Role of a Lifeline
For an actor, improvisation means being able to think fast on one’s feet.
But York College Theatre students are finding it can also mean being carried off your feet and out of a building in the arms of first responders, or being subdued as part of a live shooter exercise. As part of their studies, Theatre students have become key players in York County’s Quick Response Team training. They are learning how their acting skills can be used to help make a positive difference in police responses to emergency situations.
Sometimes, these training exercises ask students to play a disturbed adult who is verbally abusive to police. Other times, it means being tracked by a bloodhound. In one exercise, rising senior Kelsey Snively from Roebling, New Jersey, played a missing girl being tracked by a bloodhound. She watched it retrace her steps from her hiding place. “It had its nose to the ground the whole time,” Snively recalls. When the bloodhound arrived, it tackled her. “That’s how they’re trained,” Snively says. “They always tackle the person when they find them.”
York College’s Theatre students are learning more than the fact that bloodhounds are very good at their jobs. They are sharpening essential theatrical skills, and developing research methods that help create backgrounds for the characters they play. They are also using their talents to help make police officers and doctors better equipped to take on some of the most difficult parts of their jobs.
Kayla Manigault, a rising junior from Windsor Mill, Maryland, who has participated in law enforcement and medical training exercises, says the collaborations have clicked with her on multiple levels. “I learned so much that I connected to myself as a person,” she says, “to acting, and to what’s happening in our world.”
“If I didn’t come to this specific program,” observes Snively, “I wouldn’t have gotten this training somewhere else.”
Actors dream of the footlights and the soundstage. But establishing a professional acting career is not easy. Many working actors take opportunities to use their skills to enhance professional training for lawyers and doctors as they pursue their dream.
Such opportunities rarely emerge in an undergraduate theatre program. But Suzanne Delle, Assistant Professor of Theatre at York College, has made community role- playing a key element in her curriculum. Delle has a strong background in contemporary American theatre and she says the skills that her young actors must develop to succeed in role playing “fit in so nicely” with dramatic works that her students study and perform.
“Part of what I am trying to do is prepare students for careers,” Delle says. “What is happening today in American theatre. So, we do a lot of devising, improv-type role playing, and we use it all in our scripted presentations.” YCP students had participated in such exercises before Delle arrived on campus in 2015. But she quickly reestablished the relationships, weaving role-playing opportunities into her syllabi for acting classes.
Role-playing calls upon many of an actor’s skills, but improvisation is the part of the craft it helps develop most keenly. Improvisation involves the ability to think on one’s feet and say something inspired on the spot, but a talent for active listening informs every reaction.
“People have a conception about theatre that it’s just putting words in front of you, and you reading them,” says Taara Muhammad, a rising junior in the drama department from Forestville, Maryland. “But it’s not. You are supposed to be present onstage, listening to your fellow actors. And with improv, there is no choice. You have to be listening. We’re listening to each other.”
The actors’ work with law enforcement consists of both large-scale exercises with the York County’s Quick Response Team and Child Abduction Response Effort, as well as more individualized work with officers training to better prepare for their encounters with citizens suffering from mental illnesses.
Larger scenarios depicting an active shooter or a missing person have the feel of ensemble pieces. There is often a lot of downtime involved, but the broad contours of such training allow the actors some latitude in approaching the work. “The general scenarios aren’t very concrete,” says Muhammad. “They leave a lot of room for actors to interpret.”
The scenarios used to train officers on a smaller scale require more preparation and intensity. Katherine Gruver, the Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator at York County’s Probation and Parole Department, has organized a number of exercises using YCP acting students, including training for officers who encounter persons with mental illness in the line of duty.
Gruver says the sessions “allow us to observe how officers handle each situation” as their scenarios rise in urgency “from low-level crisis to a high-level crisis.” Though the exchanges are more scripted, students are called upon to raise the stakes in the encounters to align with escalations that officers might encounter. “There are people who lash out at officers and call them names,” Gruver observes, “and we tell the students if it’s in the script, do that. It’s what the officers will be experiencing.”
Feedback from students is also worked into the assessments of the exercise. “We allow the students to interact in those sessions,” says Gruver. “We ask them: ‘How do you think the officer did?’ ” The training sessions create a mutual respect among participants. “When you walk into the room, the police don’t see you as students,” says Snively. “They see you as professionals.”
Success in bringing law enforcement training scenarios to life has also led to paying opportunities for young actors at the College who are selected to participate in medical training exercises.
Duane Patterson, Technical Director of the Medical Education Simulation Center at WellSpan Health, York Hospital, says that doctors, residents, and nurses in his hospital have “lots of communication issues involving younger patients.” He welcomed the chance to call upon Delle “to put me in touch with individuals she thinks will work well with us.”
Local writer and teacher Marian Rubach worked as a consultant to develop the training scenarios used by York Hospital. “She takes a little bit of a sketch and builds a whole life story,” says Patterson. The scenarios usually involve patients with difficult and troubling situations. It’s up to the students hired by the hospital to dig deeper and work to round out their characters.
Amalea Williams, a rising senior from Hanover, Pennsyl- vania, was recruited to play a 20-year-old woman who was pregnant and about to give birth without having received prenatal care. Her scenario required her to channel her char- acter’s narcissism and anger in response to entreaties from medical professionals. “I literally had to fight with doctors,” says Williams. “It was challenging in a really good way.”
One key to success was creating a backstory. Williams named her character Ashley, and worked out bits of her story in a journal. “I had to almost turn into Ashley,” she recalls. “It was almost method acting.”
Manigault’s character was a 21-year-old surrogate mother who wanted to keep her baby – which had tested positive for Down syndrome – against the wishes of the couple who had engaged her services and wanted the pregnancy terminated. The viewpoint she developed for her character was that “you can’t make someone
Patterson says the residents fell quickly into the exercise, forced to adjust their bedside manners to the intensity of the responses provided by the young actors. He says the work of students is important for the hospital’s education efforts. “We really value the feedback,” he says. “Healthcare is a people business.”
York College Theatre students have become so enthusiastic about role-playing opportunities that many of them volunteer even when no class credit is attached. But it’s work that has its difficulties and risks.
The social and political climate shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement (and the grievances about U.S. policing to which it seeks to draw attention) has generated numerous negative headlines and resentment of law enforcement activities in many communities.
Student actors from diverse backgrounds involved in training exercises say they felt some initial (and natural) nervousness about the work. Their instructions to verbally abuse officers or doctors involved in the training often goes against feelings of self-preservation and deference toward professionals empowered to make life or death decisions.
“Race played a big part in both trainings,” says Manigault. “As a black actor, I was ready to take on these challenges, because they are such a big thing in society right now.”
Students also found that their anxieties dissipated in the process of working together with officers. They were pleasantly surprised by the positive attitudes and concern for public safety that law enforcement participants in the training brought to the work.
Williams observes that “going into the police role- playing, I was extremely nervous...But going through the training, I saw them as human beings. It really changed my perspective.”
Muhammad says her training sessions were “useful and also inspiring.” The collaborations left her seeing “people who genuinely want to help. It gave me a sense of hope, and a sense of pride in them, seeing them work.”
The work has also left students pondering deeper relationships between art and the world. “It reinforces the political nature of theatre for me,” says Snively. “How do we use theatre to change the world around us?”
Pushing her students to see the connections between theatre and the public good is a source of satisfaction for Delle. “The students have seen the benefits,” she says. “Their work is keeping the community safer.”