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Upstaging: One Small Theater Company Rethinks the Business Model

PianoFight's renovation and 10-year lease of the 8,000-square-foot property at 144 Taylor St. seems an extraordinary step for a small theater company to take, but founders Kevin Fink, Rob Ready, and Dan Williams explain that, from their point of view, there wasn't really another option.

The three, who have known each other since grade school in Santa Barbara (Fink and Williams' friendship dates back to kindergarten, while Ready met them in high school), created the S.F.-based company in 2007. Its shows are typically — but not exclusively — comedies, both sketch and full-length, all guided by the company's trademark: "New work by new artists." So far, that's meant everything from site-specific sketches on an oyster farm (Roughin' It I & II), "the world's first ballet-horror comedy" (Duck Lake), and a drama about a nontraditional family (Octopus's Garden).

But before all these shows — in fact, even before its first show — PianoFight already managed a performance space: Off-Market Theater, at Mission and Sixth streets. A departing manager dropped the venue into their hands practically before they'd finished a business plan, which meant they suddenly had to conjure up programming for the next three months. (They solved that quandary by creating ShortLived, an "audience-judged playwriting competition.") Gaining control of the space, Williams says, "was pretty much an accident — that we reached out and grabbed by the horns."

Chaotic as that time was, the founders developed a taste for operating their own venue. When they had to leave Off-Market in early 2011 because of rising rents (the theater has since, to PianoFight's knowledge, been converted into an office space), the company became nomadic, spending, Fink estimates, 60 to 80 percent of its budget on space rentals. Ready says he looked at other companies that rehearsed in one space, performed in another, and taught classes in a third, and thought, "That's the stupidest thing ever, because they're losing a bunch of money on overhead, wasting a bunch of time and energy trying to figure all that out on a constant basis. It was just like, can't we build something... so that you can conceive of, rehearse, develop, perform your own work and then, eh, go have a beer afterwards?"

The founders also gleaned an appreciation for the difference between how much audiences were willing to pay for a theater ticket and how much they were willing to pay for a drink from their years at Off-Market. The theater was close to the bar Tempest, where company members and audiences would head en masse after shows. "People would barter us down to a half-priced ticket," says Williams, "and then they'd go around the corner and drop 10 times what they'd paid for our ticket, buying us drinks and celebrating."

In the new space, PianoFight, in partnership with the improv troupe Endgames, will bring those two elements, often kept separate, under one roof and into one cash register. When it opens in 2014, 144 Taylor St., the former site of the restaurant Original Joe's, will have not only three stages, three rehearsal rooms, and a co-working office space (all available for rent at competitive prices and in package deals), but also a restaurant and bar. Designed by Said-Jonathan Eghbal (of Monk's Kettle fame), it will be open six days a week for happy hour and dinner.

Wining and dining are key components of a financial plan that, bucking the trend for small theater companies, eschews the nonprofit model. There are four components to PianoFight's "funding hydra," including a grant from SF Shines for façade improvements and a Kickstarter campaign, but "the biggest one is private equity," says Ready, coming from friends, family, and community members. "They're not donations," he continues. "We expect to pay them back returns."

PianoFight was formed as an LLC, Williams says, "because that's just how we like to think. We're really interested in the experiment of for-profit art. It makes you beholden to your audience — not that other theater doesn't do that. We just like that we're forced to."

One of the audiences PianoFight will be forced to listen to, the founders hope, is the tech crowd responsible for transforming the mid-Market corridor. To the arts organizations that lament techies' lack of investment, Ready asks, "Are the arts organizations making art for them? What has the arts really invested in the tech industry outside of, 'Give us money!'"

PianoFight is dedicated to maintaining its artistic vibe, which Ready describes as "young, hungry, trying shit out," even as it moves into a bigger space. "The singular thing," he says, "is this raw fucking DIY mentality."

"I like going to see big shows because it's amazing to see what's possible," says Williams, "but to see something that's unvetted — it's like life. It fires me up. Whether [audiences] know theater or not, it'll fire them up, too."

 
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