The Imaginists is an unconventional theater company. During the summer they put on free plays in public parks in and around Santa Rosa where all the props, costumes, sets and actors arrive on bikes. The company was founded in 2001, and has been riding bikes for six years. And many of its performances are bilingual, with the actors moving fluidly between English and Spanish.
This summer, the company is touring the region with an early play by Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca. The Butterfly’s Evil Spell/El Maleficio de la Mariposa is a surreal, poetic drama about an insect wedding in which all the actors play bugs. The work has no ending and Lorca himself was not happy with it. As a result, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell is rarely performed.
Last Friday, the troupe took the play to Bayer Neighborhood Park and Gardens in Santa Rosa. The performance piggybacked on a weekly community potluck complete with hot tortillas warmed over a fire. Before the play, kids speaking Spanish and English leapt over picnic tables, jumped on top of mulch piles and biked back and forth across the parkland. Once the actors had finished unloading the bikes and setting up, they rolled stumps towards the staging area for seating. Then people settled in to watch the show.
Amy Pinto and Brent Lindsay, cofounders of the Imaginists, wanted to bring theater to the community of Santa Rosa. Like the rest of California, a big part of that community is Hispanic.
“There isn’t a whole lot of art that is accessible to people in this community,” Karym Sanchez, a community organizer with the North Bay Organizing Project said. “It’s awesome that they bring the theater to the people, you know, so there’s no longer that threshold of having to pay to get in.”
One Stage, Two Languages
Producing bilingual plays means that sometimes a line is spoken in English and then repeated immediately in Spanish. Other times, a Spanish phrase is followed by a clarifying sentence in English. And of course, the performers always act it out.
"Communication can happen in a lot of different ways rather than just language,” Pinto said.
Some people in the company are bilingual. But many only speak Spanish or English. Yet everyone in the cast delivers lines in both languages.
The Imaginists have done six bilingual plays to date including Extranjeros en su Propia Tierra/Strangers in Their Own Land and REAL. When new scripts are doled out for the company's bilingual plays, actors who only speak one language learn the other from fellow cast members who are fluent in the other tongue. The actors say the process is a humbling and empowering exchange for everyone.
An approachable approach
One goal of the Imaginists is to make theater unintimidating and integrated into the community. The company does this by using untrained actors from the community, bicycles and lots of humor. In The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, actors rap, dance and employ slapstick comedy.
“We aim to develop an atmosphere of trust," Lindsay said. "The way you introduce people to that environment is of course opening up and to become vulnerable with us. Laughter is of course a perfect opportunity to open people up."
The plays also incorporate audience participation. In The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, the audience is invited to dance on stage, sing along to songs, and even dictate how Lorca's conclusion-less play will end.
Actors ask the audience for suggestions for a suitable ending. After the crowd votes for a favorite, the cast improvises the finale. Last Friday the lovers ended up together but dead.
“How they got the kids involved was very creative. The people are part of the play,” said audience member Omar Gallardo. Gallardo is the outreach and diversity director of LandPaths, a stewardship organization that connects Sonoma County residents with open spaces.
The company draws a diverse audience, ranging from toddlers to older people. Both Latinos and non-Hispanic whites are in attendance.
Sitting in the audience, it’s clear that the spectators appreciate the performance. However Lindsay said Santa Rosa as a whole has not been particularly open to the Imaginists' approach. He says it has taken a long time for the Santa Rosa establishment to come around.
“Especially in Santa Rosa and Sonoma, it was difficult to convince people that what you were doing was anything but amateur,” Lindsay said. “To convince people that the ideas were coming from the right place, that took at least five years.”
Lindsay says what really sparked local attention was recognition from outside Santa Rosa, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and reviews from publications in the East Bay and San Francisco.
Art reflects life, life reflects art
The troupe not only adapts plays and poems but also produces original works for the stage. When choosing what to produce, Lindsay and Pinto try to pick subjects to which their community can relate.
In one of the Imaginists' current productions, The Art is Medicine Show/El Show El Arte Es Medicina, actress Dulce Precido recites a poem by Francisco Larcon, “First Day of School.” It’s about a newly immigrated child being handed off to a teacher whose language the child cannot understand.
“It’s my story," said Precido, who left Mexico for California in 2002. "When I went to school, I didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the teacher.”
One of the early bilingual plays, Foreigners in Their Own Land/Extranjeros en Su Propia Tierra, the Imaginists tackled border crossings and deportation. An actress named Laura took the role of a woman who was going to be deported. Two years later, fiction became reality and Laura was in fact deported.
“Every one of the stories that are told in the play were real, but we never imagined that the story of Laura being deported was going to be real,” actor Sergio Zavala said. “It’s tough for us to come back and participate in the Imaginists after group members have been deported. So sometimes you can feel alone, but the Imaginists are loving and offer support.”
The Butterfly's Evil Spell/El Maleficio de la Mariposa
July 19 - Humboldt Park @ 4pm
July 24 - MLK Park @ 7 pm
July 25 - Finley Park @ 4pm
The Art is Medicine Shoe/El Show el Arte es Medicina
July 21 - MLK Park @ 12:30
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED