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ShortLived VI, a short play festival, at PianoFight in 2017. (Photo by Daniel Burke.)

Bay Area’s PianoFight to Close After 15 Years

The San Francisco and Oakland locations will both close March 18.

SAN FRANCISCO and OAKLAND, CALIF.: PianoFight has announced that its two venues will close in March. The Bay Area institution will host scheduled events, including SF SketchFest, through March 18.

“Of course it’s sad to close, but we’re so grateful, and so proud of what we’ve been able to do,” executive director Dan Williams said in a statement. “We’ve hosted comedy, plays, music, dance, drag, magic, burlesque, circus, podcasts, films, video game tournaments, and game shows. We said yes to everything because we could, we wanted to, and it was more fun than saying no.”

PianoFight began as a new works producing collective in 2007, evolving to venues in two cities with four stages, rehearsal studios, a restaurant and bar, office space, and an art gallery. PianoFight has generated $25 million for the local economy and paid approximately $1.3 million directly to Bay Area artists.

PianoFight’s original venue closed in 2011, but their current San Francisco location opened in 2014. The Oakland location opened in 2020 and has been the after-school home of middle and high school students from the Oakland School for the Arts. The company has also produced site-specific work in the Bay Area, toured California, and produced work in Los Angeles.

In addition to SF SketchFest, PianoFight has been the home of Leela Improv Theatre, the SF Neo-Futurists, and the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Performance Project, among other local theatre groups.

“PianoFight started because we thought there could be a different and fun way of doing things,” artistic director Rob Ready said in a statement. “We wanted to lower the barrier to entry so more people could perform and provide infrastructure so artists could focus on art. We wanted all that to be sustainable, and until COVID struck, it was.”

The pandemic ground PianoFight’s forward momentum to a halt. In 2020, the San Francisco arts community raised $100,000 to help PianoFight remain open through the year, but the pandemic’s persistence affected operations costs too greatly.

“We made a lot of assumptions about the pandemic, most of which ended up being wrong,” operations director Duncan Wold said in a statement. “The most off-base being that once we reopened, artists and audiences would be so hungry for live performance, the business would be there. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”

Wold said that business has hovered at 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels and that the venues hosted about 500 fewer shows in 2022 than in 2019.

“On a fundamental level, PianoFight operated by just saying yes to basically everything,” Ready said. “We thought that SF needed a place where someone could show up to see a world premiere play, grab dinner, catch a band after, and hang out with all the artists in the bar—or be the person making any of those. We feel very fortunate. This has been the experience of a lifetime.”

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