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Laughter and confetti mark the return of the SAK Comedy Lab to Church St.

Laughter was in the air Saturday night, along with confetti and streamers, as SAK Comedy Lab officially opened a new home for its improv performances on Church Street.

SAK, which opened its first local theater in 1991, is now housed in a new $1.4 million building on the second floor of the 55 West complex — just around the corner from its previous location on Orange Avenue.

“This keeps the arts downtown,” said Barbara Hartley, executive director of Orlando's Downtown Arts District, at the opening ceremony on Saturday. “It's incredible to have such a great organization here.”

Hartley, who has been attending SAK shows since she was in high school, said the troupe's new location is a good fit with Fringe ArtSpace – just across the pedestrian bridge over Church Street – and together the two theaters could help revitalize the downtown area.

“It's starting to cement everything,” she said. “It's coming to life.”

Kelly Allen, marketing and communications manager for the city's Downtown Development Board/Community Redevelopment Agency, shared her enthusiasm. The city is contributing about $300,000 toward the construction of the new building.

“I think it's great that we can create entertainment opportunities for the people of downtown Orlando and the surrounding areas,” Allen said, calling the new space “beautiful.”

The people working there are also satisfied.

Pictures: Grand opening of the new location of the SAK Comedy Lab in Church Street

“It feels more like a theater, it feels more professional,” said Robby Pigott, a longtime SAK improviser, pointing to the new 175-seat venue. “It makes it feel like we're here to stay.”

The 55 West developers also contributed about $300,000 to the project. SAK has a five-year lease on the site with an option to extend for an additional five years.

“It feels like it legitimizes the art form,” agreed Adam Scharf, another SAK artist, of the brand new venue. “It gets us excited again because it's a whole new place to play.”

Guests crowd the lobby, designed to resemble a city street, during the grand opening of SAK Comedy Lab's new venue at 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)

And they played on Saturday. The first show in the new premises: A “Duel of Fools”. This improvisation competition was a mainstay of the SAK for three decades and several changes of venue.

Rob Ward hosted the show in a relaxed manner, making a few witty remarks about the work that still needed to be done.

“We don't have any monitors backstage,” he said before bringing out the cast, “so hopefully our players will be ready.”

SAK Comedy Lab is (almost) ready to start laughing at the new downtown theater

Backstage are improvisation rooms and an office, as well as a break room for the cast. Pigott said there is a plan to organize wigs, costume pieces and props for quicker changes during shows.

If there is still work to be done behind the scenes, there was no sign of it on stage on Saturday night.

Executive director Chris Dinger and artistic director Emily Fontano joined Pigott, Amanda Wirtz, Jamie Black and Jose Rodriguez onstage to host a series of fast-paced competitions that incorporated audience suggestions and often featured singing. Keyboardist Anthony Riley provided music from a raised podium on the stage, a convenient addition to the previous location.

Improvisational comedians Amanda Wirtz (from left), Robby Pigott and Emily Fontano perform during a "Duel of Fools" Show during the grand opening of SAK Comedy Lab's new venue at 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)
Improvisational comedians Amanda Wirtz (from left), Robby Pigott and Emily Fontano perform during a “Duel of Fools” show at the grand opening of SAK Comedy Lab's new venue at 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)

Dinger gave a curtain-call speech that began, in truly comical fashion, with him on the floor emerging from behind a projection screen that didn't go up fast enough. He thanked everyone who worked on the project and honored the history of the company, which began as a touring Renaissance festival troupe in 1977. Walt Disney World recruited SAK to perform at the theme park's opening at Epcot, where the troupe stayed for about a decade before opening its first theater in Orlando—coincidentally also on Church Street—in 1991.

Dinger jokingly referred to the '90s as “the Wayne Brady years,” referring to SAK's most famous alumnus because “we were hanging on his heels.” A move to a small space in an Amelia Street parking garage led to what were known as the “rat years” — because of a persistent vermin problem.

This newest home – with its stunning lobby reminiscent of a cityscape with colorful lights – was deliberately designed to get the crowd in the mood before the artists take the stage, Dinger said: “We wanted to create a space where when you walk in, it's like the show has already started.”

Two of SAK's founders, Terry Olson, left, and Dave Russell, take the stage at the grand opening of the SAK Comedy Lab's new venue at 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)
Two of SAK's founders, Terry Olson, left, and Dave Russell, take the stage at the grand opening of the SAK Comedy Lab's new venue at 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)

An emotional Terry Olson, one of SAK's founders, recalled that in an early – and non-air-conditioned – venue, staff would pour dry ice into the vents to cool the room. He said this showed that “SAK has always been creative.”

And he paid tribute to SAK's core values ​​statement, saying, “The values ​​of truth, excellence and joy are what I believe are lived out here.” Olson brandished an oversized pair of scissors to cut a ribbon that read “Truth, joy, excellence and play make life fun,” officially dedicating the new stage as confetti and streamers rained down.

Dave Russell, a co-founder who is still associated with the company, said SAK's continued success was a surprise even to him.

Guests look at a corridor that is reminiscent of a side street of a city and leads to the theater, or "Laboratory," at the grand opening of SAK Comedy Lab's new venue at 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)
Visitors explore a hallway designed to resemble a city back alley leading to the theater, or “lab,” at the grand opening of SAK Comedy Lab's new venue at 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)

“We never thought it would happen like this,” he said. “We thought it would go on for a year… and it just kept going.”

And so it continued on Saturday.

As the early show audience left the building, a line snaked through the lobby to the bar, where chatting patrons sought drinks for the night's second show. Others lined up at the box office to check in, while small groups gathered outside on the sidewalk, taking selfies for social media posts – this time with Church Street as the backdrop.

SAK artists lead the crowd in a dance break during the first show at the grand opening of the SAK Comedy Lab's new venue, 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando, Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)
SAK artists lead the crowd in a dance break during the first show at the grand opening of the SAK Comedy Lab's new venue, 55 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando, Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Matthew J. Palm/Orlando Sentinel)

SAK Comedy Lab

  • Where: 55 W. Church St., second floor
  • Connecting parking: Use the 55 West Garage at 60 W. Pine St. and take the elevator or stairs to Level 2. Parking rates vary by night.
  • When: Two shows every Friday and Saturday, occasional performances on other days
  • Cost: Normally the entrance fee is $20
  • The information: sakcomedylab.com

Follow me on facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. For more arts news, visit OrlandoSentinel.com/entertainment.

Anna Harden

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