ABOUT US

THE RISE OF UNUSUAL VOICES

Founded in the wake of Rodney King by the visionary artist and philanthropist Laura Leigh Hughes, The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company embraces theatre as a vehicle for social empowerment. 

Providing free access to dozens of year-long youth theatre residencies focused on the creation and performance of original plays as well as exposure to professional theatre performances, The Unusual Suspects has evolved from a local program serving roughly 50 participants in Van Nuys in 1993 into a robust program that served over 3,500 youth in over 20 communities of Los Angeles in 2023 alone.

As we celebrate our thirtieth anniversary, we look back in time with endless gratitude for the community of participants, teaching artists, staff, volunteers, board members, and supporters who made this dream the reality it is today. We’re proud of our journey; we’ve learned life-changing lessons along the way, and our path forward is as ambitious as it is exciting.

In 2024, we’re launching a four-year theatre conservatory program where high-school-age youth can choose specialized careers in writing, acting, directing, and production design.

We’re also introducing a vocational training program where community members can learn the fundamentals of costume, set, lighting, and sound design. Over the next five years, we’re determined to launch a state-of-the-art performing arts space where young artists from diverse communities can explore their boundless imagination and bridge historically isolated communities.

We believe in the power of self-expression as a fundamental part of self-determination, so we provide thousands of children with a platform to devise a collective future for themselves and their communities.

Our programs emerge from a collective effort that engages hundreds of community partners, foundations, government agencies, corporations, and people like you who believe that Los Angeles’ youth deserves top-quality access to arts education regardless of their zip code.

MISSION

Our mission is to mentor, educate, and enrich youth in under-resourced communities through the creation of collaborative original theatre.

VISION

Our vision is a world where all youth are given the opportunities and support they need to succeed.

OUR TEAM

FOUNDER

EXECUTIVE BOARD

ADVISORY BOARD

Shawn Amos, Music Producer, Singer-Songwriter

Tameka Carter, USTC Alumni 

Sally Fairman, Former Executive Director of USTC 

Annabeth Gish, Actor

Bradford Bancroft, Licensed Therapist & Actor

Ed Coghlan, Senior Corporate Communications Executive

Markese Freeman, Youth Advocate & Senior Detention Officer

Rachel Goldberg, Award-Winning Writer & Director

Laura Leigh Hughes, Actor & Founder of USTC

Sydney Kamlager-Dove, 37th District Congresswoman 

Annie Lukowski, Writer & Director 

Johnny Ortiz, USTC Alumni & Actor

David Henry Hwang, American Playwright, Librettist, Screenwriter, & Theatre Professor

Deborah Lintz, Partner at Johnson Shapiro Slewett & Kole LLP

Lara Magnusen, Portfolio Strategist and Portfolio Manager at Altegris Advisors

Luis J. Rodriguez, Writer & Co-Founder of Tía Chucha Press

Elizabeth Silver, Author

Julie Tugend, Writer & Executive Coach

Kirsten Vangsness, Actor

LAURA LEIGH HUGHES

Laura Leigh Hughes is the founder of The Unusual Suspects.  An actress for more than 20 years, having acted in dozens of television and film productions including Rizzoli & Isles, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Mentalist and CSI, Laura Leigh served as The Unusual Suspects’ executive director for 10 years. She then moved on to become a board member and served in that capacity for six years. Today, she continues to promote and support The Unusual Suspects while she focuses on her acting career and raising her daughter, Maleigha. She graduated from UCLA with a BA degree in Sociology.

KATJA AMIRKHANIAN

Katja Amirkhanian has been a member of The State Bar of California since the year 2013. She practiced in the general corporate group at Cooley LLP where she focused on representing companies in venture capital financings, public offerings of securities, compliance with provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, corporate governance matters and other general corporate matters. 

Katja has also worked with non-profit organizations including, but not limited to, Kids in Need of Defense, where she provided legal services to minors from Central America in order to obtain immigration documents as well as a safe environment in the United States, and Safe Place for Youth, where she volunteers by providing and serving food to minors experiencing homelessness. 

Katja also has experience leading and assisting with fundraising campaigns for other non-profit organizations involving children. 

Katja has lived in Los Angeles, California, since year 2006. She grew up as a classically trained musician in both violin and voice. She has performed at Carnegie Hall and The Muny Theatre in Saint Louis, which include performances with The New York Rockettes. Katja is married to Pietro Amirkhanian and they have two children, Leonardo and Lorenzo. 

JULISSA ARCE

Julissa Arce is a writer, activist, and social changemaker. She is the nationally best-selling author of My (Underground) American Dream and Someone Like Me. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, TIME Magazine, CNN, CNBC, Vogue and other outlets. Her newest book, You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation, is a powerful dual polemic and manifesto against the myth that assimilation leads to happiness and belonging for immigrants in America. Instead, she calls for a celebration of our uniqueness, our origins, our heritage, and the beauty of the differences that actually make us Americans.

Prior to becoming an author and immigrant rights activist, Julissa built a successful career on Wall Street working for Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, and had seemingly achieved the American Dream—yet she was not part of what legally defined an American.

Julissa immigrated to America from Mexico at the age of 11 and was undocumented for almost 15 years, some of them spent rising to prominence on Wall Street. In order to help other young people in similar circumstances, she co-founded the Ascend Educational Fund (AEF). AEF is a college scholarship and mentorship program for immigrant students in New York City, regardless of their ethnicity, national origin or immigration status.

Julissa was named one of People en Español’s 25 Most Powerful Women of 2017 and 2022, and 2018’s Woman of the Year by the City of Los Angeles. She is a leading voice in the fight for social justice, immigrant rights, and education equality.

Julissa serves on the board of directors of the National Immigration Law Center. She was officially sworn in as an American citizen in August of 2014 and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two cats, Nikko and Pancho.

AMANDA BROWN

Amanda currently works as a Teaching Assistant Professor of Theatre Education and Theatre for New Audiences at East Carolina University’s School of Theatre and Dance. Amanda is also currently a Ph.D. candidate in Arts in Education at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. While pursuing her PhD, she taught numerous graduate and undergraduate courses in arts education as well as supervised pre-service arts teachers at schools across the Twin Cities. Her graduate research has focused on the development of anti-oppressive, artistically rigorous theater pedagogy. Prior to pursuing her Ph.D., Amanda worked at schools in Los Angeles and Chicago for ten years as an instructional coach and teacher of Drama, Humanities, and Media Studies. While teaching, she founded two high school theater programs, producing and directing five shows at schools with no previous theater programming. She has also worked as a program manager for Young Storytellers in Los Angeles and has overseen and taught summer programs focused on innovative learning, theater, and social activism. She holds an MA in Educational Theatre from New York University and a BS in Television and Film from Boston University.

JOHN H. FREELAND JR.

Began working with youth in the arts in 1978 with The Oddfellows Playhouse in his hometown of Middletown, CT. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1980, he worked as a teaching artist and mentor for youth in middle schools, high schools and youth incarcerated in the juvenile justice system, assisting them in acting, writing to performing what they’ve written by using theatre games and improv techniques.

It was in 1995 John was working as a teaching artist/mentor with an organization that is now known as The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company. Several youth programs John has worked with include Summer Night Lights. Selected as one of eight artists to participate in the pilot program for The City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD).

John has appeared in t.v., films and many stage productions. He worked as a Production Stage Manager for various theatre’s, theatre festivals, music festivals, and dance companies in the United States and Europe. John studied theatre at Wesleyan University. And is former Adjunct Professor at Cal Poly Pomona College, Production Manager, Department of Theatre and New Dance. John is honored to be on the board of The Unusual Suspects.

RYAN JONES

Ryan Jones currently serves as Senior Vice President of Production Development at Universal Pictures. Prior to joining Universal Pictures, Jones was Vice President of Development and Production at Hasbro/eOne where he oversaw such films as Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins and the Transformers spinoff, Bumblebee. Before joining Hasbro One, he was an executive at 20th Century Fox where he worked on such films as Logan, Deadpool, The Martian, and Maze Runner. Jones also worked at Morgan Creek Productions and State Street Pictures. Additionally, he is a co-producer of the documentary, Lunch Hour, which focuses on the National School Lunch Program, childhood obesity, and addiction to unhealthy foods. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Ryan is a graduate of the University of Miami where he double-majored in Film and English Literature. He is proud to serve on the board of The Unusual Suspects.

CARLOS LÓPEZ ESTRADA

Carlos López Estrada is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker from Mexico City. Carlos’s debut film, BLINDSPOTTING, premiered opening night at Sundance 2018 and was subsequently released by Lionsgate Entertainment. Carlos was nominated by the DGA for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film. His second film, SUMMERTIME, premiered on the opening night of Sundance 2020 and was released theatrically the following year. Peter Debruge from Variety called it “The most inspirational movie of the year.” Carlos’s third film, RAYA, AND THE LAST DRAGON was released by Disney in March of 2021 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

On the TV side, Carlos directed an episode of FX and Marvel’s LEGION and is currently developing an original comedy show at FX in association with This American Life. He began his career directing music videos for musicians like Billie Eilish, Father John Misty, Thundercat and Flying Lotus, Katy Perry, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Clipping. In 2012, he won a Latin Grammy for an animated music video he directed for Mexican artists Jesse & Joy.  He is currently writing/directing the reimagining of the beloved Japanese anime YOUR NAME for Paramount and Bad Robot as well as the live-action adaptation of Disney’s Robin Hood.

JULIO QUIJADA

Julio Quijada is an Unusual Suspects Theatre Company alumnus and an intern at NBC Universal-Creative Operations department where he is following his dream of film development. A student at West Los Angeles College pursing a degree in Cinematic Arts and English, Julio holds a Motion Picture, Television and Stage Crafts Certificate.

Julio is also a member of Mayor Garcetti’s Los Angeles Tech Pipeline initiative which connects diverse students to careers in the fast-growing technology sector.

Julio is committed to breaking down barriers in order to create opportunities for the most vulnerable youth. In addition to his work with The Unusual Suspects, he volunteers and is an advocate for public safety, welfare, and education non-profits utilizing the arts and creative expression to affect change for incarcerated and foster youth aged-out of the system.

LYNNETTE RAMIREZ

President of Bassett Vance Productions, Lynnette is focused on identifying and developing film and television projects with a strong emphasis on BIPOC voices both in front and behind the camera. Named 40 Under 40 Class by Multichannel News, Lynnette Ramirez is a visionary leader with over 20  years of success in the field of entertainment. Most recently Lynnette served as senior development  executive for 20k, a CBS Television Studios Co. Prior to that was consulting at Very Tall Productions,  producers of the Facebook Watch award-winning series, “Red Table Talk.” From 2012 to 2016, Lynnette was the SVP of Original Content for Fuse Media. In this role, she oversaw all new and returning series for the network – including Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce, Fluffy Breaks Even, and Transcendent – as well as additional programming from Jennifer Lopez, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias. 

Ms. Ramirez began her career in development with Sean Connery’s Fountainbridge Films, and in 2002,  she launched Vida Films, an independent film production company that produced two independent features: The Blue Hour, starring Emily Rios and Alyssa Milano and 2Days starring Paul Rudd. In 2007 Lynnette became SVP of development and production for George Lopez Presents. During her tenure with Lopez, she produced several projects including the Nickelodeon hit original movie, Mr. Troop Mom.  Lynnette graduated from the Loyola Marymount University screenwriting undergrad program. She’s also a writer, has had a popular ‘Hollywood themed’ blog, written and sold romantic comedy screenplays. 

JESUS M RODRIGUEZ

Jesus M Rodriguez, born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela is the SVP of Creative and Strategy at Makiné Studios. With more than 20 years of experience as a creative and marketing executive for major entertainment brands, Rodriguez has developed 360° launch campaigns and content for Disney Channel, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Fuse and BET, to name a few. His knowledge of millennial and multicultural audiences is evidenced by his work on such successful shows as Disney’s first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor and BET’s first scripted drama, Being Mary Jane.

A director in his own right, Rodriguez has helmed commercials, short and feature films and digital content for Toyota, McDonald’s, Dove, GoNoodle, Madonna’s Confessions Tour, etc, and was represented by Ridley Scott and Associates. His short films have screened at Sundance and other festivals around the world. Over the course of his career, Rodriguez has won more than 70 international awards, including Best Directing at PromaxBDA, Best of Show at PromaxBDA Latin America and a Gold Medal at The New York Festivals.

DECKER SADOWSKI

Decker Sadowski grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. After studying Mechanical Engineering at Dartmouth College, she lost her mind and decided to study theater at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. She can be seen on NBC’s hit show Brooklyn Nine-Nine and award-winning indie films. Recently, Decker Sadowski produced, co-wrote, and starred in the feature film, Juniper that premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Decker has been a board member of the Unusual Suspects for 6 years*