Live Active Cultures 

Seth Kubersky gets a sneak peek at the Abbey, the city's newest community theater space

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"You got it?" shouts the burly construction worker, as he struggles to hold the massive metal lettering above his head. On the Pine Street sidewalk a story below, a handful of reporters hurriedly snap photos, then sigh in relief when, miraculously, the sign doesn't tumble over the wrought-iron railing and smash to pieces on the pavers outside the Sanctuary high-rise condominium building.

This may sound like a slightly inauspicious unveiling for the signature signage of downtown Orlando's most anticipated new performance venue. But on April 8, the Abbey Theatre and the Mezz, its sister "urban event space" on the second floor, will make their true debut at an official dedication party. There's still a lot of work to be done before then, but Ron Legler, president of the Florida Theatrical Association, one of the organizations behind the Abbey's existence, took time out of his busy schedule last week to take a few Orlando arts observers on an exclusive tour of the nearly completed stage.

From the outside, the Abbey mixes modestly scaled theatrical traditions - a fluorescent backlit marquee, a pair of box-office windows - with neo-gothic touches like ecclesiastically 
styled window arches and wrought-iron railings that play on the complex's monastic nomenclature. Ironically, the building sits on the site of the 1926 Ohev Shalom temple, which was, until it was demolished in 2002, Orlando's oldest Jewish synagogue.

Inside, the Abbey looks more like a trendy nightspot than a below-market rental stage. The lobby is dominated by a sleek bartop, a seamless piece of poured resin lit with LEDs, and a stately black fireplace that will soon be filled with faux flames on a 47-inch plasma screen. Even the bathrooms are stylishly decked out with authentic New York City subway tile and black-on-black Marcel Wanders wallpaper. Legler told me that designer Ted Maines of interior design firm Stéted (and who also lives in the building's fifth-floor penthouse) is incorporating glass from the original synagogue sanctuary into the bar.

Adjustable fabric dividers separate the full-liquor cocktail area from the performance space proper. An adjoining "grotto" dug several feet below street level serves as an audience area for up to 175 (with room for an additional 100 above) seated in comfy lumbar-supporting chairs. At the opposite end of the room, a 30-by-20-foot elevated stage offers excellent sightlines all the way back to the bar, a reconfigurable velvet curtain system and an Actors Equity-quality dressing room with a shower and a washer and dryer. It's got everything a small performance company could ever want.

Audio experts EWA are installing a high-end sound system, and the lighting features cutting-edge color-changing LED moving fixtures. Dance groups should be delighted with the new L'Air cushioned "sprung" floor, a product developed in part by Walt Disney World. A green-screen-sporting TV studio, capable of live HD Internet streaming, is on site as well.

Best of all, this space - expensive tools and all - will be available for rent to nonprofit groups on a sliding-scale fee basis. Small theater 
companies won't even be forced to pay a union technician to run it, though they will need an operator who has been certified on the complex control boards. While no hard figures are available yet, nonprofits and fledgling organizations will only pay a percentage (perhaps around 25 percent) of their take to book the space, rather than a flat upfront fee, which greatly reduces the artists' financial risk. Even parking, the bane of downtown culture, has been taken care of with valet service offered every night for $5.

This venture is a joint partnership with Wendy Connor, president of True Marketing, and the Florida Theatrical Association (the organization behind Fairwinds Broadway Across America, which brings touring Broadway shows to the Bob Carr), which has been hoping to open a space like this for more than a decade.

The biggest sponsor of the project, though, has been the sour real-estate market, which allowed Florida Theatrical Association to purchase 25,000 square feet across two floors - nearly an entire square city block - for the bargain-basement price of $65 per square foot. It's a welcome happy ending after a trying multi-year search for an appropriate and affordable venue. Legler had looked at the Sanctuary space years before, he says, but "couldn't imagine owning that much space."

The Abbey isn't the first venue catering to low-budget grassroots performers, and Legler is keenly aware of the unfulfilled potential of other performance spaces around downtown (Avalon, formerly home to the Downtown Media Arts Center, and CityArts Factory, which is finally being well-used by SAK Comedy Lab). I still have questions about costs and qualifications for using the space, however, standards haven't been set yet, so interested groups must contact Legler directly. He says he's passionate about the space being accessible to "gypsy" entertainers like the Florida Theatrical Association's own Broadway's Class Act, which struggled to find affordable space. He says he even turned down an "off-Broadway" show interested in a year-long booking because he was afraid it would ruin the "community building."

"We are hoping to be an integral part of the community," he says. "We want to incubate [small performing groups] and build an audience ... so we can grow the next Mad Cow." If he can make good on that promise, the Abbey could do more good for Orlando's cultural community than a dozen DPACs.

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