Eric Ignacio stands at the center of a box created by his friends Alexander Martinez, Yuti A. Tuvalu, Brian Yang and Kunlyna Tauch.

Bathed in orange fluorescent glow and flanked by metal octagonal tables in the dining hall of Pelican Bay State Prison’s B Yard, it’s not difficult to imagine Martinez, Tuvalu, Yang and Tauch becoming the concrete walls of Ignacio’s cell. They pen Ignacio in and echo when he shouts “can anybody hear me?”

“Somehow this, this became my comfort zone — just me and my thoughts in a box,” Ignacio says. “They say it’s a sign I’ve become institutionalized. They’re probably right.”

Even though their monologues illustrate their life behind the prison’s electrified fence, for Ignacio and his classmates putting their thoughts down on paper and then performing them in Janessa Johnsrude’s drama class has been cathartic.

On Tuesday before performing their soliloquies in front of staff and faculty from Dell’Arte International — their first performance in front of an audience — each of Johnsrude’s students sat down in front of a documentary film crew.

Ignacio said he would never have considered himself an actor, but with Johnsrude’s drama class, part of the Arts-in-Corrections program, he’s been able to build new relationships.

“I forget about where I’m at,” Ignacio told Johnsrude. “I start having fun with the people who are here.”

Ignacio, Martinez, Tuvalu, Yang and Tauch have been working with Johnsrude for about two years. She also teaches an introduction to drama class to seven other students. Some have been in the class for seven to eight months, Johnsrude said, while others joined about four weeks ago.

On Tuesday, Johnsrude’s advanced students performed a piece called “Paper Rose,” taking the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and weaving it around their own original work.

Before their guests arrived, Johnsrude provided a bit of coaching as the actors rehearsed. Prince Hamlet is asking himself whether he should take his own life, she said as she helped Tauch and Martinez figure out how to deliver the opening line in the soliloquy. Rhythm is important, Johnsrude said.

“It’s a work in progress showing,” she said just before class started. “The guys will lead warm ups and games and share their work. It’s a celebration of the commitment they’ve made to this class and their work.”

Tauch, whose piece is about an experience while in prison with a female friend, noted that often people in prison feel they shouldn’t share so much of themselves, but the group he acts with in drama class is close it’s hard not to.

He noted that initially people join the class to get credit or certifications, but Tauch said he’s learned how to interact with others and how to be part of a community. He said his experience in Johnsrude’s class has also contributed other skills that he can use, including public speaking.

“There’s this intangible thing that when you’re up there speaking, the audience reacts to you somehow,” Tauch said. “And (Johnsrude) speaks about that. In the performance the play itself is alive at that moment because the audience is alive.”

Johnsrude and her colleague Zuzka Sabata, founder of Dell’Arte International’s Prison Project, began teaching in the minimum security yard at Pelican Bay in March 2016. Today the two faculty members of the Blue Lake-based school of physical theater teach inmates at all security levels within the prison, according to Johnsrude.

As she waited for her students, Johnsrude commented on the stressful environment Pelican Bay inmates live with. Johnsrude noted that about two weeks ago there was no class because the yard was on lock down.

“I hope that the environment is created where they can express themselves and be comfortable with themselves,” she said.

Martinez, whose voice cracked as he discussed his monologue, which was on the last words his father said to him just before he died, said the techniques he has learned in Johnsrude’s class helps him and his fellow inmates communicate better.

Martinez also pointed out that even though he and his fellow inmates made mistakes, they’re not negative people.

“We regret those mistakes,” he said. “We’re feeling the full impacts and we’re doing our best to change ourselves.”

For Ignacio, who also has artwork on display in the Art From the Inside IV show at the Del Norte County courthouse, though his monologue took place in a concrete cell, he expects to be out on parole soon. Originally from the Southern California city of Azusa, Ignacio said he has been incarcerated since 1997 for second-degree murder. But, he said, he didn’t actually commit the murder; it was his gang affiliation that got him incarcerated.

Now, because of a changed state law that convicts people based on their individual crime, Ignacio said since his individual crime was fighting, he should have served a sentence of four years. Having been incarcerated since he was a teenager, Ignacio said he has a daughter and now a grandson who he’s only been able to have a relationship with behind bars.

“I never had a job. Never finished high school. I did all of that here,” he said. “I feel like I’m a grown man. I’m already a grandpa. Life goes on but I’m stuck in that moment back then. I’m trying to begin life with my grandson.”

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