Oran Sandel, an actor, teacher and educator who formerly directed the Living Stage Theatre Company, a community outreach arm of Washington’s Arena Stage, died Oct. 19 at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was 64.
The cause was melanoma, said his wife, Roberta Gasbarre, the artistic director of Washington Revels and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Discovery Theater.
For 24 years, including six years as co-director and director before stepping down in 2001, Sandel was a Living Stage staffer, acting and directing improvisational dramas at sites that included preschools, senior centers, prisons and facilities for people with disabilities. During that time, he helped found a program called Children First, aimed at training and sensitizing preschool teachers to the techniques of learning through dramatic arts.
“Oran Sandel’s workshops and trainings touched hundreds of students and teachers,” Jane Freundel Levey, managing editor of the Historical Society of Washington’s Washington History magazine, wrote in an email. “He exposed them to creative process of improvisation and the sheer joy of playing.”
Oran George Sandel was born in Austin on Oct. 22, 1951. The son of a Foreign Service officer, he grew up partly in Brazil and Cambodia.
He graduated in 1974 from Catholic University in Washington and for several years acted in community theater productions throughout the area, joining the Living Stage staff in 1977. The group had been founded 11 years earlier by Robert Alexander.
Typically, a troupe of four to six actors would improvise a performance before an audience and then at some point invite audience participation. At the District of Columbia correctional facility in Lorton, Virginia, he put on shows that gave inmates an opportunity to voice their feelings and concerns, and it led to the establishment of a prison theater company.
Other audiences might see such open-ended themes acted out as drug abuse, teenage suicide or pregnancy, mental illness, loneliness, abandonment or racism. Audiences would be invited to discuss their feelings about what they had seen and heard as well as what endings they might like.
Alexander retired in 1995, and Living Stage was phased out in 2002, when Arena Stage decided to concentrate its outreach efforts in its own Southwest Washington community. Sandel became an independent educational theater artist, working with a variety of groups and schools.
In January 2015, he was diagnosed with melanoma and given three months to live. For almost two years he survived, blogging regularly about the disease.
Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Roberta Gasbarre of Silver Spring; and two children, Caelyn Gasbarre Sandel of Boston and Jamie Sandel of Silver Spring.