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Actor Gang Prison Project: Members Say Theater Saved Them

The Actors’ Gang workshop production “(Im)migrants of the State” opens with a moving prison visit scene. Cheerful and identically dressed in blue shirts and jeans, the characters introduce themselves to the audience – revealing their ages at the time of sentencing and something they loved.

In an example of lifelike art, most of the cast members were themselves sentenced as teenagers — the youngest was 15 — said co-director and ensemble member Rich Loya. Through theater they can address the emotions that have been suppressed to survive.

“These are our truths in our real lived experiences before and during incarceration,” he said.

The Actors’ Gang Prison Project is a rehabilitation program that provides drama programs for 14 California state prisons, a reentry facility and an LA County parole facility. What begins as a week-long intensive program evolves into a peer-led course that allows incarcerated men and women to break down emotional barriers. The Actors’ Gang, formed in 1981 as an experimental theater company led by the Shawshank Redemption actor Tim Robbins is now celebrating the 40th anniversary of his very first production ‘Ubu the King’ with a revival directed by Robbins in the repertory with a new play ‘(Im)migrants of the State’. For Loya and many other inmates with previous life sentences, the Actors’ Gang has become a beacon of hope.

Robert Chavez, Shaun Jones, John Dich, and Montrell Harrell.

Robert Chavez, left, Shaun Jones, John Dich and Montrell Harrell.

(Bob Turton)

Loya joined the program in September 2016 for its seven-day intensive program, which runs from 9am to 1pm daily. By September 2017, he was in a reentry facility. He credits the Actors’ Gang for the big change. After changing his parole location and moving to LA, he was drawn back to the program. One Friday afternoon he went to the Actors’ Gang headquarters in Culver City, rang the doorbell, and Jeremie Loncka, the Prison Project’s program director and co-director of (Im)migrants of the State, answered. Loncka offered Loya to return to prison, but this time to tutor her, and he replied, “enroll me.” In October 2018, Loya was teaching.

Loya was one of 25 people in his group who attended the program at Avenal State Penitentiary in 2016. Of the 25, 22 have been released from prison and returned to their families. And of the 22, 17 had life sentences. He says there were “dark times” when it felt like they were going to be in prison forever. Changes to California’s three-strike law brought much-needed relief, he said.

“When there was that little hope in the early 2000s — that significant others were going home — that was unprecedented,” he said.

Loya said people turned to self-help classes to make the dream come true, but it only got so far.

“I’ve taken dozens and dozens of self-help classes, none that have allowed me to reconnect with emotions,” he said. “But this was the only class I was able to reconnect with humanity, with myself, in a way that no other program or person has given or taught me.”

People watching to the side as one person speaks to the audience.

John Dich, front from left, Montrell Harrell, Henry Palacio, Shaun Jones and Gregory Leon; Robert Chavez, back from left, Edgar Rodriguez, Scott Tran and Rich Loya.

(Bob Turton)

Many people joined the program hoping to be paroled and even put on makeup for acting purposes. For many, art was never on the table. Loncka said he usually begins each class by asking anyone who has previously attended an arts program to raise their hands. Few raise their hands.

“The part that keeps me coming back is the human side of seeing these breakthroughs,” Loncka said.

Each meeting begins with a “red hot share” in a circle to share what’s going on in everyone’s life, good or bad. It follows the group’s four pillars: “Speak with your heart, listen with your heart, be lean, be spontaneous,” Loya said.

What follows is a series of plays and exercises. In a game called Name, Movie, Gesture, each person in the circle says their name, a favorite movie, and a physical gesture. Everyone in the circle confirms they were listening by repeating the three at once.

“It’s really cool to see when that happens because the smile shows up,” Loya said. “You don’t usually see a smile in the yard.”

Rich Loya, front from left, Henry Palacio and Robert Chavez;  Edgar Rodriguez, back from left, John Dich and Montrell Harrell.

Rich Loya, front from left, Henry Palacio and Robert Chavez; Edgar Rodriguez, back from left, John Dich and Montrell Harrell.

(Bob Turton)

They’re not therapists, but for those inside, the program can be therapeutic, Loncka said.

Loncka joined the Actors’ Gang Prison Project in 2010. At that time the curriculum was still loose. By 2012, the program became more structured and attracted funding.

“We didn’t necessarily start out with the intention of creating theater indoors,” he said.

Now there are programs in prisons that have been running for almost a decade, and the self-directed groups create their own plays and performances through commedia dell’arte.

In the theatrical art style, the groups explore four emotions through improvisation and standard characters: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. Loya, who was tried at the age of 16 and imprisoned for about 30 years, had trouble controlling his emotions because he was not allowed to show weakness in prison.

“I was sad so many times that I was on vacation and away from my family, but I couldn’t show that,” Loya said. “So it was anger. It was always anger as my secondary emotion. That’s how I survived, because we don’t live inside anymore, behind the walls, we survive.”

Yahaira Quiroz, Henry Palacio, Montrell Harrell and Edgar Rodriguez.

Yahaira Quiroz, front left, and Henry Palacio; Montrell Harrell, back from left, and Edgar Rodriguez.

(Bob Turton)

The Actors’ Gang’s new show chronicles the experiences of the ensemble of 11 men and two women who were formerly incarcerated, clearing layers of trauma after decades of being told they were a threat to society. During the March 9 rehearsal, they shared their past — including memories of their childhood.

(Im)migrants of the State tells honest stories that show the impact of the program. The court has rules, restrictions, and racial boundaries, but the Actors’ Gang Prison Project classes allowed a glimpse of the humanity that was stripped from them, Loya said.

Loya turned to the common theater phrase “the show must go on” with a new interpretation. While sentenced to life imprisonment, their lives went on both in and out of prison. While the conviction may seem like a dead end, their worlds, lives, and experiences still mattered.

“We hope that what they are doing [the audience] The takeaway is that people deserve a second chance,” Loya said. “We’re showing what we could be, which is positive, influential members of society.”


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