Actors’ gang prison project: Members say theater saved them

The Actors Gang Workshop production “(Im) Migrants of the State” begins with a moving prison visitation scene. Upbeat and smartly dressed in a blue button-up shirt and jeans
The characters introduce themselves to the audience – stating their age and something they like while delivering a sentence.

In an example of life imitating art, most of the cast members were themselves sentenced as teenagers – the youngest was 15 – said co-director and ensemble member Rich Loya. Through theatre, they are able to address feelings that have been suppressed in order to survive.

“These are our truths in our real life experiences, both before and during captivity,” he said.

The Actors Gang Prison Project is a rehabilitation program that provides theater programming to 14 California state prisons, a reentry facility, and an LA County probation camp. What begins as a week-long intensive program evolves into a peer-led class that allows incarcerated men and women to break down emotional barriers. The Actors Gang, founded in 1981 as an experimental theater ensemble under the direction of the “Shawshank Redemption” actor Tim Robbins, now celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first production, “Ubu the King”, with a revival in repertory by Robbins with the new play “(im) State of Expatriate”. For Loya and several other prisoners who were earlier sentenced to life, the actors’ gang has evolved into a beacon of hope.

Robert Chavez, Shawn Jones, John Deitch and Montreal Harrell.

Robert Chavez, left, Shawn Jones, John Deitch and Montrell Harrell.

(Bob Turton)

Loya joined the seven-day intensive program in September 2016, running from 9 am to 1 pm daily. As of September 2017, he was in a re-entry facility. He credits the gang of actors for the massive innings. After transferring his parole location and moving to LA, he is pulled back into the program. One Friday afternoon, he went to the Actors Gang headquarters in Culver City, the doorbell rang, and Jeremy Lonca, programming director for the Prison Project and co-director of “(Im) State of Migrants”, answered. Lonca offered Loya the opportunity to return to prison, but this time to teach, and he replied, “Sign me up.” Loya was teaching till October 2018.

Loya was one of 25 people from his group who participated in the program at Avenel State Prison in 2016. Of the 25, 22 are out of jail and are now back home with their families. And 17 out of 22 were sentenced to life imprisonment. He says there were “dark times” when it felt like he would be in prison forever. Changes to California’s three-strikes law have brought much-needed relief, he said.

“When there was a little hope in the early 2000s — that lifers were going home — it was unheard of,” he said.

Loya said people turned to self-help classes to make the dream a reality, but it only went so far.

“I did dozens and dozens of self-help classes, none that allowed me to reconnect with emotion,” he said. “But it was a class that I was able to reconnect with, with humanity, with myself, in a way that no other program or person has given me or taught me.”

People looking to the side as a person speaks towards the audience.

John Deitch, front from left, Montrell Harrell, Henry Palacio, Shawn Jones and Gregory Lyons; Robert Chavez, back from left, Edgar Rodriguez, Scott Tran and Rich Loya.

(Bob Turton)

Many attended the event in hopes of gaining parole, even wearing make-up for the purpose of acting. For many, the arts were never on the table. Lonka said he usually begins each class by asking everyone who has previously participated in an art program to raise their hands. Very few raise their hands.

“The part of it that keeps me coming back is the human side of seeing these successes,” Lonka said.

Each gathering begins with a “red hot share” in a circle, sharing what’s going on in everyone’s lives, good or bad. It follows the group’s four pillars: “Speak from the heart, Listen from the heart, Be lean, Be spontaneous,” Loya said.

This is followed by a series of theater games and exercises. In a game called “Name, Movie, Gesture,” each person in the circle says their name, a favorite movie, and a body gesture. Everyone in the circle confirms they heard all three repeated at once.

“It’s really cool to see when that happens because the smiles start to come out,” Loya said. “Usually you won’t see him smiling in the yard.”

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

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

(Bob Turton)

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

Lonka joined the Actors Gang Prison project in 2010. At that time, the curriculum was lax. By 2012, the program had become more structured and attracted funding.

“We didn’t necessarily start with the intention of building a theater inside,” he said.

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

In the theatrical art style, groups explore the four emotions through improvisation and stock characters: joy, sadness, fear, and anger. Loya, who was tried at the age of 16 and spent nearly 30 years in prison, had trouble navigating her emotions because she was not allowed to show vulnerability inside the prison.

Loya said, “There were times when I felt sorry for being away from the holidays, being away from my family, but I could not show it.” “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 walls, we survive.

Yahira Queiroz, Henry Palacio, Montrell Harrell and Edgar Rodriguez.

Yahaira Queiroz, front from left, and Henry Palacio; Montreal Harrell, back from left, and Edgar Rodriguez.

(Bob Turton)

The Actors Gang’s new show chronicles the experiences of an ensemble cast made up of 11 men and two women who were previously incarcerated, peeling back layers of trauma after being accused of being a danger to society for decades. During rehearsals on March 9, he shared his past – including memories from his childhood.

“(im)state’s expatriates” tell honest stories that show the program’s impact. Loya said there are rules, restrictions and racial lines in the yard, but the actors’ Gang Prison Project classes offered a glimpse of the humanity that had been taken away from them.

Loya turned to the common theater phrase “the show must go on” with a new interpretation. While he was sentenced to life imprisonment, his life continued both inside and outside the prison. While punishing may seem like a dead end, their world, life, and experience still matter.

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

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