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Regional Interests

In the Tenderloin, PianoFight Plans Simultaneous Caution, Expansion

If there’s one thing that the past year and a half has taught arts organizations, it’s that maximum flexibility will be a key component of producing events for months, perhaps years, to come.

Take, for example, PianoFight, the hybrid performing arts space/restaurant/bar located on Taylor Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. After months of planning a highly anticipated welcome-back series of performances by favorite resident acts such as the San Francisco Neo-Futurists, Awesome Theatre, Chardonnay, Killing My Lobster, and jazz pianist Max Chanowitz, PianoFight was forced to pull the plug the day before the show opened, after multiple people tested positive for COVID-19 following a private party held in the space.

“We don’t feel like we have protocols that can protect peoples’ health well enough,” PianoFight co-founder Rob Ready says about the last-minute cancellation. Despite requiring proof of vaccination from all patrons and staff, assigning “pod” seating, and enforcing a limited capacity, PianoFight has discovered—as other venues would be wise to note—that there may not yet be a risk-free option for indoor performance.

It’s not a decision any company wants to have to admit. But it’s likely to be a familiar one in the coming months.

An empty PianoFight bar in SF awaits the return of in-person performances. (Duncan Wold)

Expanding to Oakland

Despite the myriad challenges of operating a performing arts venue during a pandemic, PianoFight has not only weathered the financial storms of running one venue—they’ve actually expanded.

When shutdowns arrived in March of 2020, Pianofight had already been in negotiations to take over the lease of Oakland venue the Flight Deck. Founded and operated by Ragged Wing in 2014, the Flight Deck has been an artistic home and host for numerous East Bay companies in an area short on black box theaters but large in talent. When Ragged Wing announced in late 2019 an intention to give up the lease, Ready immediately forwarded the announcement to his business partners, and they threw their collective hat into the ring of contenders. It was the beginning of what Ready describes as “a long process”—even before the pandemic made the process even longer.

A couple of financial assists made their proposal viable—even though, as a for-profit LLC, PianoFight was “once again signing our personal names to some very heavy documents,” a daunting detail during a protracted shutdown without a clear ending. The first was a successful fundraising campaign at the beginning of the pandemic that garnered over $100,000, money that helped their San Francisco space survive, particularly before they were able to receive federal and city assistance. The second was being able to garner grant funding—through the fiscal sponsorship of Independent Arts & Media—enough to pay for their first year of operating in Oakland.

By early June in 2020, the lease was theirs. The venue was still shut to public performance, but thanks to substantial support from Ragged Wing, PianoFight was able to immediately open the lobby during the height of the George Floyd demonstrations—part of a nationwide movement of arts venues offering refuge and essentials to protesters.

Entrance to PianoFight Oakland and staff. (Rob Ready)

Since that time, PianoFight Oakland, like San Francisco, has been mostly closed. Recently, a few community organizations and companies have staged work there in limited capacities—including the Formerly Incarcerated Peoples Performance Project and All Out Comedy Theater. And while Ready promises that a grand opening bash is in the works, the first priority is to get PianoFight in San Francisco back up and running.

Which, ostensibly, was to happen this past weekend. Until it wasn’t.

A Cautious Reopening Plan

With the Delta variant spreading, venues around the Bay Area and the country now face similar decisions and contingency plans as they dance towards the tantalizing prospect of fully reopening. Focused for the past 16-plus months on sheer survival, they must now weigh the continuously shifting public health protocols put in place by their respective cities, counties, states, and unions, while also taking into account the comfort levels and safety of their resident artists and audiences. Should masks be required for all audience and staff? Proof of vaccination? Socially-distanced seating options? What does enforcement look like? But also, how would it look and feel to throw open the doors and welcome people back into the communal spaces that they’ve been missing, while still mitigating the risks of indoor gathering?

Doesn’t this Space Prom at PianoFight SF look like fun? (courtesy of PianoFight)

Still, plans have to be made, even if they wind up changing. That’s why PianoFight—along with a cohort of around 30 fellow members of the Independent Venue Alliance and the San Francisco Venue Coalition—are planning a joint festival for the Fall they’re tentatively calling “SF Rising: Get Up to Get Down.” Participating venues will range in size and scope from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to Amado’s—a rare collaborative effort borne in part from their work over the course of the pandemic organizing on behalf of their shuttered industry for government funds.

For Ready, personally, what will make the long and unpredictable path towards reopening worthwhile? The moment he gets to go onstage at PianoFight on Taylor Street, he says, and welcome everyone back into the room, in person.

“I’m a performer at heart,” Ready confesses. “(So) I really keep imagining that moment… I don’t know what is going to happen after that. But I just know, in that moment, on that first step, it’s gonna feel real real good.”

Watch for updates on PianoFight’s reopening and “SF Rising: Get Up to Get Down” here.

Copyright 2021 KQED