Vanitas veritas


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Our run of Vanitas came to a happy close, with marvelous houses and a lovely talkback with a curious and friendly audience.  talkback

We had several children in the audience that evening, and they were fascinated with the mechanics of the flower puppet, the moving paintings, and the automaton fox.  Below, Alex shows the engineering behind the puppet’s movement.


Happenstance Theater would like to thank the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, the Vermont Arts Council, and the NEA for their grants and support that made this project possible.

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We would also like to encourage you to check out a lovely exhibit at the Phillips Collection by Jeanne Silverthorne – explorations of the themes of Vanitas through fascinating sculptures.

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Thanks for going on this journey with us! Vanitas might bloom again in time, and for now we will keep making and devising to bring you delight.  Keep up with the newest news at Happenstance Theater.

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Vanitas closes this week – only 4 shows left!


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As the metronome ticks, so the time is ticking away for you to see Vanitas before it closes!

Remaining Performances:

Thursday 4/11 8pm(*Pay-What-You-Can)

Friday 4/12 8pm

Saturday 4/13 8pm

Sunday 4/14 2pm

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$15 ($10 for under 30 years, seniors, groups of 10+)

Box office: 240-644-1100

Online: Here

Location: Round House Theatre Silver Spring

8641 Colesville Rd Silver Spring MD 20901

Metro: RED LINE to Silver Spring, north one block on Colesville (next to AFI Silver)
Also thank you to Broadway World for their review of Vanitas!

“Over the years, Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell have established Happenstance as one of the most inventive, genuinely spontaneous companies in town. Their sources of inspiration are diverse, likewise the shows that develop (literally) before our eyes. Based on the principle of physical improvisation, their brand of Devised Theater (quite distinct from that bane of critics, the “work in progress”) can give you the delight of witnessing seasoned artists in the process of discovery, development and revision. The results are often confusing and challenge us to abandon our innate desire to make sense of things, inviting us simply to let the ensemble go about their wonderful work.”

Read more about BWW Reviews: Happenstance’s ‘Vanitas’ Their Production Yet by

On reviews and critical response


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Reviews are often the secret terror of the theater world – a necessary evil that many performers wish they could do without. Some refuse to read any, good or bad. Some performers have a friend or loved one vet them first, so they won’t read something harsh that will negatively affect their performance. Some voraciously read all of them and obsess over the details. But many performers take the good points with the bad, with a grain of salt, the same as receiving feedback from a friend after a show.

It may be considered gauche to discuss reviews and the dirtier, more personal side of the arts.  This blog is intended to be a clear window into our work and our practices, and that includes how the company deals with reviews.  We cannot pretend that these things don’t matter to us, and we want to dissolve the false barrier between ourselves as performers and the world. There is no doubt that reviews affect ticket sales, so we have to acknowledge the power they hold in our line of work.


Even within our own company there is a spectrum of different responses to reviews.  As reviews have been published, we have had to collectively decide whether or not to alter the show in response to reviewers’ opinions.  As a devised theater company, we are in the unique position of being able to continually alter our work.  Most conventional theater companies are unable to change things once a show is in performance. The script for published plays is set in stone, and the Actors Equity union has rules to keep directors from continuing rehearsals after opening night. For our own devised productions, we tinker with timing, dynamics, movement, and text, up through the final performance.  This follows the grand tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, where the performers owned their own characters and material and could adjust it at will.  Even with shows that are critically praised, we continue to finesse moments throughout the run. We chat during warm ups about what might work best, or confer in the dressing room after a show to figure out a new energy or approach for a moment.  Sometimes reviews give us a new opportunity to reexamine our work and our intentions.

Howlround published a fascinating article this past week about the purpose and nature of criticism. This article beautifully points out the dual purpose of criticism – to identify the function of the theater company, and also to identify their primary audience.  One of the reviews we received this week, from the Washington City Paper, is actually a beautiful example of this sort of intelligent criticism.  Klimek has seen many of our shows and spends a great deal of his review articulating our company’s style and production history. While admitting to not understanding the message of the show, his review is full of wonderful words about our skill and sensitivity as artists and creators.  He also points out that Vanitas is a very different show for us, a departure from our past projects.

Developing Vanitas has been a mysterious marvel – full of new and huge risks for us as a company.  We are in unfamiliar territory, as creators.  We decided to follow the same characters throughout, instead of constantly changing costumes to play many small roles.  We chose to develop a loose narrative arc, with generated text and dialogue (instead of only collaging quotes).  The show has a deliberately limited palette and vocabulary – only a few colors and textures, a small amount of props, simple set pieces.  The theme of 17th century still-life is very different from the crackling cynicism of Victorian gothic cabaret.  We chose to embrace the meditative slow quality of painting, as well as the esoteric, heightened language of the Age of Discovery.   These qualities make for an unusual experience, and we feel they best express the truth of our subject matter.


Also this week, an serendipitous burst of eloquence and praise came from the Pink Line Project review:

“…In the spirit of its source material, Vanitas is symbolic theater—it has no intentions for a standard story, except the one you piece together in your head…The show is a swirl of delicate objects, pastels, bits of verse, and soft ballads—an artistic take on death that is both uncommon and effective. With so much supersized mainstream theater, Happenstance is providing a lovely and quiet respite. Who needs a gaudy $100,000 set when there is more beauty in one tiny movement of the hand, or a simple line of text? Theater’s power lies in its ability to create experiences in real time that are witnessed in one room, in one moment. Just like life, it’s fleeting.”

We are proud of our creation, but a gentle pride that still allows us to strive to perfect it, to regard it with curiosity, to continue to explore.  Audiences have stayed after to give us their thoughts & reactions, which have been as fascinating and full of variety as we could hope for.  As artists, it’s always comforting to keep in mind the infamous quote from Theodore Roosevelt, echoed by many in the arts as a worthy inspiration to keep creating our work.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Photos and Reviews for Vanitas


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We were thrilled to have robust crowds last week for our Pay-What-You-Can on Friday night, and our Saturday evening show.  Audiences responses have been as fascinating and varied as one might expect, with different people responding to different elements within the show.

DC theatre scene’s review of Vanitas has many kind words about our production:

“Each piece in the production is carefully chosen and exceptionally crafted, not a single element is forgotten or underutilized. The most notable are the picture frames built into the set’s center piece, the contents of which evolve throughout the production as if by the wave of a magic wand. This brilliant touch is evidence of the sharp attention to detail that makes Vanitas shine.”

DC Metro Theater Arts also posts their praise for the show:

“Devised by the ensemble, this work springs forth from many inspirations, playing at the intersection of visual art and performance theatre with a heavy focus on imagery, music, and physicality; an interpretive piece that gives a moment of breath in the otherwise racing world of today, transporting the audience into a moment of stillness and acceptance long gone.”


Photo of the Queen and the Fool by Mark Silva.  You can find the full photoset HERE, although it may contain spoilers for those who have yet to see the production.

Vanitas in the news – opening tonight!

Two articles in the press today about our show:
Maura Judkis discusses the themes of the show here in the Washington Post’s Going Out Guide.

And a lovely article in the Montgomery County Gazette.

We’d like to thank Silver Spring blog My Line Is Red for featuring us in their Upcoming Events.

Also, Brightest Young Things included us in their Spring/Summer Theatre Guide.

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Last night we had our final dress rehearsal for a few friends and Round House Theatre staff members.  Our friend, photographer Mark Silva also came to take production photos during the run.

Tonight, we open with our first Pay-What-You-Can performance!  The show is at 8 pm at Round House Silver Spring.  Metro access Red Line, two blocks north of the Silver Spring Station. The theater is right next to the AFI Movie Theater.  We hope to see you!

Time to set your date to see Vanitas!


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Time is slipping away – when will you come and play?

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Performance Schedule:
Friday 3/29 8pm *Pay-What-You-Can
Saturday 3/30 8pm
Thursday 4/4 8pm
Friday 4/5 8pm
Saturday 4/6 8pm
Sunday 4/7 2pm
Thursday 4/11 8pm *Pay-What-You-Can
Friday 4/12 8pm
Saturday 4/13 8pm
Sunday 4/14 2pm

*Pay-What-You-Can performances

Tickets: $15 ($10 for under 30 years, seniors, groups of 10+)
Box office: 240-644-1100

Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Rd Silver Spring MD 20901

Metro: RED LINE to Silver Spring, north one block on Colesville (next to AFI Silver)

We will save a seat for you!

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Tech rehearsals


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We have now fully moved in to the glorious black box theater in Silver Spring.  It is a lovely, big space, and we have performed here many times.

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Stage manager Dan and lighting designer Kris are ready to start setting cues today – Kristin came in early yesterday to hang & focus lights.

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Snacks are crucial!  Below, we have the four main tech food groups – protein, salt, sweet, and spike tape.

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Today, Vanitas moves to the theater!


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This weekend we had our final rehearsals in the ballroom.

On Saturday we had a design run for our lighting designer as well as several close friends and colleagues.  Getting outside eyes to observe the work is crucial to the development of devised theater.  As creators, we are often within the work, and have been working on it so long that we no longer know how it is perceived by a new audience.   We got an immense amount of helpful feedback and questions from our test audience, which we incorporated into our next rehearsal.

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Our wonderful stage manager Dan has been helping us update the script document, set sound cues, track props, and organize rehearsal time.  He keeps a detailed list of presets and is “on book” for us to help call out lines we are still memorizing.  This will allow us to jump right in when we get to tech, as Dan will be up in the booth coordinating all of the technical elements.

Below, several of Karen’s stringed instruments.

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As always, Happenstance rehearsals are an odd mix of the ancient and the modern, classic and contemporary.

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Today we move all of our set pieces, costumes, props, and instruments into the black box at Round House Silver Spring.  Spacing rehearsals and lighting cues to follow!

Happy Vernal Equinox!


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We are so excited for the return of Spring!

This week we continue with polishing and shaping the show.  On Tuesday we did a full run through of all transitions, including tracking the movement of set pieces and props.  This work is painstaking but necessary, and requires regular breaks for coffee and sunshine.

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The music for the show is also continuing to develop and evolve.  Karen has always played a host of instruments – the picture below is just a small sampling of the options that she will have at arm’s reach.

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Of course, having instruments within reach means that special accommodations must be made.  Below, the gents help affix a musical instrument to the underside of a table, so that it will be easy to access.

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