DOUBLE BREASTED: Sergio Zavala and Eliot Fintushel goof around in the park.
Bilingual Puppets on Wheels
The Imaginist Theatre Collective takes it to the streets
By Daniel Hirsch
Squinting under the hot July sun, Jenine Alexander inspects Sergio Zavala's bike as he circles along Sebastopol Avenue in Santa Rosa. The thick stack of 10-foot-long pieces of lumber strapped to the back of his bike wobble in his wake."How does it feel?" she asks him in Spanish, her second language, his first. "Bien, bien," he responds, pedaling past.
Alexander, an actress and animator who once quit her job working in Cyprus to join the Cyclo Circus for a bicycle journey through Russia to Indonesia, waves Zavala over so they can tighten the bungee cords holding his cargo in place. Zavala is no stranger to epic journeys—three years ago he traveled by river raft from his home near Mexico City to enter the United States—and pulls his bike over to consult.
Inside the Quonset-hut-turned-performance-space that Zavala and Alexander stand next to, others are at work: two college-aged girls cut human silhouettes out of cardboard; a seasoned actor with an air of an old Vaudevillian practices flute; a married couple debate in Spanish how to best attach a child's bike seat; a musician tunes his guitar; two small children eat fruit snacks; and a pair of artistic directors scramble around, a bit harried, sweaty but remaining positive.
This is the Imaginist Theatre Collective, and today is a very big day.
On this particular Sunday afternoon, they will give the second performance of their original production Art Is Medicine / El Arte Es Medicina, a bilingual, free, all-ages, traveling puppet show. Before they can perform, they have to get to the day's performance space at Howarth Park which, if you're transporting a multitiered marionette stage, dozens of puppets, a heap of props, two young children, a bunch of sound equipment and large papier-mâché masks is no easy feat—especially if you've decided to travel exclusively by bike. But for the Imaginists, whose very name implies implausibility, the impossible challenges of process and journey are what matter most.
Headed by cofounders Amy Pinto and Brent Lindsay, the Imaginists originated at the North Carolina School for the Arts in the early 1990s as an experimental theater ensemble named Knights of Indulgence Theater United States (KITUS) that performed original works in the woods of Winston-Salem. Pinto and Lindsay, along with fellow ensemble members, closely read the works of avant-garde theorist Jerzy Grotowski as well as modeling themselves on the communal structure of the Bread and Puppet Theater.
The group eventually crossed the country to Truckee but dissolved by 2000. Lindsay and Pinto, life partners as well as creative ones, relocated to Sonoma County, where Lindsay grew up. In search of recreating the artistic community they had so thrived on with KITUS, they began anew, forming the Imaginist Theatre Collective in 2001.
Since then, the Imaginists have moved into a performance space on Sebastopol Avenue in Santa Rosa and now perform a full season of works. The collective consists of three distinct facets: Project 104, a professional company that performs original, experimental works as well as established classics; two youth ensembles composed of local children and teenagers; and an annual community-based project that casts nonprofessional community members in original works. This latter project has captivated Pinto and Lindsay most recently.
"In the last three of four years, we've been really wanting to integrate and make it a multicultural institution as well," Pinto says.
"Theater's not just for the gray-haired set that pay a certain amount of money to go see Urinetown or whatever, but something that is really connecting to the larger community, and responding to it, that they're a part of it."
Since relocating to Sonoma County and having a child, Pinto and Lindsay had observed a sharp split between the white and Latino communities and wanted to create a performance that addressed this divide by casting actors from both communities.
"Everybody was always saying, 'You'll never do it,'" Lindsay says of trying to successfully reach out to Latinos. "'We've tried it here'—we heard that time and time again."
Though they struggled at first to put together a diverse enough ensemble, the Imaginists' 2007 bilingual production, The Divide / La División, on the theme of crossing borders, excited a whole population who normally don't go to theater. With half the cast Spanish-speaking, La División, part of Performance Sonoma, got a lot of attention from the local Latino press.
"'Ah! We're invited to something,'" Lindsay quotes the general response of the Latino community who showed up in droves to sold-out performances of the Imaginists production.
Their latest project, Art Is Medicine, is in an extension of that initial collaboration between communities. Inspired by the poetry of Federico García Lorca and Gabriel García Márquez's short story "The Man with Enormous Wings," it casts a diverse and bilingual group of actors: trained ones from Project 104, former youth ensemble students and community members who were originally involved in La División. But unlike all previous shows, this one is mobile.
Earlier this year, when the Imaginists received a CASH Grant from Theater Bay Area, they pondered what to do with the money, until Project 104 company member Jenine Alexander suggested doing a traveling show on bikes like the Cyclo Circus. Lindsay and Pinto loved the concept and were able to put together a small fleet.
"The idea is that every summer we'll do a touring show," Pinto says. "In order to respond to your community, you invite community in. But you also have to go to your community. Why should they always come to us?"
The going out part can be a bit tricky.
As the company prepares to disembark for its Howarth Park performance, Lindsay walks through the space cluttered with puppets and bike tools grumbling to himself: "Kinks! Kinks! Kinks!" Last time they rode out, some of the bikes didn't have brakes, an omission to be corrected this time.
"We've been building bikes in one half of the space, and the show in the other half," Lindsay says.
Since this is only the second performance and the first real time riding with the whole company, there is obviously a lot that still hasn't been worked out. Certain puppets don't yet have hands because the papier-mâché didn't dry fast enough. Company members Maria and Mario Solano are bringing their three-year-old daughter, Jimena, along for the first time and are having difficulty attaching a child seat to Mario's bike. Former youth ensemble member Alejandra Villagomez has only ridden a bike a handful of times.
"I learned how to ride a bike for this show," Villagomez says with some pride. "So I'm confident about the show, but I'm nervous about the bike ride."
Pinto has been searching for an extra helmet for Villagomez for several minutes. In addition to Villagomez's novice bike-riding skills and some missing puppet hands, Pinto has more to worry about this morning. Because some of the rotating cast members couldn't be here today, they are a little low on people to perform. She and Lindsay had to scramble to pay for a permit and book a time at Howarth Park. And so far, everything is running late.
Ever positive, when asked if she feels ready for the day, Pinto responds with a laugh, "I guess I'm ready for anything. I'm even ready to get kicked out of the park."
At around 2:30pm, the company has tightened their bungee cords, found helmets for all parties and are ready to take off, about 30 minutes later than Pinto anticipated. Dressed in all white and each carrying a small load, bike trailer or child, the 12 riders are a sight to behold as they round the corner of Sebastopol and A Street. However, within only a minute a two they need to stop. Alexander's bike, a huge, red frame modeled after Dutch postal bikes and specially commissioned from local artist Todd Barricklow, has a problem with its chain.
With some wire and intuition, Alexander fixes her bike, and the Imaginists take off. Traveling under the midday sun along Sonoma Avenue, the mobile company gets more than a few stares. People in their front lawns stop what they're doing and watch as the row of bikers pass. The Imaginists keep their formation pretty well. Much to everyone's delight, Villagomez rides smoothly, upright and like a pro."It's so great to show people how much can be carried by bike," Alexander says pedaling confidently. "I'm carrying this huge set, and can easily wave to passing cars." By 3:15, the Imaginists arrive at the park a bit tired and overheated, but there isn't time to rest. There's a show to do. They find a space in the shade by a large cluster of picnickers and get to work unloading their bikes and building a stage. Within the hour, a puppet stage rises above the lawn and a small crowd has formed. Company members Eliot Fintushel and Sergio Zavala act as barkers calling "Come to the show!" and "Venga al show!"
The performance that follows is not without, in Lindsay's words, "kinks"—children from the audience come up onstage to play with props, airplanes fly above drowning out actors' voices, there are a few dropped lines and moments of confusion—but nonetheless the performance draws people in and keeps them watching. Like the eclectic group of actors themselves, the audience is young, old, Spanish- and English-speaking and ready to engage with story, color, music and a unique journey.
The Imaginists will be riding their bicycles to various parks and fairs all summer. Most shows are free with a suggested donation. Aug. 14 at 6pm, Bayer Farms. Aug 15 at 3pm, Santa Rosa's MLK Park. Aug. 20–22 and 27–29, at the Imaginists Theatre Collective, 461 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.528.7544. For full schedule visit www.theimaginists.org.
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