Imaginists craft theater without limits

Michael Shufro, Staff Writer

You never quite know where the stage ends and the real world begins at 461 Sebastopol Ave. The Imaginist Theatre blurs the line between actors and audience, and what’s real or imagined.

“You see things happening outside the window,” said Imaginist and SRJC theater instructor Elliot Fintushel, a theatrical powerhouse trained in the art of mime. “Some of us played beggars outside and people were so worried. Somebody even bought a piece of cake and brought it outside because they felt so sorry [for us].”

Fintushel is just one of many contributing an array of unique skills and talents to the growing theater troupe and its local surrounding community. A lifelong lover of theater, Artistic Director Amy Pinto keeps a full schedule managing the theater, crafting plays, acting and teaching acting classes in the Imaginist’s playhouse.

In 1993, Pinto and a small group of actors formed Knights of Indulgence Theatre United States, a small company seeking to work outside the traditional limitations of theater. KITUS envisioned an ensemble approach to theater where each individual voice contributed to the company’s development and deeply treasured the relationship between a theater and its community.

“We wanted to be all writing, to be all directing, to be all involved in building the sets and painting and making posters,” Pinto said. For nine years KITUS thrived, but in 2001 the original ensemble broke up, and Pinto with a few others planted the first seeds for what would later become The Imaginists Theatre Collective.

Based in Santa Rosa for the last three years, the collective shares the same values and visions as its predecessors, putting a particular emphasis on staying connected with the community. “We truly are a neighborhood theater,” Pinto said. “When you can look out, and the audience is reflected in who’s on stage–that we could all speak different languages, be different colors and be different ages–means to me we’re getting somewhere.”

It’s hard to say just where you might find The Imaginists at any given moment, but they’re out there. Members are performing at SRJC, Sonoma State University and the Graton Day Labor Center. They’re teaching theater classes and running youth ensembles for children and teens to participate in the acting community. They’re brainstorming ways to perform plays underneath Highway 101, and have a project underway acting in the fields and gardens of Bayer Farm in Roseland.

They identify themselves with the living theater of the 60s and an approach to stage performance that extends as far back to playwrights like Shakespeare and Moliere, who were not academics, but actors who wrote scripts, built props and gave direction.

This summer the troupe is reviving “The Art is Medicine Show,” where several performers will head out on bicycles and bring free theater to the community. “We want people to feel that they are invited, that they matter, that they’re not just paying 30 bucks and then gone. It’s inclusive,” Pinto said. “It’s theater for the community.”

Bringing a style and voice to theater that is all its own, the troupe mines every member’s imagination for challenging and thought provoking material. Whether performing an ancient work like “Prometheus Bound” or developing an Imaginist original, the theater troupe seeks ways to bring a unique experience to audiences. “If other theaters are like farmers using the rich soil left by volcanic lava, this theater is a volcano,” Fintushel said. “Everything that comes out of it is new.”

It’s hard to pinpoint just what makes an Imaginist play, what gives the performance a unique signature, but audiences can expect to find something magical, fantastical and at times absurd in every show. Outside an assortment of crafty props and costumes, some performances even include puppets and masks.

Imaginist and SRJC student Tessa Rissacher said that good craftsmanship is behind every Imaginist play. “It’s like cooking,” Rissacher said. “What do we have in the fridge? Just because we have all these spices, we’re not necessarily going to use each one.”

Before joining the Imaginists, SRJC studen Brandon Wilson attended one of the troupe’s plays, which profoundly affected him. “You guys are doing something that’s different, that’s formidable, that’s beautiful. Its not just theater; it’s art,” Wilson said.

While SRJC and The Imaginists don’t work together in any official sense, Wilson and Rissacher are only two among several Imaginists attending SRJC. “It’s like a secret path in the woods. You have to find the Hawthorne Berry Trail or something,” Pinto said and then chuckled.

While the word “Imaginist” represents the performance arts for the small theater, the troupe thinks of it as a philosophy and lifestyle anyone may identify with. It could be theater, it could be art or it could be some kind of anarchist movement, Pinto said.

“When you come to the show, you find out if you’re an Imaginist. Take the Imaginist test,” Fintushel exclaimed. “See if you are one of us. We have the cure.”