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Mark Jaster is not your average mime, if there is such a thing. Classically trained by none other than Marcel Marceau and Ãtienne Decroux, Jaster is a master of mimicry and a connoisseur of clowning. He also plays the saw. Yes, like the kind of saw you might use to cut a two by four in half. Over the years, he has jammed on this jagged instrumentwhich he plays with a violin bowalongside a Celtic harpist, jazz ensembles and a Dixieland trio. He seems to gravitate towards unorthodox instruments, such as the pipe and tabor and the double ocarina.
For this years Fringe, Jaster and his partner, Sabrina Mandell, have teamed up with banished? productions to incorporate some of this wonderfully odd musicality into a new production, Handbook for Hosts, which will also involve shadow screens, references to an old Barbara Stanwyck movie and a secret agent. Like Jaster himself, its definitely not your average night of theater.
Washington City Paper: Tell me the story of Esquires 1949 Handbook for Hosts, which inspired this show of the same name.
Mark Jaster: It was this urbane, Esquire-styled guide for gentlemen that had to be hosts. There were these witty articles with very nicely crafted prose about everything from recipes and how to throw a good party to tips about eating, drinking, and being merry. Our collaborators, banished? productions, proposed this text as a point of departure and Sabrina Mandell, my co-artistic director, wanted to do a film noir, radio drama treatment of it. We tend to do very collage-y type works, so we used the really wonderful prose from Handbook for Hosts and crosscut it with some little scenes, vignettes, and songs from the period. We borrowed from film noir classics like Double Indemnity and Crossfire and we give credit in the program to Ed Walkers The Big Broadcast, because thats a big inspiration. Of the old time radio shows he plays, I love Gunsmoke and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
WCP: How did this collaboration come about?
MJ: banished? productions did an amazing Fringe production last year, A Tactile Dinner, which was a meal served for the senses other than the gastronomic senses. Theyre into the experiential and the participatory and we loved the text that they brought us, because it left open a lot of opportunities for interpretation.
WCP: Just to clarify: the audience wont be going home with the skills to throw the perfect party?
MJ: (laughs) No. Were not doing a lecture demonstration on how to be a host.
WCP: Why should people go see Handbook for Hosts over all the other options at the Fringe?
MJ: If youre going to Fringe, you should see more than one show. In fact, you should see as much as you can. But I think ours is playful, well crafted, and full of surprises. Its a stimulating evening of theater and who can say no to that?
WCP: How did you become a mime?
MJ: I was always doing theater from early elementary school onwards. By the time I got to high school I was serious and I knew I wanted to do theater as a career. I had a great drama coach who told me that my acting was very physical, which was true. I was a very corporal, visceral actor. He had a mime teacher friend named Budd Beyer coming to town and told me that I should go study with him. So, I skipped high school to go work with him and then he sent me on to Ãtienne Decrouxin Paris, who was Marcel Marceaus teacher. In the 80s, I worked with Marceau himself. I find that the challenge of trying to do everything with nothing is engaging.
WCP: When did you first pick up the saw?
MJ: Id seen people do it and Id heard it on Garrison Keillors show, so I started messing around with it. Its actually not that hard; its like playing one giant string. Luckily, I have a musical ear, though I dont have much training. Im in the old tradition of jongleurs, minstrels, and street performers, who apply their skills to entertaining people in short bursts on the fly.
WCP: So many of the techniques and pieces that you use in your show are parts of older traditions. Do you feel like its part of your job as an artist to keep those traditions alive?
MJ: Were nostalgic and Im not convinced that weve thoroughly mined some of the territory weve left behind. We like to bring it back in pieces. A real big influence for Happenstance isJoseph Cornell, who did the shadow boxes. Theres something about his his collaging of pieces of the past into assemblages, that become whimsical, delightful and a little mysterious, that we really love. We like taking bits of the past and contrasting and juxtaposing them with other snippets to give a new look at these fun old ideas.
Handbook for Hosts plays various times and dates at the Mead Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW (See website for details). $15. (866) 811-4111.