TBA Online: News & Features: January 2019

Keep An Eye On: The Imaginists Find Success in Embracing the Unknown

Wednesday, January 23, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Nicole Gluckstern

Since 2002, The Imaginists have staked a claim on the rigorous art of generative theater-making from their longtime home of Santa Rosa. Maybe not the first place that springs to mind as a destination town for theater-goers, Santa Rosa has nonetheless proved a fertile staging ground for The Imaginists and their unconventional works. So much so that they’ve attracted international attention, and been chosen to participate in extensive cultural exchange tours to Europe and Russia with the Center for International Theatre Development. This past December, the company achieved another laurel when it was selected as one of ten Bay Area performing arts nonprofits to receive a Hewlett 50 Arts Commission--$150,000 from the Hewlett Foundation to create a new work that facilitates discussions around pressing local issues.

The award will enable The Imaginists to become the first US-based theatre company to collaborate with renowned radical, Hungary’s Árpád Schilling, on an as-yet-unwritten work about gun violence, set to debut in September 2020, in San Francisco.

This collaboration has been years in the planning ever since the company’s cofounders, Amy Pinto and Brent Lindsay, first encountered Schilling during their CITD-instigated excursions to Europe. Although, as Lindsay recounts with a laugh, it took them some convincing, Schilling and his actor-activist wife, Lilla Sárosdi, came to visit them in Santa Rosa in 2015, sitting in on rehearsals for a show-in-progress, giving talks in the Bay Area, and meeting with The Imaginists’ Santa Rosa community. At the heart of this tour lay the tantalizing question: Would The Imaginists and Schilling collaborate together on a future work? The answer, sent via email on Schilling’s flight back to Europe, was yes.

Gustavo Servin and Zahira Diaz in REAL by The Imaginists. Photo by Brent Lindsay.

One of the biggest hallmarks of The Imaginists is their dedication to treating theater-making as a series of inquiries, experiments, and challenges. The evolution of a new piece can be a protracted one, full of surprises, and open-ended in trajectory. The company does have some consistent programming however, particularly their summertime bilingual bicycle tours, The Art is Medicine Show/ El Show el Arte es Medicina, which they’ve been performing for free in public spaces for eleven years strong. Inspired by the historic Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s, as well as touring brethren such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Teatro Campesino, The Art is Medicine Show includes as broad a spectrum of their Santa Rosa community as possible, including emerging artists, summer interns, and other city residents.

Their creation process, which frequently seeks to address the urgent issues and themes of the day, incorporates the voices of members of their core ensemble, locals, social justice organizations, and anyone directly affected by the chosen point of departure. But no matter what work they’re creating, and with whom, an innate curiosity and a desire to push the parameters of the possible inform each experimental approach. To imagine, and reimagine, the shape of the theatrical. And above all, to use humor as a grounding device and entry point into each piece.

“I think we always try to hit it head on with humor,” Lindsay affirms. “Because we know that’s what’s going to invite the audience to open up.”

It’s the humor more than anything else that convinced Schilling that a collaboration with The Imaginists was a must. Bonding as friends as much as theatre professionals during his 2015 visit, they quickly discovered their mutual affinity, “laughing hysterically” as they brainstormed ideas for shows they could work on together. 

Árpád Schilling. Photo by Zágon Nagy.

In his native Hungary, Schilling founded his celebrated theatre company, Krétakör, in 1995, garnering a reputation for its visionary and outspoken approach. Eventually Krétakör morphed into a social justice foundation, using theatrical tactics to examine pressing cultural and political issues. Labeled in 2017 by the Hungarian government as a “national security threat,” Schilling and Sárosdi have since settled in France, a home base from which Schilling travels around Europe as a freelance director and instigator.

 “When we first met him,” Pinto relates, “he was working in specific communities: youth, Roma, small towns in the countryside…and also orchestrating huge political actions in Budapest. This felt very familiar to us, to our journey as well, working in community.”

For Lindsay, it’s Schilling’s edge that also ties them together. “What he’s doing (artistically) is quite dangerous. There’s a sense of danger in the work, and I think that’s what he found in us...pushing art to where even we’re frightened. And that’s a good place to be. It’s very interesting. Very alive.”

In terms of danger, there’s hardly a topic that can cause more consternation and spark more discussion than that of guns and gun violence in the United States. Two events colored Schilling’s 2015 visit particularly: the Baltimore riots in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray killing, and the still-fresh grief in Santa Rosa from the 2013 killing of Andy Lopez—a thirteen year-old boy shot to death by Sonoma County deputy, Erick Gelhaus.

 “The thing that was really incredible about Stoneman Douglas and the students there, is that that same response happened here in Santa Rosa when Andy Lopez was murdered,” Pinto remembers. “The people that really responded first were youth. We’re talking middle school and high school kids...they left school and hit the streets. It was an amazing unbelievable time. Most of the people on the streets were young, very young, black and brown kids…[and] they had sheriff’s deputies in full riot gear...with guns pointed at this peaceful demonstration.”

Since the shooting, Gelhaus was promoted within the department, but a civil suit against Sonoma County recently resulted in a $3 million dollar settlement in favor of the Lopez family. The spot where Lopez was shot has become a memorial park, but despite it all, Pinto feels that there hasn’t been an appropriate response from the county, that the implications of the shooting and the violence done to the community trust have not been fully examined.

“Of all the inspirations and ideas that we talked about, the investigation into our gun culture was really what resounded for all of us.” Pinto concludes. “Because it would be difficult. It would be a real risk to take on.”

Even the process of finding funding for the project has been a risk—since there is no existing script or shape to the piece as of this writing and, in the words of Schilling, they “don’t want to find out things too quickly.” But throughout, The Imaginists have positioned this embrace of the unknown as a positive, and an essential part of both their and Schilling’s artistic process. And for other maverick artists who are embarking on their own long journey for funding, Lindsay has this to say about the experience:

“I think for artists the challenge that we face getting funding, often what we’ll try to do is squeeze into funders’ heads and try to see what they want instead of sticking to our own integrity, our own process, and our own artistic vision. I think it’s the artist’s responsibility to educate the funders...and to not work backwards.”

Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl