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What does it take to end a life sentence? For these ex-incarcerated actors, it’s theater

The Actors’ Gang workshop production of “(Im)migrants of the State” opens with a moving prison visit scene. Jovial and identically dressed in blue 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 art imitating life, most of the cast members were sentenced when they were teenagers, the youngest was 15, said co-director and ensemble member Rich Loya. Through theater, they can address emotions that have been suppressed in order to survive.

“These are our truths in our actual lived 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, one re-entry center, and one Los Angeles County probation camp. What begins as an intensive one-week program becomes a peer-led class that empowers incarcerated men and women to break down emotional barriers. The Actors’ Gang, which was founded in 1981 as an experimental theater ensemble under the direction of the “Shawshank Redemption” actor. Tim Robbins is now celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first production, “Ubu the King”, with a revival directed by Robbins in the repertoire with the new work “(Im)migrants of the State”. For Loya and many other people incarcerated with previous life sentences, the Band of Actors has become a beacon of hope.

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 from 9 am to 1 pm daily. By September 2017, she was in a reentry center. She credits the Actors Band for the big turnaround. After transferring her parole location and moving to Los Angeles, she returned to the show. One Friday afternoon, she went to the Actors’ Gang headquarters in Culver City, she rang the doorbell, and Jeremy Loncka, director of programming for the Prison Project and co-director of “(Im)migrants of the State,” answered her. Loncka offered Loya the chance to go back to prison, but this time to teach, and he replied: “Sign me up.” By October 2018, Loya was teaching.

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

“When the little hope appeared 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 come true, but it only went so far.

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

People watch 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 to right, Edgar Rodriguez, Scott Tran and Rich Loya.

(Bob Turton)

Many people joined the show hoping to get parole, and even put on makeup to perform. For many, the arts were never on the table. Loncka said she usually begins each class by asking everyone who has participated in an art program to raise their hands. Very few raise their hands.

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

Each meeting begins with a “red hot participation” in a circle to communicate what is going on in everyone’s life, good or bad. He follows the group’s four pillars: “speak from the heart, listen from the heart, be agile, 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 heard by repeating all three at the same time.

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

Rich Loya, in front from left to right, Henry Palacio and Robert Chavez;  Edgar Rodríguez, back from left to right, John Dich and Montrell Harrell.

Rich Loya, in front from left to right, Henry Palacio and Robert Chavez; Edgar Rodríguez, back from left to right, 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 Actor’s Gang Prison Project in 2010. At the time, the curriculum was flexible. By 2012, the program became more structured and attracted funding.

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

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

In the theater art style, groups explore four emotions through improvisation and stock characters: joy, sadness, fear, and anger. Loya, who was tried at 16 and spent some 30 years incarcerated, had trouble handling his emotions because he was not allowed to show weakness inside the prison.

“I was sad many times to be away from the holidays, to be 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 no longer live inside, behind the walls, we survive”.

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

Yahaira Quiroz, in front from left to right, and Henry Palacio; Montrell Harrell, back from left, and Edgar Rodríguez.

(Bob Turton)

The new show from The Actors’ Gang chronicles the experiences of the previously incarcerated ensemble of 11 men and two women, peeling back the layers of trauma from being told they are a threat to society for decades. During the rehearsal on March 9, they shared their past, including their childhood memories.

“(Im)migrants from the State” tells honest stories that show the impact of the program. On the playground, there are rules, restrictions and racial lines, but the Actors’ Gang Prison Project classes gave a glimpse of the humanity that was stripped from them, Loya said.

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

“We hope that what they (the audience) take away is that people deserve a second chance,” Loya said. “We are showing what we could be, who are positive and influential members of society.”