Essentialism Takes the Stage: Happenstance Theater’s Homage to the Circus
Happenstance Theater faces unique struggles. All set building, costuming, and show preparation is entirely done by its six troupe members. Their show Impossible! A Happenstance Circus is a testament to their collective vision.
“The way we build material, we start with a theme,” artistic co-director Mark Jaster began. “So the small ensemble got around the table, and said, ‘When you think of circus, what do you think of?’ We think of the animals, we think of the acrobatics, we think of the clowns and the ringmaster, and you’ve got to have horses! Well, how do we do all this?”
“We set it in hard times,” artistic co-director Sabrina Mandell added with a smile. “What would it be like if you had no resources but had to make a circus, or wanted to make a circus anyway? Sort of like us!”
With such a small team and an essentialist philosophy, they continue a tradition of performer-created work, pared down to the basics. Impossible! needed nothing but an arch to set the stage, making it easy to travel with for performances such as the Folklife Festival on the National Mall.
Husband and wife Jaster and Mandell started the troupe in 2006. Their house, tucked away among the trees, is half living space and half composing space. The relics of past theater performances lie scattered throughout their home. Even the phonograph, which sits proudly in their living room, has had its time on stage.
“We used it in a show where we rolled it up so that the audience could hear what the actual thing sounded like,” Jaster explained. “It was amazing, because you could roll it around and it didn't plug in, and it was an authentic sound.”
Authenticity is something Happenstance prizes. “We tend to use vintage costumes where possible,” Jaster said. Later Mandell displayed a box labeled “fragile Victorians”—pieces that are precious and lovely to look at, but too delicate to use and in need of strengthening or repair.
Homage, history, and nostalgia feature heavily in Happenstance’s work, as does the circus.
“When we looked at the photographic record of the circus, especially the American circus—but the European circus too—we saw there were many intriguing images of the life and community offstage, and we were intrigued by that,” Mandell elaborated. “We thought, if there’s a way to share that with the audience, that kind of private but communal and very supportive life—we loved that, so we looked for a way to portray that.”
But to portray a scene or a community, Happenstance has very little to work with. “If all you have is a human on the bare stage—and most of the time we work with a bare stage,” Jaster posed, “what’s the essential element that portrays the character and the period and the flavor in that? The costume really becomes very important as a design element because there aren't that many other ones.”
In fact, Mandell is also the troupe’s costume designer. She has won multiple Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Costume Design. Her family background has influenced her immensely.
“I come from a family of visual artists,” she explained. “Both of my parents are painters. My father does sort of seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting, and my mother is kind of a German expressionist. So I was exposed very early to these incredibly rich visual worlds.
“When I first started devising theater, so much of it for me was creating sort of these visual moments on stage. How can you adapt these sort of things into the theatrical realm?” she pondered. “I actually saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the film, and the players in that film—that was it! That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to create this kind of primitive spectacle, totally effectively, using these really simple means. And that is kind of the root of the thing.”
Happenstance’s signature style is also rooted in physical comedy and clowning. Jaster comes from a longstanding tradition of physical theater, having trained with Étienne Decroux and served as Marcel Marceau’s teaching assistant. Creatively, however, everything flows from the same place.
“I have this physical discipline: the pared down, the simple,” Jaster described. “You have one person and no stuff. How do you make theater out of that? You make it engaging and compelling.”
Mandell mirrors this in her work, actively engaging with every costume worn on stage. “In the evening I sit down, and I listen to old-time radio, and I sew costumes,” she said. “There’s something about that process about being connected to the materials that feels more like what people who were wearing these things actually would have done.”
When it comes to the tradition of performer-created theater and circus, Happenstance Theater makes for a perfect marriage. “The objects that we deal with onstage, they have a history with us, which is more like the lineage of traveling performers or family performers and circus,” Jaster said. “We are a part of that tradition of the performer-created material.”
Happenstance Theater is performing at the 2017 Folklife Festival Circus every day through July 6. Find their performances on the schedule.
Wilson Korges is a writer interning for the media department at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He recently graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s of science in history.
Hae-Yang Chang is a video production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at the University of Florida, majoring in digital arts and sciences and communication studies.