…Lately what’s been exciting me most is this project we’re calling To Protect, Serve and Understand. We bring seven New York City police officers and seven civilians, all of diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and points of view, for 10 weekly workshops of four hours each. The first part of every workshop is a communal dinner prepared and served by a community of cooks that include Irondale audience members, staff, supporters, et.al. We sit at large tables and eat together, talk about the week, whatever. Then I’ll usually throw a provocation into the mix. Unfortunately it is often from a daily news story about police-civilian violence, misconduct, controversy. That heats up the conversation and after about 20–30 minutes we break the conversation and start to improvise. We play theater games, which in spite of their name are really very sophisticated experiential learning exercises designed to tap into intuitive knowledge that we already have, use skills we didn’t know that we had, and learn to communicate more fully, more authentically. The games help us know if the message we’re sending is landing the way we want it to or is it being misunderstood or miscommunicated. And also, most of them are fun to do so we get people who come with a pre-determined antipathy to each other to PLAY together and by doing that, they start to see each other as people.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Greiss.
Terry Greiss is a native of the Bronx and has been an actor for almost 50 years, performing a range of roles from Brecht and Shakespeare to ensemble-devised work. He is the co-founder of Brooklyn’s Irondale Ensemble Project where he the Executive Director as well as a member of the acting ensemble. He has performed in more than 60 roles with the company, and is a creator of most of Irondale’s original works and education programs. He has conducted hundreds of workshops in public schools, prisons, theaters, professional training programs and community venues. Terry was the Founding President of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, and sits on the Board of Directors for the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance. In 2008, at the invitation of the US Embassy, he was invited to lecture and teach improvisation in Russia. From 2016–2020 Terry travelled the US as an Improvisation Instructor for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and Alda Communication Training teaching scientists and STEM workers how to effectively communicate their work to various audiences, using theatrical improvisation. In 2008, Terry and Irondale opened the Irondale Center, created out of the ruins of a nineteenth century Sunday School in what is now the the Brooklyn Cultural District. In 2015, in reaction to the Eric Garner murder, Terry created one of the company’s most important programs to-date, To Protect, Serve and Understand an improv training program for NYC police officers, designed to enhance communication skills and build empathy between cops and community residents. He is a graduate of New York City’s HS for the Performing Arts and Sarah Lawrence College. He lives with his absolutely amazing wife Vicky Gilmore and their son Liam in Brooklyn.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
A series of fortunate accidents which I will try to summarize but underlying the journey was and is a firm belief that theater is a truly transformational art form and perhaps the most human of all the arts. It seems like the path my life has taken has been designed to constantly reaffirm this belief.
As a young actor, I had the great good luck to be hired buy Edgar Rosenblum and Arvin Brown at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven Ct. Long Wharf was one of the most important theaters in the country at the time and it was quite a coup to land a job there. And it started out as a bit of a fantasy job. LWT had just built a second stage and they were trying to figure out how to maximize its use. So they hired 4 young actors who would create work that would go to schools, offer workshops to other community organizations and be an accessible theater. In fact, that’s what they called us: The Access Theater Company of the Long Wharf Theater. There were not a lot of bookings that we were responsible for at this point. So most of our time was spent in the rehearsal room and since we would be asked to play to so many different kinds of audiences we figured that we’d better learn to improvise. So, we got copies of Viola Spolin’s masterwork, Improvisation for the Theater and started on page one. We spent that year mostly rehearsing, doing some performances in schools, a prison, senior centers and on the LW main stage. It was a great year if you love process, and we all did. The job was supposed to last for 5 seasons. It didn’t. Funds were cut after our first year and we were cast to the four winds. But…the work we had started at LWT had a deep affect on all of us. Especially Jim Niesen and Barbara Mackenzie-Wood. Much of what we started to learn that year: the importance of and ensemble and how to build one; the importance of improvisation and in particular theater games, as created by Viola Spolin, not only as an actor-training tool but as a way to release the creativity of every human being; the use of theater as an educational tool and the idea that there is (or should be) no separation of art and education. After Long Wharf released us we kept the school improv show alive ourselves. (We needed the money). Jim started directing instead of acting. The three of us decided that when we worked together we had a better time and made better theater than when we didn’t. For the next several years we kept talking about having our own company, making our own mistakes. And then one day in February 1983 we just did it. We are still doing it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’m too old so there isn’t one most interesting and I’ve probably forgotten a lot of them but among the interesting ones is sort a a “Strangers on a Train” scenario. In 1989 armed with a duffle bag, press kits and a credit card, the company decided to send me to Europe for 5 weeks to attend festivals and try to make international connections for future touring. I was on a train from Calais to London and I noticed a very attractive woman sitting across the aisle from me — it’s important to let you know that this happened 3 years before I met Vicky. She was looking over at me and I was casting probably not so furtive glances at her. Finally she leaned across to me and said in a very strong Russian accent, “Please. When does train come to station”. I looked in my Eur-Rail time table and told her. I asked if she was Russian, and told her that I had visited Russia during my college years. She then said, “In my country,I am actress”. Well…I was beginning to think that some higher power orchestrated this and I said, “In my country, I am…actor!” How’s that for a seductive comeback line? She had never been outside the former Soviet Union before this trip and I happily agreed to be her guide in London, which I didn’t know very well. We went out two or three times, saw some theater and on the last night she said, “Terry…your company….my company…we must work together”. I said “Sure!” And we parted. Several weeks later after I had gotten home from my pilgrimage, a very official document arrived from (then) Leningrad, inviting Jim and myself to Russia for “talks” and a possible future collaboration with the Salon Theater of St. Petersburg. We had no idea that what we were launching was a collaboration that lasted almost 10 years, included two full company tours to Russia and the former Soviet republics, and a month-long collaboration in New York. There are probably 20 other “interesting stories” that have to do just with this crazy partnership, but I will say, they were damned good actors. I loved working with them, and that young woman? She’s now a US citizen a fabulous acting teacher and she appears on dozens of TV shows and films. She plays a great Russian spy!
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Well I mentioned one in passing. I don’t think there is any real separation between art an education. That’s why I’ve always shied away from the term “arts in education”. We don’t say science-in-education or math-in-education. The arts are as integral. Also any work of art represents an educational process for its creators and it probably reveals something new to it’s audience. I’m not talking about pedantic theater or art, but any good art will and should do that.
The other principle or philosophy comes from a theater game called the mirror exercise, which sounds simple but it’s not. Two people face each other and try to create the illusion of a mirror, one leads and one reflects. The leadership keeps passing back and forth between them. Eventually, they don’t even know who is leading. And that’s the idea. One leads best by following. One communicates most effectively by focusing on the other person. It’s never about you. It’s always about the other. The best improvisers will say that they go on stage thinking my partner is a genius and also, that it’s my job is to make him or her look good.
We learned some of this while doing improv shows in elementary schools. We would invite one of the kids on stage to improvise with the company and all we were thinking about was to make the child the hero. He or she has to come out of this as the star. Our own cleverness, “talent”, personality was only valuable in the service of that goal. That’s a pretty good life lesson in general, I think.
A third “philosophy” is based on something Viola Spolin said. I think she is one of the most important theater teachers of the 20th century. Her book is never far from my reach. She said that what we think of as “talent’ may simply be one’s ability to confront and use their direct experience. When we do that on stage people say — -hey that actor is quite good.
Have I over-answered this question?
Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
You know, I really love my work — all of it: acting, teaching, even (at times) fundraising for the company. But lately what’s been exciting me most is this project we’re calling To Protect, Serve and Understand. We bring seven New York City police officers and seven civilians, all of diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and points of view, for 10 weekly workshops of four hours each. The first part of every workshop is a communal dinner prepared and served by a community of cooks that include Irondale audience members, staff, supporters, et.al. We sit at large tables and eat together, talk about the week, whatever. Then I’ll usually throw a provocation into the mix. Unfortunately it is often from a daily news story about police-civilian violence, misconduct, controversy. That heats up the conversation and after about 20–30 minutes we break the conversation and start to improvise. We play theater games, which in spite of their name are really very sophisticated experiential learning exercises designed to tap into intuitive knowledge that we already have, use skills we didn’t know that we had, and learn to communicate more fully, more authentically. The games help us know if the message we’re sending is landing the way we want it to or is it being misunderstood or miscommunicated. And also, most of them are fun to do so we get people who come with a pre-determined antipathy to each other to PLAY together and by doing that, they start to see each other as people.
Midway through the the workshop series we ask everyone to go off and interview someone they are not. Cops will interview other civilians and vise versa. These interview subjects are not part of the workshop group. The participants then try, as best they can, and with our coaching, to BE that person, to tell their story using only their words, gestures and body language. For a few minutes they “walk in someone else’s shoes”.
During the last week, we meet four times. We take all the ingredients that we’ve mixed up in our stewpot and shape it (in 2 rehearsals) into a show, or really a public showing that includes the conversations we’ve had, the interviews we’ve done the songs we’ve sung together (singing is vital). Sometimes the audience even watches us have dinner on stage and the show starts there.
Every workshop series has been wildly different, every one has been revelatory to me and my colleagues in this venture: Rivka Rivera, Michael-David Gordon and Lucy Winner. It’s a truly gifted and dedicated team.
How do you think this will change the world?
Let me begin my answer to this question with a piece of poetry by Rumi, a Sunni poet:
“Out beyond the fields of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. I will meet you there”.
I don’t think we’ve ever been in a more polarized climate than we are right now…this minute. It’s actually pretty scary. We have lost the ability and maybe even the desire to understand each other. We shout opinions across the aisle. We congregate with our “tribes”. We stay in our bubbles and we begin to feel hatred towards people who are not us or who do not think the way we do. If we could just learn to really listen and while we’re doing that keep the focus on the other person, what new ideas might emerge. There is nothing in the world that cannot benefit from clearer, better communication. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other but unless we learn to hear each other and understand each other — yikes! So I think the basic tenets underlying this program can indeed change the world because the can change how people relate to each other.
The fabric of civilization breaks down when law enforcers and the people they are sworn to protect and serve cannot trust each other enough to cooperate on keeping that civilization in tact. That’s where we are now. We need to go somewhere else. Let’s go to Rumi’s field.
With the knowledge that you may edit this I would like to end this answer with another poetic quotation from my friend, a brilliant contemporary poet Marc Kaminsky, from his stunning book The Stones of Lifta
“Our only hope is to sit together at the site of loss
And tell each other’s stories of that night”
That perfectly sums up what this project is about.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
Sorry I don’t know those references but I’ll give it a shot.
As I have come to realize, the line between working with the police department and working for the police department is a thin one and must be trod so carefully. Our program is not meant to sanitize or advertise the good-heartedness of the NYPD. However it can very easily be misrepresented and misunderstood as “copaganda”. (I hate that word.). We have to work with the NYPD or we wouldn’t be able to train their officers. We need their endorsement of the program but it does not mean we need to (even inadvertently) cover over the systemic racism that pervades the department and our country as a whole.
We also have to be increasingly aware of the implicit biases we as facilitators bring to the workshops. No one is free of these and it is only through increased awareness that we can not let them influence our work.
I need to make one thing very clear. This program is not therapy. Neither myself nor any of my colleagues are qualified to do that. This is ultimately a theater project. We use the skills we have as theater artists to accomplish the goals stated above and pave a road toward deeper understanding.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
This started because of the anger and sadness I felt as I watched the Eric Garner tragedy unfold in the nightly news almost six years ago. I kept thinking that what I was really witnessing was a lot of missed communication signals. Body language, verbal cues, emotional messaging, all we’re being ignored or just not noticed and a man lay dead at the end of it. In a fit of brazen good-Samaritanism, I wrote a letter to then Commissioner William Bratton. Never expecting it to be read by anyone except an assistant’s assistant, I said that I didn’t know how cops were trained but I thought that they could all use an improv class or ten. The skills of the actor/improviser, seemed essential to being able to effectively communicate with and de-escalate potentially dangerous interactions between officers and civilians. I touted our 30 year history of working in this field, licked a stamp and mailed it. Two days later, I got a phone call from 1 Police Plaza requesting that we come in for a meeting about a pilot program. That’s how it started. Be careful about the letters you write. They may end up changing your life.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
First you need willing participants. People, and I mean police departments and community members must be willing to come to the table. This is incredibly hard work. Serious play. And you need have that buy-in.
Then you need a national Swat — Team of artist/facilitators. Artists who are versed in the skills of improvisation and actor-training, who know how to run a rehearsal AND can also facilitate difficult conversations.
We are currently planning a pilot “Train-the-Trainer” program for the summer/fall of 2021. It would be a call for artists (and perhaps some police academy trainers) to take part in a six-day boot camp where they would be immersed in the TPSU process. The idea would be for them to go off and start programs in their home cities with their local PD’s. We at Irondale would mentor them through the first series and if it was successful they would be certified to continue the work. We are also planning to create online resources: videos, blogs, articles, etc. so that TPSU trainers can continue to educate themselves as they conduct workshops.
The “elephant in the room” of course is funding. We’ve applied to the Department of Justice for funds to pilot the train the trainer program, but it’s William Barre’s Justice Department so my expectations are not high. We will keep looking. And who knows, we may get lucky sooner than later.
We also need more attention paid on a national basis. Documentary filmmaker Hava Beller (In the Land of Pomegranates) is anxious to make a feature length documentary on the work we’ve already done, but again…money is the issue.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Half of all the people will think you are doing this for all the wrong reasons. I’ve actually had people write nasty online comments saying that we were shilling for the cops. We were liberal do-gooders who were trying to get attention. I’ve even had a workshop participant (a cop) who on the last night of the final performance said to me “until tonight, I thought you were a fake. I thought you were doing this to bring attention to your theater company. After tonight, I don’t think that anymore”
- This was going to be a lot more demanding than any other program we’ve done so far. Between recruiting, planning, teaching, evaluating and fundraising I’m probably spending 20–30 hours a week on average on this project alone. I need time to learn my lines. I’m still an actor.
- This would test everything I ever believed about why theater is important. There are days when this is such hard work that you begin to doubt its worth in relation to the problems of the world. That’s when I hear the voice of my colleague, co-facilitator and friend,Michael-David Gordon saying “trust the process”.
- Yes, this is enough! When you hold this project up against the magnitude of the ills troubling our country, I keep wondering whether the affect on 14 people at a time plus the maybe 200 others who see the performances, will that make any difference at all? I have come to realize that it’s ok to make change a little bit at a time. Yesterday an officer alumni of the program wrote to his Chief, on his own volition, that this program changed him as a police officer for the better. Other officers have written to me about how it has improved their policing with community members, improved their communication with spouses and partners. The people who are changed by experiencing this program pass it to their families, their communities and with their vote. They are the ones who can or will change the world.
- I wish they’d told me that some a____ole cop was going to choke George Floyd to death 5 years after Eric Garner was put in a choke-hold. No story here. Just so much work to be done.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
I think I’ve mentioned a few. The best leaders are also excellent followers. If you have to do something that requires a team, and for me, that’s the best kind of work to do, be sure to choose people who know more than you do and have skills that you do not and then trust them explicitly. Take risks. It’s easier to apologize than to ask permission. Be willing to have your mind changed, even about your most long-held beliefs. When a door opens, walk through it. If you need to get out you can, but it may only open for a brief period of time.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
At a time in our country’s history when we are so rigidly polarized, and mistrustful of the “other” To Protect, Serve and Understand™ is an intensive 10-week workshop program that builds deeper understanding and trust between communities and police using the transformative power of theater. It convenes police and civilians in a professionally moderated, immersive “empathy through improv” training that culminates in a unique public performance which respectfully examines the experiences of law enforcement and non-law enforcement alike. Participants gain practical skills that ultimately can help reduce police-related violence, and have the potential to save lives.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook -Irondale Ensemble Project @irondale center or
To Protect, Serve and Understand (TPSU)
Twitter- @Irondale Center
Instagram @Irondale Center
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.