The Imaginists on life and art-making in post-pandemic America
The traffic and noise are back. Surely a small price for the relief and thrill in moving around in the familiar ways again. Still, it’s remarkable how quickly the tide of feelings brought to the surface by the pandemic seems to ebb away. The quality of it all is fading. The figure and spell of 2020, the year of pandemic and revolt—its atmosphere of remoteness and intimacy, uncertainty and grief, outrage and solidarity, wonder and fear—is receding, if slowly and unevenly, in the rear view.
Now that we seem to be on the road again—where some “new normal” beckons, and people who look like civic custodians but are more likely highwaymen direct us toward a great U-turn, back to an old Normal that almost nobody not making money off the whole long catastrophe ever wants to see again—now that we’re pushing along in traffic once more, What hindsight from 2020?
With this question in the passenger seat, one Tuesday afternoon in early May, I steered a borrowed car up 101 to Santa Rosa to the Imaginists theater. On offer was a work-in-progress showing by dancer-choreographers Rachael Dichter and Allie Hankins, a culmination of several weeks’ artistic residence there as part of the Imaginists’ new Guest House program (about which, more below).
It was only the second live performance I’d seen since the pandemic had closed the theaters—and the first one was viewed from behind a windshield, in still another car. By May 2021, restaurants and bars and other places had been partially, somewhat confusedly opening to the public again. Meanwhile, government protocols and restrictions around public spaces and gatherings, so mercurial throughout the pandemic’s year-plus of crisis, had been still further relaxed in the days preceding the work-in-progress showing.
Nevertheless, tonight’s audience wasn’t going inside. Instead, a dozen or so chairs (clustered according to the parties who had made reservations) were waiting along the sidewalk bordering the storefront theater’s plate glass windows and adjacent roll-up cargo door. The sun was low but still bright in the cloudless sky above this quiet, mostly residential stretch of Sebastopol Avenue as guests started to arrive in pairs and small groups. Against an inner wall in the crook of the open garage door an iPhone stood by on a tripod. This was also the first time the Imaginists would be livestreaming from the theater, for those who couldn’t attend in person.
Not that the company had been idle before this time. But while many other theaters had migrated online since March 2020, into virtual formats and many a Zoom-inspired scenario, the Imaginists had instead been rethinking theater from the ground up. (Again, more on that below.)
As the audience settled into their sidewalk seating, and the glare on the windows faded in the evening twilight, two bodies reclining on the marley floor inside the theater became starkly visible.
For the next half hour or so, we watched as Allie and Rachael, bare-footed, dressed casually and seemingly randomly except for matching harnesses, went through a series of synchronized movements, their languid pace opening up an increasing structural complexity, as their precise gestures went intentionally in and out of phase. Their gently expansive approaches and figurations drifted across a stage washed in white flood lights and populated on one end with a small array of open folding ladders like the hint of a mountain range or an urban jungle gym or maybe just an artist-occupied garage.
This easy and almost hypnotic flow could be suddenly interrupted altogether by bursts of chaotic energy, with each dancer momentarily falling away into her own separate flight. Or, at another point, as the dancers broke the sound barrier and, in this case, a literal fourth wall to briefly come together on either side of the plate glass window. There they fired off at one another, with both mechanical fidelity and intimate proximity, discrete near-nonsense sets of words and phrases reminiscent of a play (if one needed a theatrical parallel) by Gertrude Stein.
Afterward, Rachael and Allie perched on two tall stools just inside the theater’s garage door and bluntly asked the audience what they thought, what they saw, what they felt. The eager responses, in turn, led each artist to muse aloud, explain an aspect of their process, or jot something in a notebook. After 15 minutes of conversation, the audience members—often striving to translate an abstract form into semantic or narrative meaning, and seemingly well satisfied by the stimulation and novelty of the encounter—went their separate ways again.
The day after the showing, I spoke with Amy Pinto and Brent Lindsay, co-founders and artistic directors of the Imaginists. We sat in their backyard, in the shade of the tall trees and in the company of a six-month-old puppy wearing a plastic post-op cone around her head, who alternated between barking at me, running under and around the picnic table, and chomping on a loud squeaky toy. Amy and Brent were, by contrast, the calm at the center of this storm, but the subject of our conversation was nevertheless a passionate one—the meaning of 2020 for the future of their art-making and the project of their lives.
Though their planned season was derailed, like everyone’s, by the arrival of Covid-19, the Imaginists did not stop producing in 2020-21. In fact, they barely slowed down, creating several fresh, unconventional and vital pieces in the context of the new terrain and challenging circumstances. And more than that. A trajectory made itself felt and, as they relate, pointed a path forward “into the woods”—as they put it, in no idle metaphor. As practicing theater artists, they were shaped fundamentally in an ensemble-driven experiment called KITUS in a Delaware forest, a past that was now arguably more alive and relevant than it had been in years.
The following excerpts from our conversation have been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you describe the impetus for Guest House, the new residency program? What brought Allie and Rachael to Santa Rosa to work at the Imaginists’ space?
Amy: Well, this guy named Rob Avila introduced us to FRESH Festival and we went in January of 2017. Brent went on one night, I went on another night. We saw Rachael and Allie performing When We as part of one evening’s program. The FRESH Festival in general was so inspiring. There were varying stages of performances, three in a given night—one was a finished piece, one was a very beginning, one was maybe somewhere in the process of being complete. The whole vibe, the whole ethos of FRESH Festival was so exciting, that kind of experimenting, and a place for that conversation to be happening with all these different people. That was something we had been wanting to do ever since we visited Ron [Berry, founder of Fusebox Festival] in Austin, thinking about that hybrid performance festival. We’re always looking to have more conversation with people and artists, conversation excited by the kind of work they’re making and the way they’re thinking.
Brent: What also made that exciting was how recognizable it was, the sense of community. So you could have the work at multiple stages of development and not shy away from putting it out there. And the conversations that started in that room [the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco]—it’s always exciting when you see those things because it’s a rare occasion. When you come from that—and it becomes challenging to find what I call “members of the extended family”—and then you find it, it’s revelatory.
“It just seems like the natural progression, inviting in new people, not just to a micro-festival but year-round, to inspire our work, to feed our community, to help the conversation grow and not shrink or stagnate.”
And Rachael and Allie’s piece in particular surprised me. It changed my perception, it changed my mind, everything about it. It was a no-brainer to say, if possible, we should get this to Santa Rosa. We were already toying with this idea of micro-festivals, inviting people into Santa Rosa to help shape what we’d already been doing here, opening minds to new kinds of work and enjoying more conversation about mystery, about not always having things answered.
I think having a lack of dance [in Santa Rosa] is problematic. It gives no opportunity for linear theater, narrative-based theater, to have a conversation with something different. There’s no balance. We try to create that balance, but it’s more challenging [in the absence of] something a little more abstract. So that it becomes a broader conversation.
Guest House comes from this idea. Allie and Rachael’s residency is our piloting of this idea. It’s taking from these impulses, including FRESH Festival, including what we call the Artist Occupied Festival. It just seems like the natural progression, inviting in new people, not just to a micro-festival but year-round, to inspire our work, to feed our community, to help the conversation grow and not shrink or stagnate.
Theater in a Pandemic – Take Out Theater
This was not the first time the space had been activated since the pandemic lockdown came in March 2020. And one project utilized snail mail. Can you explain what else has happened in and beyond this space beginning in March 2020? Maybe we can start with Take Out Theater, which was a timely riff on the universal move to take out dining with all the attendant anxiety around that.
Brent: In Take Out Theater we had visual artists who had never performed before, and that was very intentional. Again, it’s in this larger conversation about Guest House: It’s the potential of non-performers, performers in different disciplines, to come together and see what happens when things aren’t so clean, things aren’t so familiar.
When we brought in the visual artists to do Take Out Theater, and we said let’s create a performance, we absolutely knew people were going to be coming in, picking up their meals—these meals were just like objects in a box, and we were asking them to take home these objects and film a piece, whatever they came up with. And while they were waiting, they could look in the windows. We developed this loop that they could stand there and watch. As Amy was saying, we were surprised to see how many people were so hungry to see anything that they stayed for the loop over and over and over! Some people would just stand on the sidewalk outside and watch us do this ridiculous loop forever.
AMY: Our kitchen was stocked with brightly colored plastic Easter eggs, yarn, paper umbrellas, and crayons, which we also used as cigarettes to take smoke breaks outside, and Alejandro was doing some of the most amazing things. He’s not a performer, but he was so free.
Brent: He became a performer, the kind of performer that you want to watch. This really shocked us about Take Out Theater. We set up rules. It was all dictated by sound. Every time the [recording of the] opera would start, we would run through this piece. Then we would go back to making meals, and things would go back to the kitchen.
Amy: The first night we didn’t prep enough boxes. So we actually were in the weeds. I was sweating like…
Brent: It became like a restaurant!
Amy: We were all having flashbacks! Because we’ve all worked at restaurants.
Brent: We had these tickets hanging, and more tickets and more orders, and every time that fucking opera would turn on we would have to go perform!
Amy: At first it was fun, and then it wasn’t anymore.
Brent: It sucked! But we had to go perform no matter what.
Amy: People started to get pissed off because they wanted their meal!
Brent: It became this very interesting forced game.
Amy: I had my clogs on. I was running and I almost fell. I did one of those things where you’re tripping for like ten meters. I thought to myself, “This has gone into insanity.”
Brent: It set us questioning, what is theater? What is theater in this time? Who’s theater for? In that situation, it was as much that we were an audience to ourselves. We’ve just turned everything on its head. I’m looking at myself, I’m looking at them, I’m looking at us. How fucking nuts all this is!
The very next time that we [staged Take Out Theater], both Alejandro [Salazar] and Jessica [Rasmussen] couldn’t make it. It was Amy and me. So we grabbed [our 10-year-old daughter] Rita. We said, here’s the choreography.
Amy: We had these ridiculously tall toques. On Rita, it was going down over her eyes, it was a mess. And that night, almost nobody came. It was like one of those nights at a restaurant. You’re like, “Not making any tips tonight.” About five people showed up. One person showed up early and got mad and left because we weren’t ready.
Brent: They got pissed because we weren’t performing! It was never really billed as a performance. So all of a sudden you had someone angry because we weren’t performing, we were getting Rita ready or something.
Amy: It was wild.
Brent: Again, the theatricality of it all went beyond the performers.
Amy: It’s very interesting, too, to think about how you’re feeding people. Because what they’re receiving is an invitation to play, to invent, to explore, to be in the unknown, not necessarily that easy.
A lot of people came and got every single meal. We didn’t see them again. They were really hungry! We asked people, if they gave it back to us, “What was your process? What did you do?” Leighann was one of the few we heard from. She said, “I opened it up. I immediately closed it, and put it away, and tried not to think about it. But for a week I kept thinking about it, and I was terrified. Then, finally, I had a whole day, and I was like, fuck it. So I opened it up, I took everything out, and then I just started.” What she ends up with is this wild interpretation of the ingredients in that box. I imagine that a lot of people had similar experiences.
Sounds like it really was about feeding people. As you say, you were offering people an opportunity to activate a part of themselves, their creativity, and to slow down time and sit with the moment, to work through something. It may have been just what was needed in that moment but, at the same time, it was maybe also the hardest thing to do in that moment.
Brent: I think that was the spirit behind it. They threw a wrench in the gears, let’s re-imagine what’s possible.
Let’s talk about Post-Theater, which is a monthly project that launched in June 2020 and is still ongoing. What was its genesis and how has it unfolded?
Amy: I think that Post-Theater was another version of this [spirit of re-imagining what’s possible]. Rather than go where a lot of theaters were going—which was to immediately start streaming stuff, and virtual and Zoom plays—it was a retreat into making things that could be mailed to people. The premise was that it is a performance on a postcard. I kept saying that: it’s a performance. We’re just going to keep sticking that word in and make you have to think, well, is it a performance? Am I a participant in one? What is this?
And it’s completely handmade, not at all in that other world, that virtual thing that a lot of people were drawn to do. Again, it felt right. It was also a way to invite other people to collaborate when we couldn’t actually gather in the same room. Everybody was dealing with the same prompt: You need to make a performance on a postcard for 84 people. How are you going to do that?
Insisting on the word “performance” certainly seems to complicate the word, or open it up, maybe give it some new power, some new resonance, to provoke some thought and feeling and exploration. I’d think it would get the juices flowing if nothing else.
Amy: And we loved playing with the word “commission” too. We said, we’re commissioning artists from the wild wilderness. Well, the commission was $150, which is kind of laughable. But everybody was so gracious. In the end some people donated theirs back. Some people would say, it was so important for me to have that project. I didn’t do mine until November. I’m always the last-minute procrastinator. But I had the same feeling. It forced me to do something, much like Take Out Theater was forcing the people that got the takeout, it forced me to make something and put everything else aside and just concentrate on this thing. That was a life-changer in that moment.
The beginning – 10:34
Your first pandemic-era foray was actually exclusively on YouTube, an unabashedly wacky series of handmade animations called 10:34. Can you explain the impetus for it and where it led you in those early days of the lockdown?
Brent: The whole 10:34 thing, though we never really built it as an Imaginist response, was the earliest response. That was when the impulse came to get back in touch with all the old KITUS people. To say, hey, I have this crazy idea. What do you all think about collaborating with voiceover work? Some people leapt at the idea. Some were more cautious. Saying, you know, send me a script! [laughs] I want to see what I’m getting into. But the impulse was really interesting: Maybe it’s time we called each other up and see if we want to do something. It was really amazing, because once I started getting all these submissions via phone—and they were wildly different in quality; people were trying to record in their closets, and I was sitting there trying to make the sound-editing better each episode, and putting it all together—it kept me busy and it kept me sane. But even more than that, it opened up a brand new idea, which was, “What’s distance?”
Amy: Yeah, it all collapsed.
Brent: It all collapsed. Here we were all working together after 20 years. And it was like we were in the same room. Everyone had the same response. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing, what I’m seeing…”
Amy: You could hear their voices in your head. Because we’re so used to each other. You could dial right back to the rhythms and everyone’s personalities.
Brent: Everyone was starting to catch each other’s rhythm again. It was just so comfortable in a matter of weeks. And it only lasted eight, I think.
Amy: And it was so easy, because theater is so problematic, it takes a lot of time and people. But this, we didn’t have to memorize, all we had to do was find about 10 minutes, get that script and say these lines into a phone.
Brent: Then I spent hours in the backyard just setting up all my little sets. But you reminded me of something—there’s still one episode missing. That was intentional. I started on episode three. We made it all the way to eight. Then went back to two. And I still have one.
So there’s a pilot episode?
Brent: There’s the pilot. [laughs]
Amy: That was the beginning. That was right when it happened. In terms of what you were talking about, responding in the moment, that was that sort of horrifying but also brilliant time when the dolphins were appearing and the coyotes, and everything was just—there was this quiet. There was this collapsing of distance and time.
Brent: It was scary to go grocery shopping. It was the beginning…
Amy: So 10:34 was first, and then into Post-Theater, and then Take Out, which was in the space—here we are, seeing people, and providing these meals. The very last thing was Worm Moon, which was in March, and that marked a year.
Worm Moon is the March moon. I had been loving the moon names of the year. But March being Worm Moon—there is something about that underground movement that’s always happening, that we’re so disconnected from, other realms that are just right here. And you started a worm farm, that’s another thing that happened during the pandemic.
Brent: For real. It’s true.
Amy: So worms were the thing. And it was marking a year. That was the window installations and the soundscape.
“There is something about that underground movement that’s always happening, that we’re so disconnected from, other realms that are just right here.”
Brent: It was also a continuation. 10:34 reminds me, we got back in touch with our original company, and it was a continuation of working with Barry. Barry was with us in Post-Theater. He also contributed to Worm Moon. And it will continue. Bringing Stephen on, there’s no question in my mind that Barry will still be involved. So that’s been really exciting. Worm Moon was also another really great excuse to collaborate with non-performers, visual artists, to whom we could say, let’s build these installations in the window. We also knew they were going to have a performative quality to them. You wanted people to come to the window, and we knew that we wanted this in-ear audio that they could hook into. They would create through this visual and sound poetry whatever the hell they wanted. The installations were not connected in any way, except that they were all coming from this shared response. We kept thinking, it’s like Macy’s windows. Let’s just make our version of Worm Moon. All four windows had these visual installations. Some went very deep, using the depth of the space. Some were really up front. Amy’s plastered the window, you could only look through a small circle. And then this accompanying audio…
Amy: Which had contributors. We asked a whole bunch of people that we knew to send us stuff. All different ages, just different people.
Brent: The soundscape had so many great people.
Amy: Sabel Rose Regalia was sewing—she’s a quilt maker. She makes these psychedelic quilts. Really an amazing person. You could hear her big sewing machine, TUD-TUD-TUD-TUD-TUD-TUD
Brent: And the dialogue she wrote was exquisite. It was like, who is this person? We knew she’d been coming, and we knew her from another piece we’d done, but what she sent back to us was just beautiful!
So it was similar to 10:34 in that you asked people to contribute audio files? And you gave what in terms of directions? Anything?
Brent: Reactions to the pandemic.
Amy: You’re in a spaceship, what do you see?
So you gave specific prompts?
Amy: For some. For some we didn’t. Then Brent took it and completely reinvented it. With some people, he took one little thing that they said and just looped it. It was very much a creation.
Brent: Then we had QR codes hanging outside the windows. I usually would go in and make sure all the lights were on and make sure all the windows were active at sundown. I would sit in the back, in the dark, and I would just trip out to see all the people. Sometimes it would get really populated. Sometimes it was almost a party out there on the street.
Amy: Most of the time we weren’t there, witnessing. There was nobody.
Brent: The other element that was so fascinating was the people that were just walking by. They stopped. Families stopped by. People would stop their cars and get out. It was when you don’t know you’re going to be an audience, and you’re just surprised by something and it stops you in your tracks. Some people would hit the QR code and start to listen, some wouldn’t, but it was an incredible thing to just watch.
Amy: The other thing about it is, it arrived with the new moon and disappeared with the full moon. It lit up as soon as it got dark. So it would change through the month as it was getting darker later. The whole thing was on its own time frame. We couldn’t control it. People’s idea of what sundown was! showing up too early, or this or that, because it kept getting later and later, and the run time would shrink, because we only kept it on until 9:00 and that was fixed.
Brent: People would shove cash or checks through the mail slot. It was great, every time we heard the little squeaky slot. It was totally crazy on the inside. A lot of times I didn’t really bother looking, but I would always hear the little slot. It was just this little connection.
Amy: It was like a temple where you go and you make a little offering.
Brent: Yeah, it was a very odd way of connecting.
It’s just striking that this was an incredibly fruitful time for your theater. Even though the building was ostensibly closed, the theater wasn’t closed at all.
Brent: I think it was our White Album period.
Amy: It was the White Album! But I want to thank you for starting here. Because I think that is the necessary backstory in speaking of where we’re going.
The inspiration for reconnecting, time and distance suddenly highly problematic and highly malleable, the unending of daily life and many of its unexamined assumptions, and that starts the whole new trajectory. Is that correct?
Amy: Absolutely. How do we say to people we’re going to be doing this new thing now? Well, we’ve been doing it already. You can’t do what you did before. Because you’ve been through this thing that has changed you, and changed everyone.
Theater in the Woods: The Shape of Things to Come
Brent: We started the conversation with Guest House, and being inspired by FRESH Festival and the Artist Occupied Festival. These steps, let’s face it, they all connect to a much longer and larger trajectory that I don’t think we understood. One step leads you to the next. Everything we’re talking about with these pandemic performances, all of this is connected. It’s not just a band aid or response. It’s saying we’re not satisfied with a holding pattern, remaining where we are or where we’ve been. What hasn’t been done? Where haven’t we been? Hooking back to your roots, yes, to say, this might be the key that unlocks new doors. But that’s the thing. It’s just like these pandemic performances. They’ve been little keys.
It strikes me that part of the power of the work you’ve been doing since March 2020 is its resonance with the zeitgeist. I mean this waking up and grappling with the weight of the moment, insisting on doing things differently and not wanting to go back. You said you were already on a journey that you didn’t necessarily recognize, and it’s leading you somewhere else now. That sounds like something a lot of us have been going through this last year. People are quitting their jobs. People can’t do it anymore, can’t go back. Something’s changed. People have been receptive to your work in that last year, grateful for it, intrigued by it, and maybe frustrated by it too—but above all it seems they have been truly engaged with it. It was somehow channeling the moment, clocking what everybody was going through—everything from panic, anxiety, and problem-solving to revelation, and the return of imagination. We were connecting with ourselves and each other in ways that were different, and clarifying. Many of us have been seeing things differently since then, and in some cases deciding things that needed to be decided about who we are, where we need to go, what we need to do, what meaning life has and should have.
Brent: I think that makes sense. It’s always been a bit baffling for me that we—first of all, to choose the life of an artist or any spiritual journey, you’re looney tunes to begin with. I mean, really, to be following this path that you know is just going to lead to sacrifice and
Amy: Ruin. [laughs]
Brent: Yeah, right. But the one thing you can count on is that even though it’s going to come with constant questioning, constant conversation with oneself…
Brent: Yeah. But the one thing you can count on is you can make the decision to keep it going or stop. To make the decision to keep going is an incredible one. Because you look at how many people stop. Or never want to go on that journey. I do feel that this past year has broken through some sort of window. The older you get and the more you stay on track with this journey, the more you understand the lies and the fraud and the unhappiness and the bitterness that comes with people who decided not to do what they want, not to do what they love, not to live the life that they would like to live. I do think that that is one of the brutal things that comes with being an artist. Let’s be honest. When you’re in high school, that’s the last time you’ll hear parents really support their kids in their theater program. Beyond that it becomes crazier and crazier. It’s a very strange thing. When people get bitter, really horrible things happen. We just broke through something huge.
Amy: It poses the question: What’s this next thing that we’re all going through? This rushing back—yet everything is still altered and we can’t go back. So now what? I was joking last night, here we are, as everyone is starting to re-enter theaters, and we’re going to do a virtual event. What if we just spent the next year doing all virtual stuff?
Brent: Whenever I hear “go back,” the hair rises on my neck. It’s kind of like Making American Great Again… And what you’re saying scares the hell out of me too, which is, people are going to put all sorts of little patches and band aids and little smiley faces and stickers [on the old shit].
Amy: We could talk about this forever. The real question is, What are we going to do? What are the Imaginists going to do? The next thing we did after Worm Moon was to hand over the keys to two people, and we just walked away. We knew almost every day that Rachael and Allie were going to be there. They’re in there creating something. They were texting us, “It’s so amazing to be in a space together. It’s so amazing to be in this space.” We had that feeling of them in the space even though we weren’t there. Because that space is like part of our body.
Amy: For me, it was like a balm. It was a relief. Someone’s doing that work there today. It was so easy. There’s this pressure for artists to do more, more, more,—prove, prove, prove—you’ve got to show that you’re working! Show, show! Work! Work harder! Show us that you’re acting! [laughs] Act more! Act! We want to see you acting! My impulse now is to just do less and less. I think people could get really pissed off. So how will we talk about this? Last night, it was just half an hour. We put these things together. What did you see? OK, goodbye. There’s something about less [work], more space…
Brent: It was a revelation for me as well, this period with Allie and Rachael. What you’re saying about the space is very true. I feel we were working to get that space our whole lives. At least since the company in Delaware. When we finally got introduced to this space, and we got the permits to go in and demolish all these little offices and open that space up, we saw what was beyond those little cubicles. We tore all that sheetrock out. We made the dump runs. We looked up, and it was like, holy shit! We’ve just uncovered this thing! Every inch of that space I know so well. Every piece of equipment, all the way back from KITUS equipment from 1993, relics that no one should be holding onto. Things donated in 1997 or brought from Delaware. This space and everything in there is like a personal museum. It’s not so much about holding on. It’s all there to track where we’ve come from.
Then to open it up to these two people, for the first time, to feel good about handing two people the keys and letting them into a space that is so important—everything in there, it’s treasure, it’s ghosts we take care of. Even since we’ve been in there, since 2008. It’s the ghost of Laura Roldan, who got deported. It’s the ghost of Pepos [Beto Brassan], who’s back in Mexico. It’s Sergio [Zavala]. It’s the good ghosts who have created an energy that is like no other to me. Good energy, it’s irreplaceable.
My revelation was a great surprise. Last night I really moved through something. It was an extension of being aware of what that space is, what it means, everything in it, my relationship to it. To see it used in such a great way was an extension of where it’s come from. During their residency I was never there. I made a point of avoiding it. I would enter through the back door. I never wanted to bother them. Then, once it all happened, it was the best. It was beautiful. I felt, this is such a gift. To see that connection.