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Improving Police-Community Relations One Improv at a Time

By Nicole Levy | December 1, 2015 1:19pm
 Civilian Joshua Tucker and police officer John Velez play a theater game at a meet-and-greet dinner for the ensemble last week. Terry Greiss stands behind them.
Civilian Joshua Tucker and police officer John Velez play a theater game at a meet-and-greet dinner for the ensemble last week. Terry Greiss stands behind them.
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Amanda Hinkle

It's been a trying couple of years for police-community relations.

At blame is a series of deaths of unarmed black civilians across the country, for which many hold the police accountable. Among them are Eric Garner on Staten Island on July 17, 2014; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio on November 22, 2014; Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, Minnesota just two weeks ago.

Their deaths and the resulting protests have inspired a new interactive theatrical workshop bringing the NYPD and the public together through improvisation.

”There’s no better way to get people to trust each other than getting them to play together," said actor Terry Greiss, a co-founder of the Irondale Ensemble Project, the 34-year-old Fort Greene experimental theater company behind "To Protect, Serve and Understand."

The aim of Irondale's community engagement project with the NYPD is to open the lines of communication between law enforcement and the public by engaging them in improvisational theater games. Through these exercises, participants will "explore controversial subjects," a statement released Tuesday said.

The actor's vision for the program materialized as the result of a letter he sent NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton last winter, offering Irondale's assistance in the task of building trust between officers and citizens.

Greiss was surprised when he received a call back from One Police Plaza inviting him to speak with Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing Susan Herman about a pilot program, he recalled.

”Commissioner Herman just really got it right away," Greiss said in an interview with DNAinfo. "She understood the possibility of a project like this.”

“Improv requires you to listen well and think on your feet — two skills we all want, and skills police officers rely on every day," Herman said in the release.

To recruit its ensemble, the company interviewed community members and NYPD officers interested in the workshop, searching for non-actors "willing to be vulnerable enough to use their own experience on stage," as Greiss put it.

Seven civilians and seven officers — three of whom report to the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville and four of whom have 10 or more years on the force — will assemble for their first workshop Tuesday evening. On Feb. 5 and 6, they'll perform semi-improvised cabaret shows of monologues and scenes, to be filmed by the documentary production company The Press and the Public Project. The performances at 85 South Oxford Street will be free to the public. 

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The ensemble at a meet-and-greet dinner last week (credit: Amanda Hinkle)

"This is not therapeutic training," Greiss said. "We’re not qualified to do that. But as theater artists, we are experts at bringing people together through improvisation.”

The company's longer term goal is to run three rounds of workshops and performances in 2016, collecting enough footage for a documentary or a training film that would benefit viewers beyond Brooklyn.

So far, Irondale has secured funding from one private donor and is seeking funding to carry its project through the end of next year.