Actors’ Gang Prison Project: Members say theater saved them

The Actors’ Gang workshop manufacturing “(Im)migrants of the State” opens with a shifting jail visitation scene. Jovial and dressed identically in blue button-up shirts and denims , the characters introduce themselves to the viewers — revealing their age on the time of sentencing and one thing they beloved.

In an instance of life imitating artwork, most of the forged members themselves have been sentenced as youngsters — the youngest was 15 — co-director and ensemble member Wealthy Loya stated. Via theater, they’re capable of tackle the feelings which have been suppressed for survival.

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

The Actors’ Gang Prison Project is a rehabilitation program that gives theater programming to 14 California state prisons, a reentry facility and an L.A. County probation camp. What begins as a week-long intensive program evolves right into a peer-led class that permits incarcerated women and men to interrupt down emotional boundaries. The Actors’ Gang, which was based in 1981 as an experimental theater ensemble underneath the path of “Shawshank Redemption” actor Tim Robbins, is now celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its first-ever manufacturing, “Ubu the King,” with a revival directed by Robbins in repertory with new play “(Im)migrants of the State.” For Loya and lots of different incarcerated folks with earlier life sentences, the Actors’ Gang has advanced right into a beacon of hope.

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

(Bob Turton)

Loya joined this system in September 2016 for its seven-day intensive working from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. day by day. By September 2017, he was in a reentry facility. He credit the Actors’ Gang for the large shift. After transferring his parole location and shifting to L.A., he was drawn again to this system. One Friday afternoon, he went to the Actors’ Gang headquarters in Culver Metropolis, rang the doorbell and Jeremie Loncka, the director of programming for the Prison Project and co-director of “(Im)migrants of the State,” answered. Loncka provided Loya a possibility to return to jail, however this time to show , and he replied, “Sign me up.” By October 2018, Loya was educating.

Loya was certainly one of 25 folks in his group collaborating in this system at Avenal State Prison in 2016. Of the 25, 22 are out of jail and again residence with their households now. And of the 22, 17 had life sentences. He says there have been “dark times” when it felt like they’d be in jail without end. Adjustments to California’s three-strikes regulation introduced much-needed reduction, he stated.

“When the little hope came through in the early 2000s — that lifers were going home — it was unheard of,” he stated.

Loya stated folks turned to self-help courses to make the dream a actuality, but it surely solely went up to now.

“I did dozens and dozens of self-help classes, none that allowed me to reconnect with emotions,” he stated. “But this was the one class that I was able to reconnect with humanity, with myself, in a way that no other program or person gave me or taught me.”

People watching on the side as one person speaks toward the audience.

John Dich, entrance from left, Montrell Harrell, Henry Palacio, Shaun Jones and Gregory Leon; Robert Chavez, again from left, Edgar Rodriguez, Scott Tran and Wealthy Loya.

(Bob Turton)

Many individuals joined this system within the hopes of getting parole, even placing on make-up for performing functions. For a lot of, the humanities have been by no means on the desk. Loncka stated he often begins every class by asking for a increase of palms from everybody who has participated in an artwork program earlier than. Only a few increase their palms.

“The part of it that keeps me coming back is the human side of getting to watch these breakthroughs,” Loncka stated.

Every gathering begins with a “red hot share” in a circle to speak what’s going on in everybody’s lives, good or dangerous. It follows the group’s 4 pillars: “speaking from the heart, listening from the heart, being lean, being spontaneous,” Loya stated.

What follows is a sequence of theater video games and workout routines. In a sport referred to as “Name, Film, Gesture,” every particular person within the circle says their title, a favourite movie and a bodily gesture. Everybody within the circle confirms that they’ve listened by repeating the three again all of sudden.

“It’s really cool to see when this happens because smiles start to come out,” Loya stated. “Usually you wouldn’t see smiling on the yard.”

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

Wealthy Loya, entrance from left, Henry Palacio and Robert Chavez; Edgar Rodriguez, again from left, John Dich and Montrell Harrell.

(Bob Turton)

They aren’t therapists, however for these inside, this system might be therapeutic, Loncka stated.

Loncka joined the Actors’ Gang Prison Project in 2010. On the time, the curriculum was unfastened. By 2012, this system turned extra structured and attracted funding.

“We didn’t start off with the intention of creating theater inside necessarily,” he stated.

Now there are packages in prisons which have been working for nearly a decade and the self-guided teams are creating their very own performs and performances by way of commedia dell’arte.

Within the theatrical artwork model, the teams discover 4 feelings by way of improvisation and inventory characters: happiness, unhappiness, worry and anger. Loya, who was tried at age 16 and spent about 30 years incarcerated, had hassle navigating his feelings as a result of he wasn’t allowed to present weak spot inside jail.

“I was sad so many times being away from the holidays, being away from my family, but I couldn’t show that,” Loya stated. “So it was anger. It was always anger as my secondary emotion. That was how I survived because we no longer live inside, behind the walls, we survive.”

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

Yahaira Quiroz, entrance from left, and Henry Palacio; Montrell Harrell, again from left, and Edgar Rodriguez.

(Bob Turton)

The Actors’ Gang’s new present chronicles the experiences of the ensemble made up of 11 males and two ladies who have been previously incarcerated, pulling again the layers of trauma from being advised they’re a risk to society for many years. Throughout rehearsal on March 9, they shared their previous — together with reminiscences of their childhood.

“(Im)migrants of the State” tells trustworthy tales that present this system’s impression. On the yard, there are guidelines, restrictions and racial traces, however Actors’ Gang Prison Project courses allowed a glimpse into humanity that was stripped from them, Loya stated.

Loya turned to the frequent theater phrase “the show must go on” with a brand new interpretation. Whereas they have been incarcerated with life sentences, their lives continued each inside and outside of jail. Whereas sentencing could appear to be a lifeless finish, their worlds, lives and experiences nonetheless mattered.

“We hope that what they [the audience] take away is that people do deserve a second chance,” Loya stated. “We’re showing what we could be, which is positive, influential members of society.”