Jim Fourniadis got married on a tiny stage in a 60-seat theater, lovingly nicknamed the “parking spot,” in the Dark Room Theater. For 12 years, he ran the Dark Room and brought live theater, comedy, parodies and bad movie nights to Mission Street, while living in the back with some six other theater artists.
On Saturday, the show business will end. The theater space will have its last performances and then shut down for good. The living space, he hopes, will be spared.
A recent complaint to the Planning Department from an anonymous neighbor outed the live-work arrangement that had flown under the radar for years, and Fourniadis reluctantly decided to close the theater with a last hurrah rather than be forced to shutter abruptly.
“We were sort of out of sight, out of mind,” Fourniadis said. “When San Francisco was like the old Wild West, people didn’t care as much.”
Though he noted that the city has been accommodating and helpful in the inspection and enforcement process, Fourniadis decided to get ahead of the inevitable and shut down. When word came in about the complaint, he knew that the theater wouldn’t pass an inspection, what with the obvious dwelling units in the rear and not-quite-to-code fire exits. But the artists living there would lose their homes, and there may yet be a way to legalize the living space — just not with the theater in front. The city has given the residents a list of improvements to make to bring their home into compliance, and Fourniadis is seeing if he can swing the renovations.
“50 years ago, I mean, shit, even 30 years ago, this would’ve been fine. And there’s a lot of places that probably did things like that,” said Rob Ready, who runs Piano Fight Theater. “But now … people are really concerned about, what if somebody falls down and breaks a nail! You gotta have a million dollar liability policy!”
Piano Fight, which shares creative talent with the Dark Room, will present a benefit show to help the Dark Room theater cover its closing costs.
The Dark Room has always existed on the fringe, but it’s come back from many a shutdown, says Damien Chacona, who formed a production company, Ham Pants Productions, from the connections he made at the Dark Room.
“It’s been resurrected a bunch of times, Chacona said.”The Dark Room is practically a phoenix of the underground theater scene in San Francisco. I love it and I am very very sad to see it go. But I can’t say that I’m that surprised. And I don’t think that it would’ve necessarily stayed around more than a handful more years if the Mission didn’t gentrify as quickly as it did.”
With an irreverence that it harkens to the punk rock records shop that preceded it and Founiadis’ own past as a punk rock band member, the Dark Room became a carefree, experimental place, especially for those just starting out.
“I didn’t try to judge other people’s material,” Fourniadis said. “Sometimes you have to suck first before you get good. If nobody lets you suck, you’re not gonna get good.”
The couple that ran the theater certainly set the mood. Fourniadis and his now ex wife, Erin Ohanesson, were a welcoming presence at the theater.
“I think Jim is like a San Francisco underground theater Mel Brooks,” said Chacona.
“They were just so lovely to work with, and that’s, I would say, rare with people that operate 50 seat theaters, because like I said, you have to be a little insane. Granted, they’re both also a little insane, but in a really good way,” said Ready.
“She was sort of the den mother of the place,” said Mikl Em, a local writer, producer and actor who worked with Fourniadis at the former theater space Spanganga.
Fourniadis proposed to Ohanesson in 2006. A friend and playwright, Sean Owens, performed the ceremony in a pope hat — after popping out of a giant cake in drag at Fourniadis’ bachelor party. The groom had forbidden using a stripper.
The Dark Room developed its own special flavor of parody.
Take the production of Star Wars for example. Fourniadis went so far as to cold call Lucasfilm to get the rights to put on a production of the film, and succeeded, getting all but the score.
The result was cardboard box costumes, with “swashbuckling” music in the background and a pair of storm troopers that would comment on the nonexistent action à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make up for the absence of cinematic effect. It was a hit.
Chacona remembers days where the theater was packed to the gills, but also days when the house was empty.
“Sometimes you’d be there for a Sunday matinée and like six people would show up and you’d still have to do a show even though nobody was there,” he said. “You’d get in to playing really directly with the audience… It would be kind of like putting a play on in your friends’ living rooms.”
The most recent successful show, Fourniadis said, was a production of Terminator that featured a plastic skeleton spray painted silver with red LED’s for eyes that made its way slowly and clumsily across the stage for the final scene.
“We’re really into pop culture and the parodies that we were writing…It wasn’t because we thought it sucked, it’s kinda cool to bust chops on things that you like,” Fourniadis said. “It was a way for us to bond with the audience, show them that we liked the same things that they liked. Even though we were making fun of it, it always came from a place of love.”
Em, too, saw a place on stage for parodies of bigger-budget productions.
“Doing TV and movies, it was unpretentious, it was material that people knew, ” Em said. “They didn’t have to be a theater person or whatever, they immediately had a point of reference. It made it really relatable for everyone in the audience.”
The theater’s style struck a chord with audiences, but with actors too.
“All of that felt, I wouldn’t say important, but, we certainly felt like we were doing something especially goofy if not subversive,” Chacona said. “It was a staple of a lot of my socialization to San Francisco and certainly in getting in with the larger San Francisco theater scene.”
With it gone, both Ready and Chacona said the city has lost a gem, but it’s not necessarily an omen of what the city has become.
“Yeah, times are changing. But I’m not really willing to say everything’s fucked,” said Ready. “Art’s not going away. Space might be but that kind of space and creativity is still alive and well.
Fourniadis, too, is hopeful.
“The one thing that’s gonna make it sting a little less is I’m not gonna fold up and die,” he said. “I’ve got too much creativity to give up.”
The Dark Room will bid its farewell with a garage sale on Saturday, August 22 beginning at 10 a.m. and will have two stage readings of the script for what was to be its last production, The Batman TV Show Parody, at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Piano Fight will host a comedy and arts showcase fundraiser on the Dark Room’s last open night, August 28.