Theatre students help Department of Corrections

May 11, 2017
Theatre students

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Four University of Wisconsin-Platteville theatre majors recently put their acting skills to the test in a very unique way: they helped the Wisconsin Department of Corrections conduct a special training for its police and correctional officers.

Throughout the year and across the state, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections – along with the National Alliance on Mental Illness – provides training to police and correctional officers who work with those in crisis, who often have mental health issues. The DOC often recruits actors from community theatre groups to assist with the training, as the actors are able to role-play some of the scenarios officers face, which helps prepare officers for a variety of difficult situations.

In February, Dr. Jeffrey Garbleman, crisis intervention program coordinator for the Wisconsin DOC, contacted Dr. Ann Farrelly, associate professor of theatre at UW-Platteville, to let her know he was looking for actors who could participate in the training by role-playing inmates with mental health crises at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel, Wisconsin.

Farrelly contacted Emma Wilson, a senior and president of UW-Platteville’s Pioneer Players, to see if she knew of any students who might be interested.

Wilson knew that she and other theatre students, as actors, were always looking for opportunities to use their skills, so she immediately contacted a few other theatre majors.

“I knew that students involved in Pioneer Players, in particular, would be great for this opportunity because the theatre program challenges and stretches its students,” said Wilson. “We often do material that is risky and requires actors who are willing to play roles that push the boundaries. Within seconds, people responded, wanting to participate.”

Students who participated in the training project included Wilson, from Platteville; Zachary Thomas, a senior from Verona, Wisconsin; Noah Thomas, a senior from Stoughton, Wisconsin; and Logan Eigenberger, a sophomore from Dubuque, Iowa.

The main purpose of the training was to enable facility staff to practice using verbal de-escalation skills they had learned. The students’ role was to create a more realistic situation during the role-play portion of the training.

Each student was given a specific situation and type of mental health disorder to play: Wilson, schizophrenia; Noah Thomas, antisocial personality disorder with violent, angry behavior; Zachary Thomas, obsessive-compulsive disorder; and Eigenberger, depression, agitation and suicidal behavior.

Students had one hour to talk with the facilitator, a psychologist, and prepare for the improvisation. Officers were split into groups and the role-playing of safely and verbally resolving each situation began.

Each student acted out the situation that he or she was placed in. For example, Wilson was in the dining hall and acted as though she believed the tiles on the ceiling spelled out, “Don't eat the food; the food is poisoned.” The officers took turns trying to resolve the situation. Based on how they responded to Wilson, she would either cooperate or intensify the situation.

Students acted out three different outcomes of each scene to make the situation more difficult for the officers to resolve. Officers had to assess the situation by identifying what was happening and what was wrong, and then try to safely resolve the situation. The role-playing forced the officers to think carefully about how to talk down a crisis rather than resorting to physical violence or relying on backup officers for help.

“The role-plays were based upon real life situations where inmates were in a mental health crisis,” said Garbleman. “The actors brought a sense of realism to these scenes – they brought them to life – and provided an invaluable service to the participants. We simply cannot do these trainings without the partnership with the acting community, and UW-Platteville truly has been an exceptional partner.”

“I am always thrilled when our students can put their skills into practice,” said Farrelly. “This project is a wonderful example of the importance of the arts to real world situations.”

Wilson said the training went well and students received a lot of positive feedback from the officers.

“It was great to see our skills used in such a helpful way,” said Wilson. “We were able to create very realistic situations for the officers and it really helped them take a step back and think. The most challenging part of the scenes was simply not knowing what anyone was going to say or do, and having to respond in character. It really was an improvisational exercise for us as actors. We come from very different worlds and it was challenging but cool to see those two worlds mix.”

Wilson said the students gained a huge appreciation for what officers do in their jobs each day, and she thought the officers gained an appreciation for what the students did to help them that day.

Wilson said some people underestimate the importance of actors and what they can do and stressed that actors’ abilities to step into other people’s shoes is a skill that not everyone has and is one that they can share.

“As students, I think we learned that there are so many opportunities out there, and all you have to do is grab them,” said Wilson. “Some students just do the requirements of their major and what's offered to them, but don’t look beyond that. We can make our education whatever we want it to be. Sometimes, you just have to think outside the box and find those opportunities. People are always asking me what I’m going to do with a theatre major. My response is always, ‘Whatever I want.’ There is no limit to what we can do with the skills we are given, whether we are actors or engineers.”

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, Communications Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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