Actors’ Gang Prison Project: Members say theater saved them

The workshop production ‘(Im)migrants of the state’ by the Actors’ Gang opens with a moving prison visit scene. Jovially and dressed identically in blue button-up shirts and jeans, the characters introduce themselves to the audience – revealing their age at the time of sentencing and something they loved.

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

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

The Actors’ Gang Prison Project is a rehabilitation program that provides theater programming to 14 California state prisons, a repatriation facility, and a LA County probation camp. What begins as an intensive week-long program evolves into a peer-led classroom where incarcerated men and women can break through emotional barriers. The Actors’ Gang, founded in 1981 as an experimental theater ensemble led by the actor “Shawshank Redemption” Tim Robbins is now celebrating the 40th anniversary of his very first production, “Ubu the King,” with a revival directed by Robbins in repertory with 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, left, Shaun Jones, John Dich and Montrell Harrell.

(Bob Turton)

In September 2016, Loya participated in the program for the seven-day intensive running session from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. In September 2017, he was in a repatriation facility. He credits the Actors’ Gang for the big shift. After handing over his parole and moving to LA, he was drawn back to the program. On a Friday afternoon, he went to the Actors’ Gang headquarters in Culver City, rang the doorbell, and Jeremie Loncka, program director of the Prison Project and co-director of Immigrants of the State, answered. Loncka offered Loya a chance to return to prison, but this time to teach, and he replied, “Sign me up.” In October 2018, Loya was teaching.

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

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

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

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

People look to the side as one person speaks towards the audience.

John Dich, front 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 get parole, even to put on makeup for acting purposes. For many, the arts were never on the table. Loncka said he usually begins each class by requesting a show of hands from anyone who has previously attended an art program. Few raise their hands.

“The part of it 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 communicate what is going on in everyone’s life, good or bad. It follows the four pillars of the group: “speak from the heart, listen from the heart, be slim, be spontaneous,” Loya said.

What follows is 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 physical gesture. Everyone in the circle confirms that they have listened by repeating the three back in one go.

“It’s really cool to see when this happens because smiles start to appear,” Loya said. “Normally you don’t see a smile in the yard.”

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

Rich Loya, front 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 on the inside, the program can be therapeutic, Loncka said.

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

“We didn’t start with the intention of necessarily making 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 stock characters: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. Loya, who was tried at age 16 and spent about 30 years in prison, had trouble navigating his emotions because he was not allowed to show weakness in prison.

“I was sad so much because I was away from the holidays, away from my family, but I couldn’t show it,” Loya said. “So it was anger. It was always anger as my secondary emotion. That’s 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, 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 formerly incarcerated, stripping away the layers of trauma of being told they’ve been a threat to society for decades . During rehearsal on March 9, they shared their past, including childhood memories.

“(Im)migrants of the State” tells honest stories that show the impact of the program. In the yard, there are rules, restrictions and racial lines, but the Gang Prison Project classes of Actors showed a glimpse of the humanity that had been taken from them, Loya said.

Loya turned to the usual theater phrase “the show must go on” with a new interpretation. While incarcerated with life sentences, their lives continued both inside and outside of prison. While sentencing may seem like a dead end, their worlds, lives and experiences still mattered.

“We hope that what they [the audience] to take away is that people deserve a second chance,” Loya said. “We show what we could be, which is positive, influential members of society.”

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