Bringing Police Officers and Community Members Together With Theater Exercises

By Shiwen Rong

NEW YORK—After Eric Garner died during a confrontation with the police, Terry Greiss saw tensions increase between police and civilians.

However, he believed that compassion could change that, in the form of art. So did the NYPD.

“Let’s see beyond the uniform. Let’s see below the skin color and start to deal with each other as human beings,” said Terry Greiss on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Terry Greiss is an actor and one of the founders of the Irondale Ensemble Project. He always wanted to work in theater.

During his acting career, he came to a deeper understanding of what acting really means.

“I’m very lucky in my life, I get to work in the theatre,” said Greiss.

“[Theater] to me is a noble endeavor. But it’s not just a noble endeavor because it’s about putting on plays. It’s a noble endeavor because I get to learn every day of my life a little bit more about what it means to be human.”

To be able to show enlightenment to the audience is what Greiss is aiming for.  He’s convinced that the theatre is able to not only entertain, but also educate people.

Together with two other friends, they started Irondale 37 years ago.

Beneath Our Skin

After he watched the video, he reached out to the NYPD with an idea.

“I was watching the video of this over and over and over again, and getting increasingly angry, and then really sad and shocked, and going through the whole gamut of emotions,” said Greiss.

“They showed it so often that you become numb to it. And I started watching it as a theatre piece,” he said. “They’re not talking to each other. They’re not communicating … That’s something actors are taught from the first day.”

He then wrote a letter to the police commissioner and within a few days, NYPD agreed to set up a pilot program to use acting skills to help communication named “To Protect, Serve and Understand.”

Partnered with NYPD, he created a 10-week program with three other colleagues.

Every Tuesday, for 10 weeks, a certain number of police officers and volunteer community members come together, and they go through different acting games and communication games.

At the end of the 10 weeks, they are asked to perform in front of the audience.

For five years, seven workshops have been successfully finished, and they are now rounding up the 8th round with a public performance on Dec. 13-14.

‘To Protect, Serve and Understand’

Seven police officers and seven volunteer community members came together on Nov. 5.

“Being able to take the uniform off and get to know a civilian so they get to know a police officer without them having that gun, the shield, you know, and actually realize that you, we are human beings as well,” said Olivia Windisch, an NYPD police officer.

Zack Garlitos, a volunteer civilian, said, “I wanted to participate in this project as a way to strengthen community and build community and work on building an understanding of what police officers go through and to understand what it’s like for them.”

What struck Greiss the most is the bravery of the participants to keep coming back to the workshop where they know they might be criticized for their life’s work or for the color of the skin.

“But they come back, to try to change [their] minds, to try to influence, to try to come to a greater understanding of who they are together,” he said.

Even though they start with small numbers, he believes that it will make a big impact.

“Officers coming back and saying, I police in a whole different way now: ‘I listened differently. This workshop helped me communicate with my family differently,'” Greiss said.

Start Small

Greiss expresses his worry that in these days, society is losing its ability to communicate with each other.

“We can’t be responsible for all the ills in our society,” Greiss said.

“[We] need to come out of our caves and look at each other and start to connect with each other face to face, person to person, to make some kind of contact,” he said. “You walk down the street, how many times you almost bumped into somebody who’s got their phone up?”

“Take a second, see the person as a human being,” Greiss said.

Sometimes we all need to be reminded of what communication can do, not on a phone or a tablet, but just simply by talking.

“When a cop leaves here, we hope that they are better listeners than when they came in,” said Greiss. “When a civilian leaves here, we hope that they look at police officers in a less jaundiced way.”

Greiss hopes that through this workshop, they will all learn to at least listen and to understand each other as human beings.

It might not solve every problem directly, but it will help us to understand each other, and if even that much changes, things are working.