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Drafted by Happenstance Into the Family Business

Discussing family biz with brother Mark Jaster and sister-in-law Sabrina Mandell.

My older brother, the actor Mark Jaster, has specialized in physical comedy since his senior year in high school, when he first went to Paris to study with Etienne Decroux, Marcel Marceau’s teacher. For a while, I too seemed headed in the direction of a life in theater like him. After all, I was Toad of Toad Hall in a third grade production of The Wind in the Willows at my school in London (best friend Kenan Nashat was Mole). I also had a bit part in a French language one-act play that year; and, (along with every student in the school, including Mark), I sang in the first ever performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at London’s St. Paul’s Church.

And I continued in middle school, with various small roles in Washington, D.C. summer theater (e.g. the unforgettable Balthazar in Romeo & Juliet); I provided voiceover for a Voice of America Broadcast (“Extry! Extry! Read all about it!”); and was cast in an Arena Stage production of Our Town. But that’s about it. I loved the late nights and the cast parties with the glamorous, older crowd. I had mad crushes on the girls in my brother’s circle. I took up smoking, as cool actors do. But at fifteen I left D.C. and didn’t act again. Music took over.

However, when I was in college, Mark and his wife Gayle, who were then company members at Roundhouse Theater in Maryland, got my girlfriend (now wife) and me summer jobs at Roundhouse’s Summer Theater Camp. Those two hot, humid summers teaching music and movement were my earliest teaching experiences in what evolved, unplanned, into a career. Along with music and movement classes, choruses, jazz bands, and playwriting workshops, I have since directed over 40 high school productions, including experimental and movement theater and several pieces I've written, including a musical.

Mark and Gayle (who died in 1997) had three children. Daughter Emma Crane Jaster has followed in her parents' footsteps and made a career in movement and theater. Among many other projects and collaborations, she has co-starred in the Cambridge Revels with Mark and Sabrina Mandell, co-founder and co-artistic director with Mark of Happenstance Theater, and his current wife. Mark and Sabrina met at clown class (!).

The latest development in this developing family theater saga, however, is that my son Caleb Jaster has been drafted into a Happenstance Theater production! The company’s long-time musician Karen Hanson retired at the end of last summer after a run of their latest show, Barococo. But they’d already booked another run at Baltimore Theater Project. Which is how Caleb got his first professional acting role.

Barococo, now in its last week at Baltimore Theater Project (until November 11th), is, according to Happenstance's website, “…a physical comedy dive into the late Baroque… 18th century finery, wigs, panniers, gestural styling, elaborate ornamentation and the excesses of Rococo. The characters navigate the dangerous curves of manners and Age of Enlightenment from the exquisite to the revolting.” The musician’s role happens to include (along with a hilarious double entendre-filled ‘cello lesson), a lot of harpsichord, which is why, as a musician with extensive harpsichord (playing and tuning) experience, Caleb was naturally brought to the attention of his uncle’s company. [nepotism. Noun. From the italian, nipote, nephew]. The role, though originally created by and for Karen Hanson, was re-fashioned in rehearsals for this younger man, whose character, though never referred to by name, is Luccio Patatino Von Dusselkopf. [Shoutout to his parents’ current home city of Düsseldorf? Though without the umlaut (ü), Dussel is no longer the little river that gave the city its name, but German for goof/twit/dummy!]

The cast of Happenstance Theater's Barococo: clockwise from upper left: Alex Vernon,

Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, Caleb Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, and Gwen Grastorf.

Happenstance Theater is not a company to rest on its laurels. Last summer they were already sewing seeds for their next production, Pantheon, to be devised around the immortals of Greek myth. Which is where I, though a mere mortal, have stepped back into the picture, thereby coming full circle and extending the company’s familial reach about as far as it can currently go. (Mark’s three-year-old grandson Ellis shows a lot of promise, though). I am excited to announce I will be back in the states in the spring to work with the company creating the music for Pantheon and I will be performing in two runs of the show, the first of which will be at Baltimore Theater Project, April 1-14.

I feel honored to have been invited to join Happenstance for this production. Each of the five company members is outrageously talented, hilarious, deeply individual, and a lot of fun; and I love the fine balance they always find in the work, that has audiences belly laughing, but also feeling deeply the humanity behind each carefully crafted moment. I respect the integrity of their creative process and am fully aligned with their approach. I’m not all that funny; not trained in physical comedy. But I trust the company to make good use of me, and we’ll see what we cook up together! As a musician, there’s nothing I love more than improvisation and collaboration. And there will be some quality family time!

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