It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It could turn into almost anything! Just who are those wild-eyed, costumed people on bicycles? What are they doing wandering to and fro, performing in the streets? Why are they in our high schools engaging and charming the kids, getting even the shyest of teens to open up, participate and express themselves? Oh, it’s The Imaginists!

Even as the world rapidly evolves and changes, so does this edgy Santa Rosa-based theater company. The merry band of thespians and activists completely re-thinks theater; who participates, where performance can happen and what the definition of “theater” is. The Imaginists honor and practice the power of live, out-of-the-box performance to create a vital, limitless space for ideas and dialog.

The Imaginists’ street performances are bilingual, free for families, and toured by bicycle, with portable sets carried by actors. The plays are instant political statements in themselves. Founders Brent Lindsay and Amy Pinto credit Community Foundation Sonoma County with early recognition and invaluable support, both monetarily and organizationally. “The Community Foundation was the first and only other local organization to really respond to our ideas and support them in a way that the public ended up knowing and accepting who we are and what we’re doing. That is invaluable,” states Lindsay.

Community Foundation Sonoma County and its Healdsburg Affiliate have made grants to The Imaginists for successive years based on results. Some might say, “Why and how is theater important to the health of our kids and communities?” In designing and continuing to offer their ION Project that allows creation of in-school theater making, the creative company has proven its ability to build community partnerships that provide students with mentoring and internship opportunities. Translation: at-risk or disengaged high school kids are exposed to critical thinking, collaboration skills, confidence building, and long-lasting beneficial relationships with Imaginists’ founders, collaborators and players.

Perhaps more important and more impactful than the community benefits are the individual and highly personal ones the students grow into through their participation. Says Lindsay, “The kind of theater we do is not so much teaching as it is providing the tools of theater as life skills. Empathy. Empowering their voice. Diversity. We break the threshold and get out to the schools themselves, create relationships with teachers and administrators, get kids to intern with summer shows, and pay kids for internships. When we first started working this way, not one kid would even look at us. We told them: ‘The world wants to hear your voice. We’re here to help you tell your story.’ The kids, ages 17-24, are at first hanging out at school, just biding time for their diplomas, not really engaged or enthused. Our programs take them by surprise and change their lives.

“They say they can’t write, they can’t speak — but they do really want their stories to be told, just like we all do, given the opportunity. How do they learn to trust people enough to listen? We become the bridge. If we can bring each story out and each individual can tell their story to more people, it’s a triumph for these kids and those who learn about them,” continues Lindsy, never short on enthusiasm and energy for this work.

Through The Ion Project, students learn ensemble-based theater including writing, directing, set design and acting. Within that each has an opportunity to tell their story along with others. Funding and capacity building continue because after the very first year it became clear that the program identified those students who can be trained further as emerging artists and as nonprofit managers, through teaching them the business and the value of the nonprofit sector of business.

As The Imaginists continue their play/work, they’ve realized it’s become increasingly more about individual potential for so many young people. The group further acknowledges the importance of their relationship with the Community Foundation, not only as funders, but as an extension of their community family. Says Lindsay, “We can ask their advice – we can ask if there is help available for specific things. Everyone there has always been so ready to help, to provide an answer and to do their best. Every meeting is meaningful. It’s so important to us when they take the time, and they always do. The Community Foundation is immeasurably valuable to us – and to our community.”

Innovators like the The Imaginists are difficult to confine in a local geography like Sonoma County. Because of their vision and impact, they have exciting projects in the works. A hint or two:  A huge global project brewing over the past three years, playing on their strengths of education and community engagement. It promises to be an inventive, groundbreaking experimental work. The possibility includes partnering with Santa Rosa’s Roseland community to generate a theatrical response to the Andy Lopez tragedy. Local or global, the future is shining for The Imaginists at the intersection of art and community.

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