Diocesan News

How Improv Theater Brings Cops, Civilians Together In An Era of Racial Division

Michael-David Gordon (left) one of the facilitators of “To Serve, Protect, and Understand,” mimics an orchestra conductor as he leads the group in an exercise. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

FORT GREENE — The key to better relations between the police and the public might be found here — at a small theater located in a former Sunday school in Fort Greene.

In 2008, the Irondale Ensemble Project theater company opened The Space at Irondale in what was once the Sunday school serving Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on South Oxford Street, but is now a place where different types of lessons are taught.

Once a week, a group of 14 police officers and civilians — seven of each — gather to take part in a workshop,  “To Protect, Serve, and Understand.” It’s an improvisational project, bringing cops and residents together as performers, that will culminate in two public shows to be staged at The Space at Irondale on March 25 and 26. 

This is the ninth year of  “To Serve, Protect, and Understand.” During the first eight, more than 100 police officers and 100 civilians participated in the workshops, and the performances were seen by an estimated 2,000 people.

The project’s facilitators, Terry Greiss, Rivka Rivera and Michael-David Gordon, don’t harbor any dreams of winning Tony Awards. Rather, they hope the workshops’ messages can help improve relations between cops and communities of color in Brooklyn, particularly during times of great division after the deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans, who died while being arrested by police, and when chants of “Defund the Police” are heard at protest rallies.

At the core of the project is teaching the art of listening, Greiss explained.

“We talk about dynamic listening,” he added. “Usually when people listen to each other, they listen to the first three words and they already know how they’re going to respond. We use the technique of the actor to teach people how to be present and stay present to what is being said.”

Each week, participants play improvisational theater games and get acting techniques from theater professionals to help them feel comfortable on stage. The acting novices are also encouraged to walk in each other’s shoes for a bit to deepen their sense of empathy.

Officer Jennifer Williams, who is assigned to the 1st Precinct in Lower Manhattan and has been with the NYPD for five years, said she has already gotten a lot out of the project, especially the satisfaction of knowing she is helping people look at police in a new light.

“For civilians, it’s good to see that we’re not this robotic uniform that only acts one way, only looks one way,” she said. “Cops are all very different from each other. We all have our different likes and dislikes.” 

Hardy Brooklyn, a life coach, said he can identify with the desire of officers to be seen as individuals. “I’m definitely different. I have a purple beard. I stand out. I typically get classified as a rich eccentric. I relate to the cops being stereotyped,” he said.

Brooklyn added that he not only likes the weekly workshops but enjoys the conversations he has with his fellow participants on the street as they’re leaving the theater.

Williams recalled an eye-opening moment when she took part in an improvisational exercise in which civilians wore cops’ hats.

The young man who put on her hat looked a little unsure of himself. “I went up and just lifted his chin because when you wear the uniform, you can’t look nervous. You need to exude confidence. When you walk into a situation, people are looking to you for help. After I did that, he understood what I was getting at,” she said.

Irondale Ensemble Project created “To Serve, Protect, and Understand” in 2015 following the death of Eric Garner, a black man who died after Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold as he and other cops were arresting him on a Staten Island street in 2014. 

While the city medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo. That court outcome sparked demonstrations by protesters charging police brutality and racism.

When that happened, Greiss decided to do something. “I wrote a letter to [then-Police Commissioner Bill] Bratton. I said, ‘I know you train your police officers well. But you don’t train them as actors.’ The key to all acting is listening. I thought my letter would wind up in a circular file. Two days later, I got a phone asking me to come to a meeting at One Police Plaza,” he said.

The 14 participants — the same number each year — are chosen from a pool of applicants who go through a rigorous auditioning process.

The performances of  “To Preserve, Protect, And Understand” will take place March 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. at The Space at Irondale, 85 South Oxford St. Tickets are free. For ticket information, visit: https://irondale.org/tpsu/