An elf warrior princess has a wild affair with an orc.
The fundamentalist parents of 13 children have trouble listing them all for their reality show pilot.
A bank CEO is grilled by the Senate Finance Committee about employees incentivized to create fake accounts.
A guilt-ridden man fresh out of prison has an awkward coffee meeting with the teenage daughter of a family he harmed.
A smarmy dudebro corporate manager is dominated by his new female boss.
That’s the wild mix of 10-minute plays in just the first round of ShortLived, the seven-week summer short-play competition at PianoFight in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district (this year’s competition runs June 15-Aug. 5, and full disclosure: My play Cereal Offender was presented July 13-15). PianoFight likes to call it “the nation’s largest audience-judged theatre competition…in the world!”
There may be no way to verify that self-contradicting claim, but I can verify that it is indeed large and audience-judged. This year 36 short plays by Bay Area playwrights compete over the course of six weekends, with scribes this year, apart from yours truly, including Catherine Liu, Kurt Weitzmann, Jeffrey Lo, and Min Kahng. Audiences rank each six-play round in order of preference, and each week’s winning play goes on to compete in the finals in week seven. The play that wins the whole shebang gets a $5,000 prize.
PianoFight, which turns 10 this month, has grown substantially from its beginnings as the scrappy indie company that ran the now-defunct Off-Market Theater; it now runs its own performing arts hub, which opened in late 2014 in the space that was once the Original Joe’s restaurant in the Tenderloin, and programs multiple shows six nights a week in two black-box theatres and a cabaret stage (it also houses a bar and restaurant). Throughout its history at both locations, PianoFight has been about producing new work by new artists, and offering its spaces to anyone for rent and experimentation.
Alongside ShortLived, current offerings include a night of political theatre; a game-show-style comedy playwriting competition; a few singer-songwriters and rock bands; several standup comedy shows; an Afrobeat duo and several jazz combos; a couple of improv comedy shows; an onstage conversation about artificial intelligence accompanied by more standup; a magic and mind-reading show; sketch comedy; a “Twilight Zone” parody; a harpist; a classic musical performed by drag queens; and a hook-up-your-friends dating show called Tinder Disrupt. And that’s just one fairly typical week at the venue. PianoFight programs all year long.
Contrary to its name, ShortLived has had a long life; 2017 marks its sixth incarnation, though it went dark during a few nomadic years while the new space was under construction. PianoFight cooked up ShortLived on the fly when the company was young.
“We had a three-month renter at Off-Market who basically bailed a month before,” recalled artistic director Rob Ready. “We were like, what can we do for three months that’s a) going to be interesting to us, and b) going to draw a crowd?”
ShortLived has evolved since those improvisatory beginnings. Each play used to be graded on a scale of 1 to 10, but this year that’s been replaced by ranked-choice voting. The short plays are also now presented in a different order every night, to guard against the possibility that their placement in the show unduly influences audience responses.
Each round has a separate producer. Round 2 producer Noelle Viñas, who was responsible the change to ranked-choice voting and the rotating order of acts, was first introduced to PianoFight when she was working with FaultLine Theater, a resident theatre company at the space; she later self-produced her own science-fiction play Apocalypse, Please at PianoFight. “The door to pitch is more open here,” Viñas said. So open, in fact, that “You can pitch whatever the hell you want and you’ll get an audience.”
That was definitely the case for drag performer Kevin Wisney. He had been looking for a new home for his weekly drag show, when a friend told him about PianoFight. He met with Ready and “threw some ideas around. I had this idea to do these parodies, and they have just taken off into this thing that is more than I planned on.” Wisney currently produces The Drag Experience, a PianoFight mainstay in which drag queens perform parodies of classic musicals; he also produced Round 4 of ShortLived.
It is easy to get drawn into the PianoFight orbit, as I found while reporting this story, when I found out that my play would be featured in ShortLived. Alas, Cereal Offender, my horror comedy about a breakfast cereal mascot, didn’t win. But it’s been a fascinating whirlwind to be thrown together with terrific actors and directors I hadn’t encountered before. What struck me most is the wide variety of voices and artists brought together in the competition.
“I think that ties into why PianoFight is not only successful but also really needed in this community,” said Wisney. “It brings together these performers from all kinds of backgrounds and puts them together in one place. I think it’s amazing when my show is running and I go out into the bar, just to see the cross-section of San Francisco.”
That’s the whole point, according to Ready. There must never be a dull moment at PianoFight.
“We were specifically aiming for all of this,” he said. “We built a social space on purpose. We built it with liquor on purpose. We built multiple stages on purpose. We built multiple rehearsal rooms on purpose. The idea was, we’re going to fill this up with as much different weird art as we can, and at some point it’s all going to explode.”
Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theatre critic and occasional playwright in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter at @shurwitt.