It's one of the oldest, most enduring refrains in local entertainment: SAK Comedy Lab is in trouble. At regular intervals throughout the influential improv operation's 15-year history, a rumor surfaces that the end may be nigh. Operations are streamlined. Promotional campaigns are launched. And alumni in town for weekend visits pull current cast members aside to worriedly whisper "How's SAK doing?" — as if they're discussing a dear old relative who's made a cottage industry out of hovering at death's door.
So when a fresh alarm went up a few weeks ago — in the form of a ticket increase, e-mailed pleas for audience support and an attendant "Save SAK" drive (www.helpsavesak.com) — it was difficult to know immediately if the situation represented a new height of desperation, or merely a case of a boy crying wolf. (Or Chicken Little predicting the sky's collapse, if that's the critter metaphor you prefer.)
"It feels like we've been here before, time and again," agrees Dave Russell, SAK's artistic and managing director. The difference this time, he says, is that the theater has "no apparent resources to find `its` way out. The difficulties seem much broader than before."
One of them is parking. Since 1998, SAK has been housed in the Orlando Centroplex parking garage at 398 W. Amelia St.; as the number and capacity of nearby "surface lots" has dwindled, space in the garage has become a prized commodity. Now, especially on nights when the Orlando Magic play at the nearby TD Waterhouse Centre, SAK patrons often arrive to find the lot full — or, worse yet, that the access street has been closed off entirely. This year, the city also raised the parking rate in the garage, though it offset the damage by arranging for SAK to instantly reimburse its customers the difference in cost. The complexity, however, of a reimbursement chain that includes SAK, the parking board, the Downtown Development Board and the city of Orlando means that the theater is often slow to recoup its losses — enduring delays that only a financially sturdy business could shrug off. And SAK — having never fully recovered from hurricane-related shortfalls and relying on a leaner-than-ever staff — is not that business.
Russell doesn't specify just how dire SAK's straits are; asked to predict the future, he merely states, "It appears that our time at the Centroplex parking garage is limited." While he says it's conceivable the theater could survive to the end of the year ("possibly"), he's operating on a month-by-month basis, starting each 30-day cycle with the knowledge that it could be the last. SAK, he says somewhat ominously, will have to "suspend operations" if attendance doesn't improve enough to offset its other woes.
Thus the "Help Save SAK" campaign — basically a crusade to build awareness of the company's existing performances, improv classes and corporate shows through enhanced word of mouth — is underway. (There's also the inevitable outreach to the MySpace crowd via www.myspace.com/sakcomedylab.) Positive PR is something SAK could use more of, given that much of the public is either unaware of its existence or harbors an inaccurate picture of its financial standing. For instance, the belief is widespread that SAK still gets its space in the Amelia Street facility for the same cushy $1 per year the city offered back in 1998; in actuality, that deal expired quite some time ago, and SAK now pays an annual rent of about $36,000 per year to its landlord, the Central Florida Performing Arts Alliance. That's substantially below market rate — as CFPAA's executive director, Jim Morris, points out, "Dave would never be able to stand up on a building and say to the city, ‘You're not being fair to us.'" But utilities costs, Morris clarifies, bring SAK's monthly base-level expenditures to $5,000, a hefty amount — especially with rent increases coming that will affect both SAK and the Alliance. And as a for-profit business, SAK has no access to the grants or gifts other arts groups receive to remain afloat.
Then there's the matter of SAK's self-perpetuated reputation for providing "family friendly" entertainment, in which no alcohol is served and rough language is an onstage no-no. Russell says that focus has been essential in bringing in underage crowds (and also underage volunteers), making the theater an alternative to a downtown experience almost exclusively geared to adults. But one wonders if the label could be simultaneously turning off other folks who've learned to view "all ages" as a euphemism for "bland" — something SAK is anything but. ("The ‘family friendly' — I wish we could just throw that out," agrees the CFPAA's Morris.)
Even if the feared collapse comes to pass, Russell promises, SAK will make good on its agreements. Students who have paid for improv classes will be able to complete the semester, no matter what. (Though, ever the quick wit, he first floats a more casual doomsday scenario: "We just wouldn't show up, and `we'd` take their money and go to the beach.") It's less certain what would happen to the CFPAA, which depends heavily on SAK's rent for its survival.
For now, Russell's stance is one that's all too common among Orlando's beleaguered arts impresarios: He'd like to remain downtown, but only under more favorable conditions. He's open to relocating in a variety of high-profile, high-traffic locations, including the UCF area; in the last week alone, he hints, "Some interesting prospects have come up that we never dreamed possible." But he vows that whatever happens will take place under the auspices of a carefully thought-out five-year plan that will rescue SAK from always operating on the brink of extinction.
"We've done Band-Aids before," he says. "We can't do Band-Aids anymore."firstname.lastname@example.org