For nearly three decades, SAK Comedy Lab has been a landmark in downtown Orlando. Unlike many organizations that have that kind of staying power, it embraces inconsistency by providing a unique show or shows every night through the improvisational talents of its ensemble and other troupes.
The improv philosophy — saying “yes, and,” embracing failure, and trusting others — is a mainstay of the shows, private events, and classes provided by SAK. Learning how to improvise also is a valuable tool for people who want to improve their soft skills in the workplace.
“It’s based on listening and responding genuinely,” says Johanna Clark, a shareholder attorney at Carlton Fields and improv student at SAK. “That helped me with pre-trial depositions as well as interviews with potential jurors.”
Clark, who learned about the classes while attending Leadership Orlando, also notes that getting onstage and “failing forward” has made her a better public speaker. That is a common theme with class participants.
“You can get up in front of people and interact in a different way than you did before,” says Zach Prusak, improv student, Florida fire manager and Central Florida Conservation Program manager at The Nature Conservancy. “It really comes into play when I’m training and teaching.”
One of Prusak’s responsibilities is setting controlled burns to enhance forest growth and prevent wildfires around the state. This requires structure, planning, and hierarchy along with human interaction.
“Improv, you’re making something from nothing with the help of people,” says Prusak. “Fire, I’m burning things. I’m helping the environment with the help of people. All of these endeavors are really fueling my desire to be more collaborative in life.”
Despite the application to many industries and careers, a common misconception is that training offered by SAK is for those who ultimately want to become improv performers or hone their skills for other professional acting opportunities. This couldn’t be further from the truth, says Emily Fontano, artistic director at SAK.
“About 30 percent of our students are taking classes to become professional improvisers or round out their acting portfolio,” says Fontano. “The rest enroll because they’re looking for a challenge and want to learn a new skill set.”
While some students sign up to enhance their public speaking and confidence, some enroll in classes just for the enjoyment of it.
“A friend of mine and I decided to go through all the SAK improv courses for no other reason than we wanted to keep ourselves entertained,” says Ron Piccolo, chair of UCF’s Department of Management in the College of Business Administration.
Piccolo wasn’t just performing onstage. A skilled pianist, he took part in the onstage action by providing piano accompaniment for his classmates as well as SAK’s performers.
“I had a couple of shows with the ensemble performers, and it was a blast. I learned a lot, and it reminds you that improv is unscripted, but it’s not unplanned.”
That planning is at the core of what students learn in the class. And while the process — and the end product — is fun and funny, that doesn’t make it easy.
“It’s a complete mental workout,” adds Clark. “But it gives you a framework to think fast, build on ideas, and accept that failure is okay.”
“It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” says Prusak. “And I can’t wait to go back for the next class.”