top of page


The Washington City Paper says, “Happenstance Theater’s ensemble comedy is a gut-busting kind of funny.” The Washington Post describes our work as “visually striking and whimsical without being precious" and calls Happenstance Theater "DC’s leading peddler of whimsy.” 


HAPPENSTANCE THEATER, founded in 2006, is a professional company committed to devising, producing and touring original, performer-created visual, poetic Theatre. Our ensemble has been developing work together since 2012. We are eclectically skilled artists who craft all aspects of our pieces from concept to realization. Under the Artistic co-Direction of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, we harvest imagery from the past and re-contextualize it in performances that address the universal themes of mortality and the ephemeral. With the simplest means -  humor, whimsy, music, silence, text, physical comedy, object manipulation, vulnerability and generosity - 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 found by happenstance.


In 2016 Happenstance received three Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Ensemble, Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Lead Actor. In 2017 Happenstance received two Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Musical Direction.

In this mini-documentary the Smithsonian chats with the Artistic Co-Directors Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster of Happenstance Theater. They discuss how the company got started, the process of creating a show, and why it's important to connect with the audience. Read the accompanying article HERE.

Video by Hae Yang-Chang and Wilson Korges

     We were established in 2006 by Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster. Our first piece was PRUFBOX, inspired by TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the shadow-boxes of Joseph Cornell. We collaborated with puppeteer Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith. The show premiered at the inaugural Capital Fringe Festival and was then remounted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA as part of their Cornell Exhibits and later for a run at Round House Silver Spring.

     That winter Mark was commissioned by the Round House to create new piece as part of a Legacy Associate Series they were hosting. Mark and Sabrina developed and performed The Seven Ages of Mime, a survey of the history of mime told largely through mime. It was called "a gentle nod to the greats" by the Washington Post and sold out its first run at Round House Silver Spring, was extended and sold out again. It liberally ”borrows” and re-imagines the best work from some of the greatest performers of all-time, from the Roman Pantomime, to the Funambules, to post-modern Clown.

     In 2007 we collaborated with singer/actor Scott Sedar on Low Tide Hotel, which was voted Best Comedy of that summer's Capital Fringe and was selected as a City Paper “Best Bet“. We then toured to the Piccolo Spoleto Festival and later remounted it with its desert companion piece FarFar Oasis, where the warm winds of the East become the hot air of the West, at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The music for FarFar Oasis was adapted by Tina Chancey. 

Featuring Scott Sedar, Sabrina Mandell, Mark Jaster


     MANIFESTO! was a DADA clown-esque show we created in collaboration with Marcus Kyd and Lise Bruneau (of Taffety Punk Theatre) and Maia DeSanti and Scott Burgess. It premiered at the 2008 Capital Fringe, and then was recast with Matthew Pauli and Emma Jaster for a run at the NY Clown Theatre Festival in Brooklyn. It was also remounted at the 2011 Capital Fringe with Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Matthew Pearson and Emma Jasterand again in 2017 at the Baltimore Theatre project with veterans Mark, Sabrina and Gwen, along with Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Mike Winch.

     For the 2009 Fringe Festival we brought together bunch of our favorite performers to create Cabaret CooCoo. It was voted Best Comedy of the Capital Fringe. 

     That same year, Round House Theatre commissioned us to create a family-friendly show for their main stage. Mark and Sabrina collaborated with Karen Hansen to create LOOK OUT BELOW! The Washington Post called it “Visually stunning...appealingly enigmatic” and "hugely watchable”.

     Then the following year, for the 2010 Capital Fringe, we created Handbook for Hosts, a collaboration with banished?Productions. It featured guest collaborators Michael Sazonov and Melissa Krodman. Washington City Paper said of the show, "sometimes style IS substance."

Cabaret Macabre I, II, III and IV, all inspired by the illustrations of Edward Gorey, started in the autumn of 2010 and became annual sold-out events. It was in the third iteration of Cabaret Macabre that we formed our current ensemble: Mark and Sabrina, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon. We then toured to the Baltimore Theatre Project, Marigny Opera House in New Orleans and the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette. In 2014 the show was nominated for 3 Helen Hayes Awards. 

    Diz and Izzy Aster: Vaudeville’s Late Bloomers, was an expansion of two characters that Mark and Sabrina developed for Cabaret CooCoo. They were an offbeat Vaudeville duo who brought their baggage to the stage in cheery songs of the Great Depression. This duo appeared at the NY Clown Theatre Festival, Comedy Fest in Richmond VA and at the Dandies & Quaintrelles Seersucker Social. We then added a third character played by Karen Hansen, to increase the musical possibilities for a run at the Greenbelt Arts Center. 


     The second piece that we created as an established ensemble of six, was VANITAS. Sabrina wanted to experiment with taking a full year to develop a show to see what would happen with the indulgence of that length of time. The subject of the piece related to time and was set in a 17th Century Dutch reverie. The three main characters were archetypal Queen, Fool and Musician. The other three performers served as protean characters, the three fates. It was a very fruitful exercise and helped the company discover and institute a new schedule formula for show development: We now try to break up our development periods into several 2 week intensives, then breaks and a concentrated period of rehearsal for a month until the show opens.

For the 10th Capital Fringe Festival we returned to our roots with BrouHaHa, a clown-esque piece about the end of the world. We wanted to pare down to the essentials: One costume, one character, one case. BrouHaHa has gone on to become one of our main touring vehicles and has since appeared at the NextNOW Festival at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Baltimore Theatre Project, Celebration Barn in Maine, the NY Clown Theatre Festival, Reston CenterStage, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, CT and it will have a 3 week run in Manhattan, NY in January 2018 at Theatre for the New City. 

     Sharon Crissinger made a mini-documentary about the development of BrouHaHa.

     Mark and Sabrina created Pinot & Augustine, a vintage clown duo from the golden age of circus which has toured far and wide including performances at the Kennedy Center “Look Both Ways Festival” and Millennium Stage, Smithsonian Discovery Theatre, Waterford Fair, The Embassy of the European Union, The National Theatre, Wolftrap Theatre in the Woods, Walters Art Museum, Celebration Barn in Maine, Lafayette, LA, King’s Theatre in Nova Scotia, Theaterkappelle in Berlin and numerous schools and assembly programs hither, thither and yon.


    In January 2014 the full company decided to explore the territory of Circus and constructed IMPOSSIBLE! A Happenstance Circus, a theatrical circus collage set against a backdrop of hard times. It pays homage to classic circus characters and images from the 1930s and 40s. The show has appeared at the Baltimore Theatre Project and at Round House Theatre's main stage in Bethesda, where it was nominated for 8 Helen Hayes Awards, winning three: Outstanding Ensemble, Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Lead Actor.


    In the fall of 2015 we decided to take a break from Edward Gorey and devised Cabaret Noir for a run at the Baltimore Theatre Project. This Film Noir inspired theatrical montage was described by Broadway World as having "a glimmer of story, a hatful of characters, a whisper of atmosphere, a smorgasbord of music and a scent of mystery. Those who love Film Noir will be delighted, those who don't care for it will be charmed and amused, and those who don't know about it will never hereafter be able to take it seriously."

     We remounted this show at Joe’s Movement Emporium in the spring of 2018.

MOXIE: A Happenstance Vaudeville was created for the 2016 summer run at Round House Theatre's main stage. It was a huge hit. According to The Washington Post "The company delved deep into an imagined Vaudeville. With its stream of motley diversions, Moxie has the piquant flavor and pacing that surely contributed to vaudeville's appeal. At the same time, this show maintains a sly modern perspective, drawing attention to the old-fashioned nature of many of its acts." Moxie was nominated for 11 Helen Hayes Awards and received awards for Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Musical Direction.

In 2018 we premiered BON VOYAGE! A Happenstance Escapade at Round House Theatre. It was subsequently nominated for 6 Helen Hayes Awards. We also toured BROUHAHA to NYC, Bethlehem PA, and showcased an excerpt at the IPAY conference in Philadelphia PA.

bottom of page