Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon

Words by Tiffany Lew

Once follows a Czech woman and Irishman in Dublin, Ireland. The setting is a key feature of both the 2007 film and the Tony award winning play based on it. But when I watched the Bay Area regional premiere of the play at the Gateway Theatre, I was constantly struck by how the story of struggling musicians and immigrants trying to make it in a bustling city could easily take place in San Francisco today. Devastating heartbreak and all.

The lead male character “Guy” (played by Corbin Mayer) is a 30-something busker. “Girl” (Olivia Nice) is moved by his music and strikes up a conversation. In one of the opening lines, Guy disdainfully tells her that he “fixes Hoovers,” the vacuum cleaners, for a living. Perhaps it’s telling that I misheard him to say “Ubers,” despite the fact I’d seen the play on Broadway and watched the movie.

When a San Francisco crowd-favorite character Billy (Rob Ready), who is the owner of a music shop, argues with a banker about survival and capitalism, it’s hard not to think about the generations of small businesses being pushed out of San Francisco.

Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon

In many ways, Once — both the play and the film — benefits from being understated, raw, and at times even slow. It’s anti-Hollywood. (Its Hollywood counterpart could be the Hugh Grant romantic comedy, Music and Lyrics, as the professor seated next to me mentioned.) Set changes feel lyrical, glances can speak volumes, and dialogue features subtext. There’s a breathtaking moment that involves simply three words projected on a backdrop, but for really not-so-simple feelings.

Once is directed by Cindy Goldfield, and runs through June 30. We spoke with Rob Ready, the 34-year-old is not only the cofounder and artistic director of PianoFight — an art venue, restaurant (and more) in San Francisco’s Tenderloin — but also a member of the band Californicorns.

The Bay Bridged: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist or work in a creative field?

Rob Ready: I moved around a bunch growing up. Every three to five years my family would move across the continent somewhere. I don’t know if I realized this at the time but looking back, I think I found my tribe much faster after we moved by doing creative things than say, play soccer.

For me, art has always been about connecting myself and other people. And it’s always been in my life from as far back as I can remember. And so when I was in high school, I was like, I’m going to be in college for this, and then I went to college and was like, I’m gonna keep doing this, and then I did and now I work in this. The goal wasn’t like, I’m gonna make a fucking living doing this. It was: I’m gonna keep doing this thing that’s really helpful for me and meaningful — and then that organically turned into a career.

Tying that into Once — I’m stoked to do the show because that’s a big part of what the show is about: Two people connecting to themselves and each other and finding a community that supports them and builds them up and they do all that through music.

TBB: What was the audition process for Once? Did they approach you?

RR: Girlfriend and I did one night trip to Point Reyes and borrowed a car from our friend, and she and my girlfriend convinced me to audition. When she dropped it off, she said she’s doing rehearsal for Once. And I started singing a bit — I loved the music. And I said, No I can’t audition! I’m too busy, can’t get time off… But then I hit up the director and assistant director. I sang, “Say It To Me Now.” I’m picking up a message lorddd… It was a few months from beginning to end.

(L-R)Rob Ready, Matt Davis and Brady Morales-Woolery. Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon

TBB: What are your top three inspirations, whether personally or creatively?

RR: Professional wrestling, Sam Cooke, action movies.

Pro wrestling is this very big, theatrical long-form storytelling, physical, meta art form. Which is totally American, kinda like jazz, and it’s produced at a rate that’s absolutely stunning — it’s fast, live. 10-20 hours of live TV every week. It’s meta, they take real life issues and work them into storylines, some storylines turn into real-life issues. In the span of a career, they perform 50 to 100,000 people per night. As a guy who likes theater, sports, and comedy and drama and respects how difficult it is to produce any live show, it’s just really incredible what they’re able to accomplish week in and week out.

I played trumpet, then drums and percussion. Picked up guitar in high school and did that in college. Sometime after college, my friend said you gotta hear this Sam Cooke, “Live At The Harlem Night Club 1963,” runs a party in pitch perfect key the whole time. And there’s fuck ups, and in time and in rhthym they’ll do that one more time. It’s a stunning, stunning thing. I’ve always been a fan of big, performative music like Queen, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, but I remember just listening to that album and going, ‘Holy shit, that’s amazing, I wanna do that.’ That’s part of what inspired me to get into the band I am now, Californicorns.

Action movies; I just love them — they’re big, they’re a spectacle. They have these big fuckin’ moments, but also these human moments.

TBB: What’s the dream five to 10 years from now?
RR: I’d love to play the Fillmore in the next couple of years, and get onto the bill of Outside Lands, somehow. Hope to record something new and maybe put out an album next year. I’d really love to do some bigger theatrical comedy or comedy music where it’s for 1,000, 5,000 people. ‘Cause that’s just fun, these bigger things. I don’t really know how to do them but also feel like we can figure it out.

Closes June 30, 2019
Gateway Theatre
Friday 8:00; Saturday 6:00; Sunday 3:00