabaret stage. We’ll have a multi-camera setup in the larger theater so we can live-stream and record shows, and we’ll rent out the space and offer classes so anyone and everyone can get in on the action. Find out more right HERE.

This is a massive undertaking. What’s been the biggest surprise in leading a fundraising campaign of this size?

Hands down, the broad-based and energetic support for the project. We knew we’d need a ton of backers to reach our goal, and were excited to see our immediate community step up and financially support this vision. But it’s really cool to see interest from all kinds of folks excited to be a part of something like this happening in San Francisco. And then there’s the random/awesome people that come out of the woodwork – someone with whom you went to elementary school but haven’t spoken to in years dropping $50 on the campaign. That’s freakin’ awesome.

What can we, the awesome Theater Pub community, do to help?

Well, the most straightforward way is to back the project and recruit other like-minded folks to back the project. Talk it up, post in on FB, Tweet about it and email your peeps – getting the word out in general is a HUGE help. If you know anybody who works at cool blogs that would be into this, please email Rob at rob@pianofight.com. Beyond that, just keep making dope art so we’ve got tons of cool projects and artists to fill up the stages.

What project and/or dope art are you most excited to work on in the new place?

Can’t wait to reboot our audience-judged playwriting competition, ShortLived. This has always been a fun, big project for us because it involves the indy theater community in a really interesting and unique way. We’ve taken time to rework the rules and format to make it’s more of a theater competition with different teams staging short plays. It’s still audience judged, but this time we’re upping the production value and adding cash prizes for the winners. When we launch it, we’re gonna go big, and whoever wins is going to have to run the gauntlet and prove themselves real theater rockstars.

I can’t wait. Personally speaking, writing for ShortLived has been one of my favorite Bay Area involvements. But in the meantime, how do you get through some of the more challenging aspects of this process?

Beer. Lot’s of it. Also, it helps that the three of us have been friends for so long – we’ve all been friends since grade school. Sometimes that’s rough, because we’re comfortable with each other to the point that we can say whatever the hell is on our minds. This can be, sometimes, not the nicest most sensitive thing in the universe. But really, knowing what we’ve been through over the years, and that we’ve had each other’s backs through all of that, there is nothing more reassuring than knowing your two best friends are in the trenches right beside you.

If PianoFight could be made into a drink, what beverage would it be?

Cutty Sark on the rocks. Or in two drinks – one shot, and one shitty beer.

What was your favorite theatrical experience of 2013?

Final run of Theater Pub at Cafe Royale. It was emotional and fun, and those kind of events mark phases of our lives and the life of the art-making community in the Bay. It was a very cool experience.

What’s the best part of being involved in the Bay Area theater community? And what’s the hardest?

Best part: the Bay Area is bursting with talent that tends to have a singular edge or rawness. Bay Area artists are highly motivated to take risks and be innovative, producing some extremely exciting work.

The hardest part is the lack of platforms / distribution channels / megaphones to propel that art and those artists into greater markets, so that Bay Area art can be better represented on the national and International stage. Thus, this venue.

Bang, kill, or marry: Shakespeare, Chekov, or Arthur Miller :

They’re all already dead so killing would be redundant, and banging or marrying would be illegal. How bout this – we promise not to produce any of them.

Any interesting, personal resolutions you guys have made for 2014?

OPEN THE DAMN VENUE!

What can we expect next from PianoFight?

In January, Mission CTRL will premiere an all new show at SketchFest, and Chardonnay (formerly ForePlays) will also play a show with SketchFest. And then in February, Chardonnay will premiere an all new show at EXIT Theater. Then after that, WE’RE OPENING THAT DAMN VENUE!

Back us on Kickstarter.
Like us on Facebook.
Follow us on Twitter.
Check out our website.

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A big thanks to PianoFight for taking a moment to chat about this exciting project. They have 9 days to raise the money and make this resolution come true. So spread the word, sing it from the rooftops, hire a carrier pigeon, or do whatever you can do because this is something worth (Piano)Fight(ing) for. (Did you guys see what I did there?) As always, I wish you all well and look forward to another glorious year of Bay Area Theater!