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.


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 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?


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.


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!

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: The Van Ness Avenue Problem

Marissa Skudlarek continues her semi-monthly column on life and times in the Bay Area theater scene. Have your own story to tell? Let us know! We’re working towards having something new on the SF Theater Pub blog EVERY DAY, but we can’t do it without you! 

When I studied in Paris five years ago, I lived with a host family in the 16th arrondissement, a neighborhood that represented the best of walkable, cultured urbanism. A Metro station next door. A boulangerie two blocks away. And, most impressive of all, a theater down the street.

I had never before lived on the same block as a theater, and I doubt I ever will again.  Theaters in San Francisco – as in many American cities – do not tend to be located in the neighborhoods where I wish to live. Typically, urban American theaters fall into two distinct types:

  • Big institutional theaters, located in a “theater district” in the city center – here, Union Square
  • Small black box theaters, located in neglected neighborhoods – here, the Tenderloin

This division is a bit more complicated in San Francisco than elsewhere, as our city’s odd geography means that Union Square and the Tenderloin lie cheek by jowl and merge into one another – but let’s not get into that.

San Francisco theaters, therefore, cluster into just a few neighborhoods of our large and diverse city. I like to call this unequal geographic distribution  “the Van Ness Avenue problem.” As I see it, a line runs north-south and divides the city: east of the line, there are theaters; west of the line, there aren’t. And this line is located roughly at Van Ness Avenue. While you can quibble with my exact terminology (I can think of a few theaters located one or two blocks west of Van Ness, such as Custom Made on Gough Street or Stage Werx on Valencia Street), the point stands: close to 100% of the theaters in San Francisco are located in the eastern 30% of the city.

In practical terms, this means that the neighborhoods where artists live are often different from the neighborhoods where they make theater. I live in the Inner Sunset, as do many other stalwarts of the San Francisco independent theater scene – when coming home from theater events, I rarely lack for “MUNI buddies” to ride the N-Judah with me.  In the Inner Sunset, we have our boulangeries (shout-out to Arizmendi and Tart to Tart), we have transit connectivity, we have doctors’ offices and retail stores and an astounding number of restaurants. But we don’t have a theater. And this same pattern holds for many of the most lively and livable neighborhoods in San Francisco: the Haight, the Inner Richmond, the Castro. Neighborhoods like these are seemingly New Urbanist paradises, equipped with every amenity – except for a local theater.

What’s true for the artists is true for our audience as well. The challenge of getting people to come see theater is not merely convincing them that a certain show is worth their time and money. More than that, we must convince them to venture into some of the city’s most dilapidated areas. While the Tenderloin is easy to get to, it’s not very hospitable for theatergoers; for instance, it’s difficult to find a restaurant to dine at before the show. (I’ve been known to suggest dining at the Westfield Mall cafeteria, for lack of a better option.) And while we know that you won’t get robbed if you go to the Tenderloin, many other San Franciscans have a hard time believing that. Moreover, if you’re a woman, you won’t get robbed, but you’ll probably get catcalled.

Because the theaters where we work are often located on obscure streets in run-down areas, we also cannot take good advantage of foot traffic or spillover from other popular venues in the neighborhood. A theater on a main thoroughfare like Divisadero or Haight would be seen by thousands of people who stroll the street daily, plus the thousands more who travel down it by bus. Contrast that with a typical Tenderloin theater, the Boxcar – located on an alley off of a seedy part of 6th Street, it’s easy to overlook. I fear that by not catering to foot traffic, we ignore an important source of new audience members.

Theater Pub at the Café Royale avoids some of these pitfalls. Yes, it’s east of Van Ness, and on the map it might look like it’s in the Tenderloin, but it’s really in the quieter and more residential “Tendernob.” It does get foot traffic, and the big plate-glass windows of the Café Royale mean that passers-by can peer inside and wonder what’s going on. Several patrons have joined us for a show after spotting us from the street!

An example of the type of theater that I envision for San Francisco’s central and western neighborhoods is Thick House, on Potrero Hill. It’s a 100-seat proscenium stage, located in a nice mixed-use neighborhood, close to shops and restaurants. Because Thick House is one of the few small theaters that’s not in the Tenderloin, it’s a favorite of institutions like Playwrights Foundation and PlayGround. If a neighborhood like Potrero Hill can support Thick House, couldn’t a neighborhood like the Richmond or the Sunset support a small theater?

I don’t pretend that it will be easy to alleviate “the Van Ness problem” and open new theaters in different neighborhoods of San Francisco. I know that theater is not a moneymaking industry, that the Tenderloin offers cheap rent, that theaters require specific facilities and you can’t just open up a theater in any building. I know we’re in a recession and all businesses are struggling. Think of the late, lamented Red Vic Movie House, which had a great location on Haight Street and closed last summer after 30 years in business.

Nonetheless, I think it’s worth asking why we must go east of Van Ness Avenue if we want to see a show. Will I ever see a theater marquee lit up on Irving Street?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, dramaturg, and arts writer. Find her at and on Twitter @MarissaSkud.