To Protect, Serve and Understand

by Howard Sherman

Irondale Ensemble’s Program Builds Police/Civilian Community

I was a little fearful in the beginning,” admits police officer Diana Torres of New York’s 84th Precinct. “It was nerve wracking,” confesses police officer Miguel Van Brakle of New York’s 67th Precinct. What they are describing, however, is not part of their active duty work on the streets of Brooklyn. Rather, it’s about performing, doing theatrical exercises, as part of a 14-person cohort in the Irondale Ensemble project’s To Protect, Serve and Understand, a ten-week long program that unites officers and civilians, through the process of theatre games. The goal is for each constituency to gain a greater understanding of the other using tools common in theatre education and practice.

Torres and Van Brakle are part of the fourth cohort to experience the Irondale process, which was the brainchild of the company’s executive director Terry Greiss, who runs the program and leads the weekly workshops. He describes it as an extension of similar programs that Irondale has run, including programs about HIV/AIDS, and in both high schools and at Rikers Island. “If you were to whittle this all down to what it is we teach,” Greiss explains, “we teach people to become an ensemble, because that’s what we know best. That’s what we’ve done for the lifetime of this company.”

Greiss said the impetus for the program came in the wake of the Eric Garner shooting and watching video of it over and over on the news. “I was,” he recounts, “like all of us, shocked by what I was seeing on the news. I know that news is that moment in time, it’s captured through video on a certain angle at a certain way, and it’s cut for sensationalism. Nonetheless, there was no way that you could look at what we were all looking at, and not be appalled at the tragic results from what seemed to be a botched inconsequential arrest.”

Greiss wrote to the police commissioner, not really expecting a reply, confessing surprise when he heard back from deputy commissioner Susan Herman. He went to a meeting with Herman prepared with, in his words, “proposals and pictures and blah, blah blah.” But he didn’t need any of them, because Herman immediately recognized the value of improv, saying, “Yes, let’s do it.”

Open to Trying
A flyer at her station led Torres to respond, while Tracy Pinkard, a civilian participant who works for the board of education, developed an interest through a colleague who had been part of the first cohort. Working through a family tragedy, Pinkard explained, “I had a personal loss, and thought it would just be a great way to not only have an opportunity to speak with other people who may have similar thoughts in terms of relationships with police, but also a cathartic way to just work through some of the things I was dealing with concerning the death of my nephew.”

Van Brakle became involved as one of the ‘volun-told’. “It was actually suggested that I meet Terry and interview”, said Van Brakle, “due to allegations I had received through the CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board) process. I had a number of unsubstantiated allegations, just basically complaints that were made against me that were unfounded. Because I had a certain number, they felt that I might get some benefits from participating in Irondale. I got a basic explanation of what the program was. I’ve never been a person to back down from anything that was asked of me at work, so when they said, ‘Hey, look. We want you to attend this. We think it would help.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’”

Pinkard says she had no preconceived notions of the program, though she thought it might take the form of the reconciliation work she does in schools. “I really don’t know what my expectations were walking in,” she related. “Here I am now, saying, ‘This is some intense work,’ and wishing almost a little bit, ‘If only we had a little bit more time’.”

Van Brakle admits, “I thought it was a bunch of nonsense at first. I did it because the department said, ‘This is what we want you to do.’ As time went on, after the first couple of sessions, I started to realize that it gave me some tools that I didn’t anticipate. Being able to slow things down and talk to people, and truly listen to what they were saying – like Terry put it, being in the moment with people – has made a huge difference for me. It’s given me a new set of tools when I go to work, when I do my job, and personally.”

For Torres, “I guess I got more of what I expected, I didn’t think that I would understand so much of the civilians’ perspectives. But when we did a lot of scenarios and improvs, I got to see more of the other side rather than just the police officer’s side. There was more feeling what they were feeling and understanding what they were going through.”

Working Towards Understanding
Observing the Irondale techniques in practice resembled nothing so much as a beginning acting class. The group was asked to, as a whole, keep an inflated ball aloft for as long as possible, like a volleyball game involving only a single team and no net. They tagged in and out of a two-person improv at a rapid pace, keeping a conversation, like the ball, aloft. They were invited to rant, unhinged, each at another in turn, with a cacophony of rants filling the space. Two participants were asked to read an excerpt from Korde Arrington Tuttle’s Graveyard Shift, without preparation, the scene being that of a traffic stop that goes awry.

Some of these same exercises reappeared in the company’s final public presentation in early February, but added in strands of documentary theatre, in the tradition of Anna Deavere Smith, with officers performing snippets of monologues drawn from conversations with civilians not in the program, and civilians doing the same with narratives from police officers outside the cohort. The traffic stop scene was performed twice, with differing permutations of gender and race. 

In keeping with the practice of all the prior sessions, the cohort shared a meal and conversation together first, with the audience filing in as this communal repast took place. The meal was an essential part of the bonding, but different participants had differing reactions as to its effectiveness. Van Brakle said, “There have been a couple of occasions, mainly early, where I saw that once the conversation was over, the other side was a little bit more entrenched in their positions. But then,” he allowed, “we got started with the improv and I think most of that boiled away at the end of the night.”

Pinkard felt genuinely at home during the meals. “The meals reminded me a lot of growing up,” she said. “Growing up we had dinner at my grandmother’s house. Really heated discussions in my family happened around the dinner table. So, I look forward to that.”

While To Protect, Serve and Understand wasn’t created to in any way to provide acting training, the participants say that they did gain some appreciation for what goes into a performance through the exercises. “I have a lot of respect for acting, said Torres. “A lot of people say, ‘That’s easy’. I don’t think it’s easy. I think it’s a job in itself, for someone to get up and be someone else. It’s hard, you know, if you don’t agree with them. You have to act like someone you don’t want to be.”

Van Brakle echoes Torres’s sentiment, saying, “Now that I've walked in their shoes, in some way, and I see what actors and directors do, I definitely brings a new appreciation for how truly difficult it is, and the hours behind it. It's nothing I really considered or gave much thought in the past, but having done it, I can see what the love for it is, for the drive, and the passion you need to have in order to do it.”

Assessing the experience of participating in To Protect, Serve and Understand, each interviewee felt there had been headway made. “In the streets,” said Torres, “not everybody is nice and respectful and generous to us. Some of them are dangerous and want to harm officers, for whatever reason, or because they are just evil that way. Or, they might be mentally ill, and they don’t know that we’re officers and they think we’re attacking them. So, there’s a lot of safety issues we have to look at, and I don’t think the public and civilians understand that. So, when we show them that, and we put them in our shoes, then they see it a different way. Their perspective has changed.”

Concurring, Van Brakle says, “I think having the chance to see what civilians think helps in understanding how difficult it is to do our job, and how important it is for us to get it right the first time. In that sense, yes. There’s definitely been a lot of benefits to seeing what the other side truly thinks of us. I think as the transformations have been for me, I think it’s also been transformational for them. I think they see how hard it is to be police officers, and to make the decisions that we make and do the things that we do.”

Pinkard notes, with guarded optimism, “There’s a lot more work to be done in keeping these types of dialogues and these very courageous discussions happening outside of just the space of Irondale. Hopefully, we’ve actually had an opportunity to – I’d say comprehend. I don’t think that we’re all going to walk out of here with a big epiphany of changing people’s thoughts altogether, but just the idea of having a collective group to be able to express ourselves to on both sides.”

And as to how Irondale measures the success of the program, while Greiss cites both video recordings of the complete workshop sessions and final performance, as well as a post-program survey, he seems to place special stock in one final element. That element is perhaps the best measurement of success and is an unplanned element of the participants’ behavior. “They keep coming back to visit,” Greiss notes, “which is also really telling. They come back time and time again to hang out and talk, to offer their services if they can be useful. Some of them have been very, very useful, especially as we get closer to showtime and people start getting nervous. I usually bring one of the cops back, or one of the civilians back, or sometimes both to talk to them about it’s going to be all right, and you’ll get through this.”  

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