"This is such an amazing piece for me," says actor-writer Eliot Fintushel of the new play Left After Not, opening next week at the Imaginists Theatre Collective in Santa Rosa. "When I started doing mime, my mime teacher was a fellow Zen student, and we were always making a serious effort to separate our spiritual practice from our theater practice. Then, all these years later, I come up against this piece, and I swear, going to rehearsals is like some weird spiritual practice.
"A practice," he adds with a laugh, "where everyone acts like a bird and flaps their wings a lot."
Left After Not ("I don't really know what the title means," Fintushel admits) is a world premiere experimental theater piece based on Farid ud-Din Attar's 12th century Persian poem The Conference of the Birds. Attar was a Sufi poet and teacher, whose works—Conference of the Birds in particular—inspired the craft of many mystic poets, most famously Rumi. In the poem, a large assortment of birds set out to find the mysterious godlike bird Simurgh, traveling through seven valleys, each with new tests and trials to endure. One by one, birds begin to grow disheartened and abandon the quest. Ultimately, the few remaining birds learn a life-changing truth about the Simurgh, and their own deepest nature.
Birds is being developed by Fintushel and the entire Imaginists' ensemble under the direction of executive director Brent Lindsay and artistic director Amy Pinto. Lindsay and Pinto will be traveling to parts of Europe this year to rub shoulders with other experimental theater figures in Budapest and Moscow, courtesy of the Center for International Theater Development, which hand-picked the Imaginists for its dedication to collaborative, bilingual theater.
But first, there are all those birds to launch.
"We do a lot of improvisation in developing this piece," Fintushel says. "The birds are going on a trip toward illumination—but you can't do a piece about the search for God without including a sense of humor. Otherwise, it would be just deadly. So there is a lot of funny stuff in this."
And of course, transforming into birds, even for actors with less mime experience than Fintushel, is a supremely physical activity.
"We practice flying every day," he says, demonstrating the graceful wing movements of the finch he plays in the show. "We fly out into the street and up and down.
"Of course," he smiles, "We do stop for cars."