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Spotlight: SAK Comedy Lab opens new theater in downtown Orlando

Inside the lobby at SAK Comedy Lab's new downtown Orlando theater
Nicole Darden Creston
Central Florida Public Media
Inside the lobby at SAK Comedy Lab's new downtown Orlando theater

SAK Comedy Lab is an Orlando institution for improv, classes, and all things funny and extemporaneous. Since its 1991 beginnings in a former funeral home in downtown Orlando – yes, really – SAK has rolled with the punchlines (ahem) and changed locations when circumstances called for it.

But now, SAK has a home all its own – a new dedicated theater in the heart of downtown at the Church Street Marketplace that just cleared its final permits earlier this month.

David Russell is president of SAK and one of its founding members. On a recent tour of SAK’s new digs, Russell said that while buildings have changed throughout the years, SAK’s mission of creating joy and staying in the moment has not.

“What you see here are improvised shows mostly,” he explains. “Most everything has at least a tinge of ‘keeping it current’ – if something happens in the show, we just kind of play off that moment, in real time.”

Russell says on top of special limited performances that often come through the theater, SAK has some weekly mainstage shows that involve performers “competing” against one another to create the funniest improv scenes.

Russell says you can think of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” as a reference for the type of shows you’ll see regularly.

“This is what we call short-form improv – short little scenes, stories, sketches, and songs, and these last anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes,” he says. “And it could be anything! Like, ‘We challenge you to a musical scene!’”

He then explains one of those musical-scene-related improv games.

“They might do one we call a ‘chart song,’ where we're just going to send someone out of the room, get a list of words from the audience, write them down, and then the vocalist – the person out of the room – comes back. And we pick someone from the audience and say, ‘You’re going to sing an ode to this person, but you have to incorporate this list of words,’” he says.

When you enter the theater, you’ll see murals in the lobby that emphasize joy, play, and positivity. Russell notes it’s not off the mark to say that the language of improv shares many words and concepts in common with the fields of mental health and healing.

A close-up of one of four murals expressing foundational principles of improv in the lobby of SAK Comedy Lab's new theater.
Nicole Darden Creston
Central Florida Public Media
A close-up of one of four murals expressing foundational principles of improv in the lobby of SAK Comedy Lab's new theater. Murals by Bob Kodzis

For example, in the art of improv, some of the foundational concepts are openness (to the subject and to the other person in your scene), offering (you or your scene partner begin by “offering up” an idea for the scene in the moment), and acceptance (the other performer accepts the “offer” by affirming and building onto the scene that is developing from that idea). It’s often described in the simple phrase, “Yes, and.”

In the improv classes offered at SAK, Russell notes, students learn how to be in the moment with a stranger, and to communicate and build a trusting relationship with that person as they create a scene together. He says those skills can carry over into life.

“Improv is a vehicle to empathy and loving one another,” Russell explains. “And yes, mental health, in the sense that ‘I am free to be who I am, free to express who I am, free to express and live in my vulnerabilities, and all around me are supportive and encouraging in that, and not blaming and pushing down.”

Russell points out that one of the workshops that SAK teaches is called Improv for Anxiety. “If we look at how improvisors are able to build scenes from nothing…what if we use that to build a relationship? Build a relationship from nothing. So yes, we do use some of the same language.”

Nicole came to Central Florida to attend Rollins College and started working for Orlando’s ABC News Radio affiliate shortly after graduation. She joined Central Florida Public Media in 2010. As a field reporter, news anchor and radio show host in the City Beautiful, she has covered everything from local arts to national elections, from extraordinary hurricanes to historic space flights, from the people and procedures of Florida’s justice system to the changing face of the state’s economy.
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