JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
SABRINA MANDELL: Theatre was always something I did from as far back as I can remember. My mother gave me a book about Sarah Bernhardt when I was 4 years old and I was convinced that it was about me, that I was her reincarnation. Then when I was about 9 years old I saw the film "The Dresser" starring Peter O'Toole and it resonated so deeply with me that I knew I would somehow become a stage actor. Then after much struggle finding a path to the kind of theatre I wanted to do - not interested in conventional, script-based work - I saw many shows over the years that inspired me, but I didn't know how to insert myself into them or where to begin then I stumbled on the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq and landed on a passion for physical, devised theatre and started gathering the tools to do it.
JL: How long have you served as Artistic Director at your company? What drew you to the position? What keeps you there?
SM: I founded the company in 2006 and have been Artistic Co-Director since then. The vision of the company is very much in my heart. I stay because there is nowhere I would rather be, nothing better in the universe. I have basically arrived at my dream. Also, my partner/husband is my co-director, and our work is completely integrated into our life. There is no separation for us. We are living our art and so there is no need to go elsewhere. Sometimes I wish I had a personal assistant or business manager, but that's a different issue...
JL: What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure?
SM: Being willing to relinquish control, but also knowing when to hold fast to an idea. I have learned that the best art comes from finessing the balance of collaboration and leadership. I have learned that trust is essential and so is discipline; I have learned that structure is as necessary as exploration and freedom. I have learned that making art is not about expression, but is about dialog.
JL: What excites you most about being an Artistic Director? What is your greatest challenge?
SM: I am most excited about the opportunity to realize visions, my own and those of the Company. My greatest challenge is also having to manage the business and production ends of things.
JL: If your work as an artistic director doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? Also, how do you balance your role leading an organization with your work as a director? Are you ever able to direct outside of your company?
SM: Managing Happenstance Theater is the bulk of what I do, it doesn't really pay the bills. My husband and I parse together a livelihood out of freelance performance and collaborations, teaching, consultation, school shows, working as clowns with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care unit, corporate gigs, and being presented by established theatres. I don't know how I balance everything. I guess I'm a bit of maniac/superhero and I try to build in time for Spa World. I am not really a conventional "director" so that's not something I seek out, but I love working with companies as a movement consultant or dramaturg.
JL: Looking at your body of work as an artistic director and a director, how conscious are you and selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season? Also, when it comes to hiring administrators, designers and other directors do you take race and gender into consideration?
SM: I don't "select plays" so those considerations don't arise in that way. We also seldom hire designers, directors and have yet to have an administrator, much to my chagrine. I am always conscious of integration and inclusion, this is america after all, but the truth is it is not a priority. We have built our small company over the years based on the work that we have created and the relationships that have developed over time with our collaborators. Our work is not "issue" based. The company is not diverse in outward color, but the palette is rich with eccentricity. There are 4 women and 2 men in the performance ensemble. We are of eastern and central european descent, I am a jew, one of the men is white, but with roots in Brazil, one of the women is gay. None of this was strategic.
JL: DC audiences are …
SM: Lovely and very receptive. Sometimes it feels like they are too willing to go along and I wonder if the status-quo-bar gets set too low.
JL: DC actors and designers are …
SM: Not challenged enough to push beyond convention. Not driven to high quality because we exist in such a "supportive" environment.
JL: DC playwrights are ..
JL: DC critics are …
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
SM: Be patient. Take classes. Go see shows and court the companies doing the work you are interested in doing.
JL: What's next for you as a director and your company?
SM: We have a show in development and we start rehearsals this week. It is called VANITAS and will run at Round House Theatre Silver Spring from March 29 - April 14.
Come look into our Cabinet of Curiosities and see how Happenstance handles the Age of Discovery. Featuring Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon.
In this new Happenstance Theater work of art, three archetypal characters, The Queen, The Fool, and the Musician, and their shadows, the three fates, play with Time and manipulate objects to remind the viewer to consider Imagination as a vehicle to transcend life's inevitabilities.
Vanitas still-life painting was a genre that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. These paintings depict collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience of earthly achievements and pleasures, (Bouquets of cut flowers, skulls, and timepieces) and remind the viewer to consider mortality and spiritual life.
For more information visit us at http://www.HappenstanceTheater.com
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!