Aug 15 2015

Dark Room Obit

This has been a long time coming, but it still breaks my heart. The Dark Room Theater is closing, for real this time.

This is a place which has been hanging by a thread since it opened twelve years ago, operating on a shoestring budget in the grey area of copyright law. It just kept bouncing back.

I have so many great stories about the place and its stage the size of a parking space, but I basically haven’t been able to write in the weeks since I heard the news. I only started writing this down to try and make sense of things. What started as a few short rationalizations kept expanding as I try to turn the recent drama of that place into the story of how, for the last year and a half, events seemed to conspire to shut the place down.

To start with, the Terminator show planned for March 2014 was pulled off the schedule because Jim, who’s the founder, sole (official) resident of The Dark Room and was directing the production, caught pneumonia during rehearsals.

After that, the theater’s (cribbed from Monty Python) Holy Grail show was cancelled at the last minute, because of a cease and desist order from Spam-a-lot’s lawyers. The lawyers were just trying to do their jobs, because they thought a similar show in a town where they wouldn’t open for several months, in a theater with fewer seats than their third balcony, would cut into their show’s box office. There’s no way they could understand.

As a business, The Dark Room has always been run as an underground, punk rock operation — with so little to lose, there would be no point in trying to sue it. The few times lawyers heard about something Jim was planning to do and threatened to sue, he could just drop the project and move on. There are plenty more ideas out there to adapt.

But this show was already paid for, and all the ticket sales went out the window. Jim had to pay rent. That thread which the theater had always been hanging by threatened to snap.

For as long as I’ve know about the place, people have lived there. Though it’s zoned as commercial space, every room was rented out for artists to pursue their art. Did it matter that they would also crash there… every night, for as long as they rented the room? Jim got some drywall and made new rooms to rent, but it still wasn’t enough.

One of the incredible things about The Dark Room is how much this “community theater” really did create a community. To pay off the Holy Grail show, people banded together and put on a fundraiser. Jim needed our help, so we all helped, and the thread continued not to snap.

That still meant the place went months without a play, just the two weekly standbys of The Business, a well-attended stand up show, and Bad Movie Night, which usually played for only a small group of us diehards.

It wasn’t until that summer and the eleventh annual Twilight Zone series that a play finally went up on the tiny stage. Two separate casts performed two different episodes each weekend, for the first half of the month long run. Two weeks in, an electrical fire singed the dressing room and cut power to the stage lights. Sonovabitch! Thankfully nobody was hurt, but still, even after that, the show must go on. The last two weekends successfully relocated to the Exit theater downtown, but The Dark Room shut down until further notice.

With the financial situation frequently desperate, the building due for an earthquake retrofit and the electrical wiring which had long since threatened to kill everyone inside, it seemed inevitable that something would shut the place down for good, sooner or later. It looked like that last one would be it.

But not quite. Astoundingly, The Dark Room reopened less than two months later, with a few stage lights on an extension cord from the back of the building. Would it be enough to do plays again? I had my doubts. Also, The Business had already found a new venue, never to return. At least Bad Movie Night would be back on… until its already scheduled finale the following March.

After ten years of bad movies on Sunday night, along with gradually declining attendance, the woman in charge of BMN saw the decade anniversary of that show as the best time to move on, to stop curating a film series only a few of us really watched, so she could focus on things like writing for SF Weekly.

I spent every free Sunday night for years shouting insults at dumb movies, and now that tradition is over. I’ve barely been back since.

But the theater kept going. The Terminator show from a year before finally went up. I admit my doubts about how few lights were still running, but Sean Wigglesworth made it work.

A new weekly standup show pulled in audiences who didn’t notice The Business was somewhere else, and even the annual Twilight Zone series returned to its home for a twelfth year. The theater incorporated as an LLC and kept booking more shows. Things seemed to be on the upswing again, until last month, when someone anonymously tipped off the authorities that people were living in drywalled cubbies in every corner of the theater.

That was it. In a twist ending, of all the looming dangers the place fought over and over, the fight it couldn’t win was with zoning restrictions. People can keep living there, but the building can’t also house a business.

I discovered The Dark Room in 2008 when an old coworker got me a part in “Star Wars: Live!” I kept doing shows there and slowly discovered this was a place where my lifelong compulsion of reciting lines from movies could finally be useful to someone. That crutch from my introverted childhood could do more than make people feel awkward around me. It could make me a star of the stage, for about an hour, two or three times a week, for the 4-5 week run of each show.

I kept getting asked back. I’ve always felt awkward around people, but my lack of conversation skills didn’t matter when the things we each had to say were written down for us ahead of time. It took years of that, but I started to come out of my shell. I made my closest friends through that place. I met my girlfriend there.

Doing live productions of famous movies changed how I went through the rest of my life. Watching any movie could become a creative exercise in “how would we do that on stage?”

The greatest lesson I learned from my time at The Dark Room is, it’s possible just to do things. Nice try, Nike. I never appreciated that slogan until The Dark Room. That carried over into my own projects. It fed back into the theater when I adapted the movies I wanted to see on that stage.

We did the stories we loved, without waiting for permission. No money for sets? No room for them up there anyway. If we could put together some half-decent props, a few costumes and get our friends to show up and learn lines, we had a show. Book the theater, send out fliers and hope people come see it. There were no gatekeepers to tell us what we could and couldn’t perform.

I haven’t done anything at The Dark Room in a couple years. I backed off to spend more time focusing on my own projects, using what I learned from that place, running with the feeling that I can keep making things on my own.

But knowing it was out there, that the place kept on operating despite the forces of copyright, financial insecurity and their own dangerous electrical wiring, inspired me to keep pushing forward. Now it’s hard to keep that feeling going.

But momentum is a thing. Along with the talents of three girls I met through The Dark Room, I’ve been working to start a sketch comedy group, We Did a Thing. We already had one short gig, at a closed corporate event, to get our inaugural performance out of the way. Now we’re performing in public, on the stage in our friend’s living room, which has only a couple weeks left of being The Dark Room Theater.