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Theater Helped Him Feel Free at San Quentin—Now He’s Paying it Forward

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Juan Meza says Marin Shakespeare Company's San Quentin program helped him discover his inner artist. Amid the trauma of the pandemic, theater remains a crucial outlet for those still inside. (Photos: Fred Greaves; design: Kelly Heigert)

Editor’s note: Two years into the pandemic, artists are charting new paths forward. Across the Bay Area, they’re advocating for better pay, sharing resources and looking out for their communities’ well-being. Welcome to Our Creative Futures, a KQED Arts & Culture series that takes stock of the arts in this unpredictable climate. Share your story here.

In 2020, Juan Meza thought he was going to die just a few months before he was due to be released from San Quentin State Prison after 24 total years of incarceration.

His neck and back were aching, he had an out-of-control fever and his blood pressure was skyrocketing. Meza had COVID during the first wave of the pandemic and, as he sat in his cell, he lamented losing one of the few things that brought him joy in prison—the acting program he participated in with Marin Shakespeare Company.

“Acting, performing—doing these things were a release, a very lethargic process of getting stuff out that we needed to and everything. We didn’t have that avenue anymore and we didn’t know if we were going to get it back,” Meza says. “I think that was what was most disconcerting. It was just something that was devastating. Here’s something that we had worked towards, and now we couldn’t do anything again.”

Marin Shakespeare Company had been running programming in San Quentin—providing a vital creative, emotional and social outlet for those inside—for 17 years uninterrupted until the pandemic hit.

The non-profit theater group has been working with incarcerated people since 2003. Today, they provide drama therapy-inspired acting classes to men, women and youth in 14 different California state prisons with the goal of fostering “self-reflection, self-expression, cooperation, compassion, and goal-setting” among class participants, according to their website.

Since getting out of San Quentin State Prison in 2020, Colusa resident Juan Meza works in construction by day while continuing to pursue his passion for theater at Marin Shakespeare Company. (Fred Greaves)

Lesley Currier, Marin Shakespeare’s managing director, says the men in San Quentin draw “a lot of positive benefits” from her organization’s affiliation with the prison. Among them are “people rediscovering their own creativity; rediscovering their own sense of play,” she says.

“We hear so often: ‘Over the two and a half hours that I spent in the group, I felt like I was free. I didn’t feel like I was in prison,’” Currier says. “Doing something outside the box is really powerful, particularly for people who’ve been labeled, you know, ‘You are not someone who’s going to succeed. You’re a criminal.’ To do something else—to play, to have different roles—really makes you believe that you can do things that you hadn’t thought of doing before.”

Meza, who goes by the stage name Losdini, attests that the acting program helped him reveal another side of himself. He got involved with Marin Shakespeare when he transferred to San Quentin after 16 years at another facility. “If I had never stepped into that first class in San Quentin with Marin Shakespeare Company, I would not have been able to reveal my humanity,” he says. “In that I was able to show that I am a director, that I am a choreographer, that I am an actor, that I am a set designer, that I am essentially an artist.”

Juan Meza plays bass at home in Colusa, California on June 21, 2022. (Fred Greaves)

But when COVID hit, Meza’s artistry was put on hold and Marin Shakespeare Company had to pivot their classes since their instructors were no longer allowed to visit the prison. First, they recorded a production of Romeo and Juliet, put on by some of the formerly incarcerated actors who had been through their program, and sent them to the men in San Quentin.

When the prison prohibited them from sending more videos, the theater company distributed packets with writing exercises to stimulate the men’s creative skills. The prompts had Shakespearean themes that were also relevant to daily life during COVID, like plague, friendship, loyalty and self-care. After receiving the writing packages back, Marin Shakespeare posted the men’s writing to their website and even had some formerly incarcerated actors do dramatic readings of the writing that came from inside.

Juan Meza smokes a cigarette outside his home in Colusa, California June 21, 2022. (Fred Greaves)

But even this makeshift programming wasn’t enough to distract from the hellish conditions inside San Quentin at the height of the pandemic. San Quentin had the worst COVID outbreak of any prison in California. Over 2,000 inmates were infected and 29 people died from the outbreak, which was caused by a botched transfer of sick prisoners from Southern California. The situation was then exacerbated by a lack of personal protective equipment in the prison and overcrowding, which made social distancing impossible.

According to Meza, “there was a lot of fear, there was a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of unknowns, there was a lot of misinformation going around,” he says. “In a matter of two weeks, we were now locked in a cell again, unable to move, scared, frightened.”

Currier says when the Marin Shakespeare Company was finally able to come back to San Quentin in June 2021, they spent their first couple of classes talking about what the men had experienced during quarantine. Currier says COVID was “really scary for the men” since “everyone knew someone who had died or who had yelled ‘man down,’” the phrase spoken to alert prison personnel that someone needed immediate medical attention.

Even today Currier says COVID continues to be used “as an excuse” to take away privileges from the men of San Quentin. Despite this, Marin Shakespeare Company was able to stage three performances in front of a live audience in December 2021 with the men of San Quentin, with a production of Henry IV to come in August.

Members of Shakespeare at San Quentin along with Marin Shakespeare Company’s and Director Suraya Keating (second from bottom on right) gather backstage before they perform “Twelfth Night” at San Quentin State Prison on Friday, August 5, 2011 in San Quentin, Calif. (Lea Suzuki/Getty Images)

By the time Marin Shakespeare Company returned to San Quentin, Meza had been paroled. Today, he is continuing his passion for acting and directing (he co-directed his first production in May) with Marin Shakespeare as part of their Returned Citizens Theater Troupe, a program Currier says gets at the essence of the importance of MSC’s work in prisons.

“For the last seven years, we have been hiring actors who have been able to get out of prison to tell their stories through theater,” Currier says. “Some of the conversations after those performances have been amazing as many people say to me, ‘Well, it’s just really changed my attitude about criminal justice in this country,’ because the goal is we need to change hearts and minds so that we can change our laws.”

Meza says his reasoning for returning to Marin Shakespeare Company post-incarceration is to pay forward what they did for him to the next person.

“Now that I’m not incarcerated in prison anymore, I still want to go back to the humans that are inside to sit with them and say, ‘Look, we can do this,’” Meza says. “There’s a niche that I can be in where I understand, like no volunteer will, what it means to be incarcerated. … I have that knowledge, I have that experience. Where other people can only sympathize, I can empathize.”

Read more stories from Our Creative Futures here. Have something to share? Tell us about how the pandemic has impacted your art practice or community.

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