The Dark Room, a black-box theater on Mission, went dark in June, but only temporarily, according to owner Jim Fourniadis. "We just had a run of bad luck," he says, recounting various misfortunes that befell the theater in May. Fourniadis and his team were gearing up to stage a parody of Monty Python and the Holy Grail when they received a cease-and-desist letter from the owners of the Spamalot franchise, halting the proceedings. Fourniadis auctioned off costumes and props to recoup some of the production costs — the cease-and-desist letter went for $400 — and set up a PayPal donation button on the Dark Room's website.
Then some sound and tech equipment broke. Not wanting to double-dip with loyal benefactors, Fourniadis decided it was time to shutter anyway. Patrons had long complained about the seats in The Dark Room, so he'd put off fixing those, too. He hopes that with a little work and ingenuity, he'll have the theater running in a couple months.
Unlike many boot-strapped artists who work in San Francisco's Mission District, he believes the city is actually quite hospitable to small theaters and storefront galleries.
"I was in the East Village back when it got completely yuppified in the '80s and '90s," Fourniadis recalls. "It was very hard to open up a space, unless it was a bar."
Dense high-rise architecture and exorbitant rents have somewhat circumscribed New York City's art scene, he continues. It may be the theater capital of the world, but it's not a haven for shoestring companies that typically operate out of low-slung buildings or cubbyholes. San Francisco, in contrast, is a checkerboard of such places. He says that even with the feverish construction of luxury condos, it's still a city where a hardscrabble theater producer can rent a ground-floor space and tack up a marquee.
"To some, it's not as nurturing as it used to be," Fourniadis says. "But there's still that tradition of progressive thinking. In New York, you can't even busk any more."
Fourniadis isn't a new arrival. He moved to San Francisco in 2001 and got a job managing a similar low-budget arthouse on 18th Street called Spanganga. (Its storefront now houses the Senegalese restaurant Bissap Baobab.) When that venue closed, he decided to launch The Dark Room in the building that had previously belonged to Mission Records, a popular hole-in-the-wall punk stage.
So, beer-sluiced moshpits gave way to left-field performance art. In what might be considered a perfect San Francisco cycle of death and regeneration, one of The Dark Room's most popular offerings — a weekly comedy showcase called The Business — just moved to another imperiled venue, Lost Weekend Video.
Fans hope the lights stay on there, too.