It Happened By Happenstance

Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster as Rose and Ralph from BrouHaHa 2015.

In 2005, when Sabrina Mandell met Mark Jaster in a physical theater class, an artistic partnership was born. Mandell had lived a peripatetic life. Born in Nova Scotia, she described her childhood home: “[growing] up on the Bay of Fundy, known for having the highest tidal range in the world, constant wind and frequent power outages.”

The daughter of artists, after a brief bout at university, she wrote and performed her own poetry, studied art history, became a painter, sailed up and down the East Coast as a first mate on traditionally rigged schooners and started a theater company. These days she’s a performer, producer, costume designer and all-around theatrical dynamo. For a decade she worked with the Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care Program in Washington and Baltimore, and she has taught clowning and physical comedy throughout the region and beyond.

Jaster, a mime, actor, musician, director and teacher, regularly conducts artist residencies for elementary schools in his home base, Montgomery County, and beyond. He trained with 20th-century mime master Marcel Marceau and later served as Marceau’s teaching assistant at a summer college workshop.

“I had been performing as a mime for a long time,” Jaster said, “but you can’t join the mime company that is in every town, because there isn’t one.”

He discovered that the medium of clowning would exercise some of his solo physical comedy and acrobatic skills, similarly. “I was a deviser, making up my own pieces … but I never studied clown and I knew there was depth and craft to that art form.”
He signed up for a clown class.

Mandell was in that same 2005 class. The rest, as they say, is history. They soon began devising their first show together, a riff on the T.S. Eliot poem “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and a scenario about a woman hesitating along with influences from the shadow boxes of artist Joseph Cornell.

Even though his career as a mime was primarily spent as a soloist, Jaster found that he and Mandell worked well together. “I warmed up to that idea …. It was one of the first sacrifices to make, meaning when you collaborate with somebody you have to work with other ideas. But it was a very productive process,” he said.

Mandell chimed in, “It made us realize the unbelievable potential of our collaborative dialogue.” Jaster continued, “We had a great time. We fell in love and the piece was really, really wonderful.” As the couple were rehearsing the piece, “Prufbox,” its premiere, just two weeks before opening, they married. “Our wedding was a big production at our house. There were 200 people. Then two weeks later, we opened our first show,” Mandell said.

Every Thing Happens

By 2006, the duo created Happenstance, a company that takes inspiration from physical theater, clowning, mime, classic dramas and comedies, and uses self-contained sets and costumes, homemade and found-object musical instruments, devised puppets and other theatrical techniques.

A Happenstance production is often a journey into a wholly created and fully imagined world, with nods to ancient Greek drama, medieval ceremony, Shakespearean tragedy and comedy, Punch-and-Judy-style puppetry, Big Apple Circus clowns, and maybe even a saw or wrench literally thrown in for good measure.

Mandell and Jaster, along with their long-time collaborators, understand the importance of wonder, surprise and humor, even when a work leans into profundity. Some of their techniques and practices feel old fashioned, drawing from Renaissance commedia dell’arte, Jacobean drama or misaligned Chekhovian relationships.

Their newest production, “Adrift,” presented a universe of ideas elicited from creation myths to arduous journeys, heralded discoveries to mythical creations in the context of the ascent of humankind. Amid moments of absurd buffoonery and eccentric on-stage magic, angelic a cappella singing accompanied this tale of human endeavor and the weaving of the human condition into memorable moments.

Next up, this fall the duo takes inspiration from ironically sinister cartoonist Edward Gorey for “Cabaret Macabre,” described as a theatrical collage. They describe this reboot as “a series of dark comic vignettes, Victorian nightmares, Gothic romance, dangerous croquet and perils of the deep.” And it arrives just in time for Halloween.

The Happenstance company, which expands and contracts as necessary with a group of like-minded local performers, has nearly two dozen shows in its current repertory. Because they collaborate closely to make everything themselves from the script to the set, props, costumes, instruments, wigs and puppets, they are nimble. Every show must fit exactly into the van they use. That enables them to tour, as they did this past summer, up and down the East Coast, from Novia Scotia and Maine to Stanton, Va., as well as local outdoor venues in the county.

“We can travel to little places like the old vaudeville circuit,” Jaster said. “The small-town venues that have beautiful little theaters and historic main streets.”

When not on stage or on the road, the artistic and life partners live in a big, old country-style farmhouse in Rockville. The house, which was initially the theater’s rehearsal studio, now also serves as prop and costume shop, plus storage for various and sundry tools, instruments and found materials. Located in Parklawn Park, Jaster and Mandell rent it from the Park and Planning Commission. “Over the years, we’ve just filled this house up,” Mandell said, gesturing around the living room filled with antiques, souvenirs and potential or previous props. They no longer rehearse at home — for group works they work in a private home ballroom in Adelphi. “We’ve grown out of the house when [working] with the full ensemble,” Jaster explained.

As for new works, the Happenstance team takes its time in the development and creative process. They don’t feel the need to create a new work every season and will readily re-mount previous works as the aesthetics and themes are intentionally timeless. Mandell noted, “Mark and I have been working for a long time on a new vaudeville duo …. We just finished performing at the Renaissance Festival again, but in terms of a new full ensemble piece, we’re not doing that yet, probably next year.”

Present at Creation

Jaster and Mandell have grown into the process they use to craft a new production. “We start basically with the mime tradition,” Jaster said, “a bare stage and nothing else.”
“And your body,” Mandell added. “So, all the choices are critical and we really hold to that.

It means you don’t just move furniture if you have a set change. Instead, we ask what is in the scene that is going to make us have to move the furniture?”

She continued, “Sometimes we’ll have an idea [about] a particular object. Then we stop everything, go and make the object. And then, based on what the object becomes, we discover how it behaves, and that informs what we do. We’re always playing this game … always keeping it playful.”

“That,” Jaster underlined, “is really a priority for us.”

Additional to a playful mindset, the couple consciously tries not to give too much information to the audience. “We want the audience to insert that with their imaginations,” Mandell said. “And that’s hard because we’re all good storytellers, so we often have to pull back from revealing the whole story to leave room for openness.”

“The impulse,” she added, “is to answer all the questions, but our value is to not answer them, even when we understand the answer.” But, Jaster continued, “People have told us that as the audience they feel like they’re in good hands. When they come in, they know we’re going to bring them along with us.”

For information on Happenstance Theater, visit


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