Elbow to elbow, five rows thick, raucous patrons gather for another Saturday night at Sak Comedy Lab to watch "Duel of Fools." The audience is eager and practiced, supplying the cues that the ensemble will use to frame the scenes. "Give me the name of a film genre," the referee calls out. "Action," calls back a woman who is holding a baby in her arms.
The actors take her cue and a "Mission: Impossible" scene unfolds focused on the theft of a "golden Beanie baby." Then, to the crowd's delight, the scene is played in reverse. Next, the same scene played in a different film genre flops. The audience zealously jumps to its feet and screams, "Die."
Another game begins, prompted by more suggestions from the interactors, who range from wisecracking high-school kids to more subdued couples. A second comedy-improv team performs the piece to a roaring response. The referee asks for a vote. Team two wins.
Later, a tittering bachelorette party wants to treat its bride-to-be to a "Slice of Life." Revealed is the fact that the May bride's first date with her fiance was at a McDonald's, and that she is known to be extremely clumsy. The ensemble runs the gamut of possibilities with soaring comedy hijinks, acting out a first-date scene that has everyone rolling.
Sak Comedy Lab inhabits an odd space in one of the city's concrete, high-rise parking garages in the Orlando Centroplex. Here, seekers of laughter and interactive entertainment flock. Safely settled amid the essence of fresh popcorn (this is a no-alcohol, family-style place) wafting across a lights-down playhouse, they seek relief from the isolation of the digitally induced dark ages of passive entertainment.
"Improv has always been overlooked by people looking for entertainment," says James Newport, Sak's managing and artistic director, and an ensemble performer. Sak is the city's improvisational pioneer, keeping Orlando ahead of this trend, relentlessly performing for almost a decade, weathering ups and downs, especially the financially sensible relocation in 1998 from their high-traffic spot on Church Street.
But, says Newport, "with the popularity of improv on TV, thousands of people are seeing it for the first time and saying, 'Hey, this is funny stuff.'"
Funny, indeed, as this novelty fabrication of reality attracts 800-plus improv-comedy lovers a week. Sak's audience represents a fast-growing American mainstream who has developed a thirst for this quirky form of immersion entertainment. With the help of shows like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," the British-born creation that transitioned a couple of years ago from cable to network TV, thanks to Drew Carey, demand for interactive improvisational comedy has increased. Unlike the familiar sketch comedy of "Saturday Night Live" or the waning genre of stand-up comedy, improv offers control to the audience and requires its immediate and spontaneous participation.
Newport thinks that the growing interest is a backlash from too much television, movies and the computer, which all create barriers between the audience and the source. In traditional scripted theater, it's called the fourth wall. "Improvisational theater is all about tearing that wall down," says Newport. Our whole philosophy is about accepting `the audience` and making them part of the show, even if it's from their seat."
For Sak's audience, the suspension of disbelief is in full effect as the troupe provides seven hilarious 90-minute shows a week. There's theater sports like "Duel of Fools," where competition is the name of the game, as well as "Fool Jam," which takes more risks and pushes the limit of experimental improv, and "Midnite Thing," when hesitation is thrown to the wind as almost anything goes.
Where Sak may be the improv stronghold in the area, it is certainly not the only act in town spreading comedy glee and mayhem. The annual Orlando International Fringe Festival that took place in early May offered a strong show of local improv talent and its potential.
Independent troupes like No Laughing Matter, a four-member ensemble founded by Christopher Murphy that does both sketch and improv, and Discount Comedy Outlet, also a foursome, formed by Brian Bradley and Peter Hurtgen, can be seen around town, too. (DCO just finished a 30-minute TV pilot to shop in the sketch/improv favorable market.) And, of course, there's THEM.
THEM is composed of six of Orlando's prodigal but comedic sons: Bob DeRosa, Ian Covell, Josh Flaum, Will Bowles, Rob Thurmond and a hard-rock electric-guitar player with lots of effects, "Captain" Rob Houle. On a recent night, being wedged in to the sardine can of Performance Space Orlando is plenty roomy for the guys to stretch out for a regular Saturday-night rehearsal. That's because their craft is a lot less about creating and maintaining a space to perform and more about the chemistry of friends and the simple art of improvisation.
"It's like a religion," says Covell of THEM's productive four-year association, "because the basic philosophy behind improv is there is no room for ego. So your job becomes making the other person you are performing with look as great as possible."
Member Thurmond makes a living in New York as an actor but still commutes to rehearse and perform with the ensemble. The troupe recently returned from a Canadian tour and is working on further outreaches.
"If you don't trust the people you're doing improv with, then you are less likely to make bold, dangerous choices," says Thurmond. "The more you rehearse, the more you know their style and mesh with them ... and the more you hit those magic moments of improv."
Conjuring magic moments are the order of business for the evening's rehearsal, because they are after something big: mastering a challenging type of improv called "long form," which requires committing to a character and a plot for a full hour. "It's the kind of thing where you can really create a movie on stage ... it's a whole other level," says Thurmond.
Rehearsing for improv seems like an oxymoron, but it quite simply is all about oiling the mental and physical process of trusting implicitly, and saying "yes" to whatever comes. The "yes" begins with a round of freeze tag. At least two players on stage begin the scene. The other players off-stage freeze the scene at opportune moments, replacing one of the players with themselves, prompting a new scene. The result is a series of crisp, fragmented but hilarious story snippets that never find resolution. The scene ends. Bowles breaks character and looks at his watch. "Forty-five minutes," he says, disappointed they didn't make the one-hour goal.
But succeeding in rehearsal isn't something to dwell on, assures Thurmond. More important, rehearsal is to make them just as comfortable with failure. "I would much rather come on stage and give a strong performance that is true to the moment than do the same gag just to get a laugh," he says. "The audience loves to see you fail big as much as they love for you to succeed."