You park in the ramp and enter the building in downtown Minneapolis. You get your costume, an orange top and pants, no buttons or zippers. The clothing isn’t labeled with your name, and it never quite fits. You put on a pair of plastic sandals, then head down the hallway to get your props a bedroll with faded, peach-colored towels and sheets and a thin grey blanket.
Places are called, and you go to your set, a jail cell, and drape the blanket over the top bunk. Your scene partner arrives, along with a small audience who will probably have to stand in the hallway because there isn’t enough room in the cell. You plunge in, shouting, maybe barricading yourself in the corner or pounding on the cement walls. Your mind is racing a mile-a-minute as you try to anticipate what your scene partner is going to do next. You may be giving the most amazing performance of your career right now, but one thing is painfully clear: This sure as hell ain’t the Guthrie.
Actually, it’s the Hennepin County Jail, and you are portraying an inmate in a crisis intervention training with corrections officers. . .
That’s just one of the many scenarios that I’ve performed during the past four years while working with the Crisis Company.
"The scariest thing I had ever done as an actor"
In January 2006, I saw a classified ad in the 550s of the Star Tribune seeking “actors to play persons in crisis for ongoing professional verbal de-escalation training for Minneapolis Police Dept.” I had never done anything like that but was intrigued enough to request an audition. I got an appointment and then was invited to a callback/training session in February. It was an intensive day of classroom learning and role-play exercises. Those of us who made it through the callback were then invited to “shadow” some experienced role-players and watch them in action during a training with police officers. After observing that day, we then had to participate in a scenario ourselves, with the other role-player giving us feedback during the session. It was probably the scariest thing I had ever done as an actor.
The Crisis Company trains actors and others as role-players to portray people who are in crisis while suffering from mood, thought, or personality disorders. They work with law enforcement staff to teach them how to de-escalate a crisis situation without resorting to weapons or physical restraint. The company is based in Colorado and has been working in the Southwest and other communities for more than 15 years. Belinda Hoole, the president of Crisis Company, expanded their crisis intervention training to Minnesota in 2006. They currently employ about 25 local role-players, and we work part-time depending on our availability for any trainings the company schedules here.
The Crisis Company has developed its own proprietary “scenarios” over the yearssituations that police, jail, or emergency personnel might encounter on a typical day. We may portray characters who are schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed, suicidal or experiencing PTSD. We have to put ourselves in real-life situations, such as a big-rig truck driver who is sober but exhausted from sleep deprivation and then play the same situation but this time our truck driver is coming off a meth amphetamine high. The police officers, on the other hand, are given very little information before they begin and have to determine who we are and what they’re dealing withand they’re not allowed to carry any weapons. The scenarios are outlined but not scripted; we have some basic characteristics and information that we all have to convey, but we make up our own names and embellish on the personal histories. There is always a facilitator, or coach (active or retired law enforcement), who takes time out to give feedback to the officers.
"Our make-believe is their day job"
Why did I think I could do this kind of work? After working in theater for more than 20 years, I’ve certainly performed many emotionally and psychologically demanding roles, but the scenarios with the Crisis Company are so visceral whether I'm threatening suicide or unable to speak to an officer because he can’t compete with the loud voices in my head that by the end of a session I feel a strange sensation of exhilaration and exhaustion. My voice might be hoarse from shouting. My eyes red from crying. I’ve had to go somewhere deep for a few hours, and like a diver, I have to make my way back to the surface. It can take a while. Sometimes I’m cursing at other drivers all the way home in my car; other times, there’s a sadness that’s hard to shake off.
The Crisis Company attracts theater actors but also improvisational performers and even professionals who have worked with mentally ill clients or substance abusers. Through personal experience, or research, or both, we're asked to imagine what it's like to lean over a freeway overpass in the midst of a psychotic hallucination.
Whatever preconceptions I, or other actors, may have about police officers seem to dissipate as we put ourselves in progressively more dire situations. A necessary camaraderie develops between us over the course of a few days, and the wariness turns into a mutual respect.
We’re all there to de-escalate a crisis situation and resolve it without jumping off a bridge or being tased in the back. We’re there to look each other in the eye and find some way to communicate, so when the cops really do encounter a person experiencing psychosis, they might be able to get them in their squad car and over to Hennepin County Medical Center without tackling them to the ground first.
And while we role-players are swearing a blue streak at our scene partner and relishing every second because we know we won’t get arrested our enjoyment is tempered by the fact that our make-believe is actually their day job.