How Sabrina Mandell met Mark Jaster and Happenstance Theater began

Chatting with Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster is great fun. The pair finish each other’s sentences, almost always with an exclamation point. And when one does go on at length, the other looks on, listens attentively, and nods in agreement. As the third party to this tête-à-tête — nodding, responding enthusiastically, and laughing at the feel-good, self-deprecation — I fell quietly in awe at the love these two have for their art and for each other.

Sabrina Mandell has lived an adventurous and varied life. The daughter of artists, she was born in Nova Scotia, raised in Montreal, and after a brief bout at university, she has written and performed her own poetry, studied art history, become a painter, sailed up and down the East Coast as a first mate on traditionally rigged schooners, and started a theater company.

Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster as Rose and Ralph in ‘BrouHaHa’ (2015). Photo by Sharon Crissinger.

Her artistic and life partner, Mark Jaster, has lived a clown’s life, of sorts. The multi-instrumentalist, actor, mime, and movement artist trained with 20th-century master mime Marcel Marceau, along with Marceau’s teacher, Etienne Decroux. Jaster, who drew inspiration from careful study of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harpo Marx, also studied LeCoq pedagogy of theatrical clowning with Dody DiSanto, a movement theater specialist — as well as founder and former owner of the 9:30 Club in the District. Jaster’s been a soloist, playwright, collaborator, and performer on myriad stages throughout the Washington, DC, metropolitan region and around the country.

The company Mandell created, Happenstance Theater, had its origin in 2005 by, well, happenstance. Mandell was studying physical theater with DiSanto, and that work became a show. “We did it at the old Warehouse space. I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be producing and making theater!’” Her next step was a full-on devised theatrical production: “The whole experience was excruciatingly difficult, but also invigorating. I realized that it employed all of my skillsets.”

Jaster had been long working in the region as a solo mime. “I was a deviser, making up my own pieces, of course, as is the mime tradition. But I had never studied clown, and I knew that there was craft and depth to the art of clowning.” He turned to DiSanto for a clown workshop. There he met Mandell. “Sabrina was looking for collaborators for her new piece,” Jaster recalled.

“And I was like, ‘This is Mark Jaster!” Mandell excitedly interrupted. “He’s legendary … he’s never gonna partner with me …’”

Jaster said he replied, nonchalantly, “That sounds interesting. I’ll do it.”

Their artistic partnership, Mandell said, “made us realize the unbelievable potential of our collaborative dialogue.”

“We had a great time,” Jaster added. Even better, he declared, “We fell in love. And the piece was really wonderful.”

“We decided to get married,” Mandell chimed in. “Our wedding was a big production at our house in Rockville — there were 200 people. And two weeks later we opened our first show together!”

Together ever since

Their first full-fledged collaboration derived from a short work Mandell called “Box Ceremony,” which she described as about “a woman who hesitates, a sort of mermaid character… it was fascinating.” It made Jaster think of the t.s. eliott poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the shadow boxes of artist Joseph Cornell. “Prufbox” premiered at the DC Fringe Festival, which meant it had to be a lean and mean production with a load-in and load-out of no more than 15 minutes. With just the two of them, they were able to tour that work easily and nimbly, from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to the Essex Museum in Massachusetts, to venues throughout the East Coast and beyond. And it taught them the value of both devised theater and portable sets and costumes, most often crafted from found objects.

Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell in ‘Prufbox’(2006), ‘Seven Ages of Mime’ (2007), and ‘On the Nose.’ Photos by Tom Kochel, Danisha Crosby, and Bobby Kintz.

Since that first fruitful collaboration, Mandell and Jaster have devised and produced dozens of inventive pieces that are part fractured fairytale, part clown-car-crazy, and ingeniously imaginative takes on the convergence of ancient theatrical techniques and contemporary approaches. As hard as it is to pin down what Happenstance does, it draws on the full range of theater, music, dance, puppetry, drama, and comedy, which recalls — dare we say — prehistoric impulses, while feeling fresh and of the moment. A Happenstance show might feel like what might happen when Aristophanes, a medieval monk, Shakespeare, and Buster Keaton exclaim in a Mickey-and-Judy-moment: “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!”

Jaster and Mandell describe what they do this way: “We harvest imagery from the past and re-contextualize in performances that address eternal themes of life, death, and the ephemeral. With the simplest means — movement, silence, theatrical clown, music, text, physical comedy, and beauty — we seek to elevate the moment when the performers and audience meet, to lift the encounter beyond the daily and pedestrian into the realms of dreams, poetry, and art. Meaning is often discovered by happenstance.”

Other performers come aboard

As their collaborative process grew and other performers came aboard adding their expertise in everything from Indonesian-style shadow puppetry to physical comedy, musical composition, and the like, an ensemble grew. Over the years Happenstance has worked with many artists from the DMV region, among them Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith, Scott Sedar, Marcus Kyd, Lise Bruneau, Maia DeSanti, Scott Burgess, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Matthew Pearson, Emma Jaster (Mark’s daughter), Alex Vernon, Matthew Pauli, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas, among others. At present, the Happenstance ensemble features Vernon, Olmsted Thomas, Grastorf, Mandell, and Mark Jaster.

Top: Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell (on table), Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Alex Vernon, and Gwen Grastorf in ‘Barococo’ (2018). Bottom: Mark Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, Sabrina Mandell, Alex Vernon, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas in ‘Adrift’ (2023). Photos by Photo by Bobby Kintz and Ryan Maxwell.

One of their most recent works, Adrift, drew inspiration from 16th-century Dutch painters Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, along with the named or picture cards in the tarot deck and other religious or alchemical practices of the period.

From their initial collaboration, Mandel said, “We figured out this formula that ended up being really great for us, which was the bridge that allowed us to affordably produce … new work.” That included drawing on found and recycled materials for costumes, props, sets, and even musical instruments. “Once it was produced, like when we performed at the Fringe [Festival], we could put together a marketing package because we got video and press and photos.” Then it became easy to pack up the car or van, and tour up and down the East Coast.

For information about Happenstance Theater and upcoming performances or to donate, visit their homepage.

About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. The centerpiece of these articles is a series we are calling “The Companies We Keep,” articles offering an in-depth look at one local theater company each month. In these times of division and conflict, DC Theater Arts chooses to celebrate those who do good.

For more information on DC Theater Arts’ Wendi Winters Memorial Series, check out this article graciously published by our friends at District Fray Magazine