For regulars of PianoFight — the restaurant-bar-theater complex in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, it wasn’t a surprise to see piano virtuoso Max Chanowitz for Friday’s Cocktail Hour, covering everything from Thelonious Monk and The Beatles to Vince Guaraldi and Stevie Wonder. The difference on March 20, though, was that Chanowitz couldn’t see his audience. He facetiously began his Facebook Live set wearing an N95 facemask and dishwashing gloves. The tip jar was noticeably empty as he directed viewers to links in the video’s description.
This is PianoFight’s new Virtual Venue, the company’s way of adapting to the COVID-19 shutdown.
After a stressful week of restaurant closures, canceled performances and normalizing the term “social distancing,” the PianoFight crew waited for the other shoe to drop.
“We decided to stay open that Friday the 13th,” says executive director Dan Williams. Though their show calendar had emptied, they hoped their status as a still-open food establishment could lift local spirits.
“No one walked in the door that night. I think we probably did about 15% of what we’d normally do on a Friday,” he says.
Since opening in 2014, PianoFight (headquarters to the troupe and production company of the same name) has been crucial to The City’s performance scene.
Co-founded by Williams, artistic director Rob Ready and financial manager Kevin Fink, the company successfully crowdfunded $1.2 million to break ground at 144 Taylor St., former home of Original Joe’s. The venue annually cohosts SF Sketchfest and is home to local companies Killing My Lobster, Awesome Theatre and the SF Neo-Futurists. And that’s when it isn’t being used as a forum for local politicians or airing the NBA Finals.
As those activities grinded to a halt with shelter-in-place orders, theater companies began re-thinking (or canceling) their 2020 seasons.
“The writing on the wall became quite explicit in San Francisco the moment the under-50-person gathering order came down,” says Awesome Theatre Artistic Director Colin Johnson. The shutdown prematurely ended Awesome’s world premiere of Tonya Narvaez’s “Clickbait.” “We have some contingency plans for whatever may be thrown our way this year, but we fully intend on developing and finding ways to present these shows to as many people as possible,” he adds.
For Allison Page, artistic director of sketch comedy troupe KML, PianoFight’s closure during such a volatile time is particularly troubling.
“I do fear that a large pause in rentals will cause some venues to close down permanently, which would be an enormous blow to the arts scene in the Bay Area as a whole,” says Page. “The community would lose countless opportunities to have shared experiences, to check in with each other, to band together to help each other when they need it – and PianoFight is a place where that happens a lot, every week.”
PianoFight itself reacted to the shutdown by reaching out to the community it has served for nearly a decade. It began with a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign to cover April expenses and pay staff. They reached the goal in 10 days.
“The community came out in a huge way! We’re so grateful for it,” says Fink of the 740-plus donors. Duncan Wold, PianoFight director of operations, adds, “I wouldn’t say we’re at a place where we really know how we’re going to get through this, but seeing the community come together and back this to the tune of 50K? [That] had just given me so much hope.”
Then came the livestream. Like their resident companies, the PianoFight folks have taken things digital. Wold and Ready’s experiments with Zoom led to an epiphany.
“It went well with Max, so we kinda thought, ‘Hey, we can do this more,’” says Ready of the Virtual Venue. “We’re starting with music, and then there’s plans to do more.”
A subsequent stream by musician Ellisa Sun led to more bookings of comedians and musicians on the company’s website. The result is inspiration in a time of confusion. Even closed, the company still draws local talent.
“Look, we’ve performed at various San Francisco and East Bay theaters, so we know that if we have to move elsewhere, we can,” says Margaret McCarthy, co-artistic director of the SF Neo-Futurists. “But we really hope that doesn’t happen. San Francisco needs more spaces like PianoFight, not fewer.”
COVID-19 has caused a lot of uncertainty, including how it will end. But for PianoFight, the ability to still entertain audiences speaks to their necessity now more than ever.
“We have specific difficulties ramping back up, but one thing we also have that comes along with that is this community,” says Williams. “This community really came out and said that PianoFight was something very important to it.”
PianoFight and the aforementioned resident companies continue to accept donations through their official sites.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.