There's so much good feeling emanating from the stage whenever the SAK Comedy Lab players go to work that it's easy to assume they haven't a care in the world. Performers this enthusiastic -- nay, giddy -- must come to work with pockets full of Godiva-chocolate coupons and spend their off-hours having group sexual congress atop of a big ol' pile of tens and twenties. Right?
Would that life were so just. SAK is currently grappling with a financial shortfall that, while not of Enron proportions, is dire enough in its own right. Paychecks have bounced, office hours have been cut, staffers are being encouraged to find part-time work elsewhere, and corporate accounts are at about half their normal level.
It's the latter downturn that carries the worst sting. Traditionally, SAK has earned between 40 and 50 percent of its income by teaching the pillars of American business to enhance their performance via improv techniques. (Like, how to stab each other in the back and make it look funny? No, silly. Teamwork. Learning to say "yes" instead of "no." That kind of jazz.) But the boardroom belt-tightening of the post-terrorist era has exacerbated a monetary situation at SAK that has been precarious for some time.
"It's easy to blame everything on Sept. 11," says James Newport, the company's president and managing and artistic director. "[But] it seems like, every two or three years, the bank account would be perilously low" -- at least since the original SAK lineup lost its lucrative contract with Epcot in 1989.
According to Newport, staffers have frequently been asked to hold onto their paychecks as long as possible before cashing them. Salary security sank to a new nadir a month or so ago, when employees began to encounter the rubber-receipt phenomenon mentioned above.
Where SAK used to depend on word-of-mouth to generate revenue, more aggressive measures are now required. (Tuition fees from year-round comedy classes won't turn the economic tide: They account for a measly 7 to 10 percent of the annual budget.) At press time, special performances and educational sessions were being auctioned off to the highest bidder, and SAK has pursued sponsorships for its annual "Foolfest" comedy festival and its 2002 Orlando International Fringe Festival entry, "Captain Goodness vs. the Injustice League." For the first time this year, Fringe performers will pay SAK a fee ($250) to use its stage [The Green Room, Feb. 14]. What's more, the comedy lab has changed its arrangement with the Central Florida Theatre Alliance, from which it rents its performance and office space on West Amelia Street. Formerly, the CFTA would rent the SAK stage to outside parties, leaving the comedy concern with only a portion of the profit. Now, SAK is doing the job itself and reaping 100 percent of the benefits. SAK has also moved its administrative functions out of the adjoining office area and into the side of the building that already houses its performing and backstage areas, thus eliminating half its utility payments.
It's somewhat ironic that SAK seems to have swung a sweeter deal from the CFTA under its new executive director, Jim Morris, than under his predecessor, Terry Olson -- who co-founded SAK in the first place. Newport thinks that Olson may have been intent on avoiding the appearance of favoritism, even if it meant granting repeat rentals of the space to groups who would leave it an alleged shambles. "Not to say that he wasn't patient with us as well," Newport notes -- as on the occasions when the comedy lab was late with its own rent.
There's one place the crunch hasn't yet been felt: in the performed product. A night at SAK remains among Central Florida's best in terms of entertainment value. Perhaps that's why attendance hasn't dropped off to any drastic degree. As the organization approaches its 25th anniversary in August, its mission is to make its show-producing aspect self-sufficient, rather than reliant on corporate business.
"Don't count us out yet," Newport advises, revving up into mock hubris. "We'll be back, bigger and better than ever before. Even if I have to wear a chicken suit to do it."
One to grow on
The Downtown Arts District Commission has awarded $6,000 in buildout monies to Temenos Ensemble Theater, the new performance center on West Church Street that houses the interactive comedy/drama Joe's NYC Bar. In addition, Temenos principals Arwen Lowbridge and Christian Kelty have procured about $8,000 in sponsorship funds from local firms, as well as donations of plumbing supplies, air-conditioning units and legal-filing services.
Once Temenos is done playing host to the Fringe Festival's Kids' Fringe (May 10 through 19), it will unveil its big project for June: an "interactive art gallery show" that sounds like the highbrow equivalent of "Joe's." (Tired of the improvised bar scene? An ersatz art show is a great place to meet chicks!) Real, live customers like you and I will mingle with characters meant to represent featured artists and gallery patrons. Now all we need is an illusory mayor to cut the grand-opening ribbon.
Any rumors you may have heard about Thornton Park's Art Space gallery closing are untrue -- for now. Owner David Jones has merely transferred the responsibility for the venue's day-to-day operation to Victor and Tiphanie Windsor-Perez, who will take over when they return from their current honeymoon. La familia Perez will run the show until August, whereupon they will hopefully pass the baton to another caretaker now being enlisted by Jones ... The Jack Kerouac House in College Park will be featured June 9 through 15 on C-SPAN, as part of the net's American Writers Series ... The Valencia Community College film "Florida City" won a Gold Special Jury Award in the Dramatic Features category at the 35th WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, held April 5 through 14. Praise the Lord and pass the Godivas.