From the Field / Series

­­­­­­­Acting “As if” – Role Play Simulations in High Stakes Police Encounters­­­­­­­

by Dara O’Brien


I once served as the General Manager of the Italian branch of a multinational financial services firm. I held the job for about five hours. The brevity of my tenure had nothing to do with my performance. It also had everything to do with it.

Because I wasn’t a manager at all. I just played one in a board room.

I was one of a team of actors that was recruited to take part in negotiation simulations to assist the organization in its HR training. My job was to play the role of that General Manager and take a meeting where I asked for a promotion. The organization gave me a full backstory that included my many accomplishments and why I deserved the upgrade. Trainees were tasked with turning down my request for immediate advancement while motivating me to stay in my current role.

By now we’ve all become familiar with the concept of actors stretching the boundaries of stage and screen to apply their talents to ever-widening realms of communications—commercial spokesperson perhaps, or influencer, print model, audio book narrator, or video game character. But over the last few decades, actors have increasingly added another job to their portfolios: live training simulations.

Actors are employed to role play in various corporate and industrial environments in areas like sales and human resources training; educate in areas like sexual harassment and diversity; and facilitate team- building and creative thinking.

Corporate clients aren’t the only option. Law firms, hospitals and medical schools, and police departments across the country employ actors to help train and prepare their workforce for the reality of often high-stakes interactions.

In this ongoing series, we’ll meet women who employ their acting chops to help organizations educate and inspire their workforce. While the procedures and protocols will vary, clients across the board share a common denominator: they utilize actors’ fine-tuned communication and listening skills to educate and inform their teams.

Real-Life Scenarios: Training the NYPD

Anne Stockton, an actress and writer who is also a psychiatrist, brings her unique skill set to bear through role play simulations with the New York City Police Department. “I play emotionally disturbed characters in order to help officers hone their negotiation skills,” Stockton explained. Her work is part of a program developed at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation team and its elite tactical and rescue Emergency Services Unit (ESU).

John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Professional Studies Program has provided specialized training for law enforcement agencies for over 30 years.

The training has two components. During morning sessions, psychologists from John Jay deliver clinical presentations that illuminate various mental disorders that could be experienced by distraught people the police may encounter. Diagnostic and clinical information is interspersed with information that might be relevant to these interactions.

The afternoon sessions focus on communication through role play with Stockton and other actors that illuminate behavior related to the disorders. “We begin by emphasizing the components of speech and active listening,” explained Rob Stosch, a detective with the NYPD’s ESU, who has experienced this mandatory training and now serves as one of its trainers. “And then we get right into real-life scenarios for the rest of the day.”

The scenarios, derived from prior police cases, involve high-risk encounters with individuals who present an extreme danger to themselves and/or others. “These are all situations where the patrol cops have been called and the person never answered the door,” said Stockton. The role play strives to portray the urgency of these interactions, and the actors may become aggressive in their behavior. “We step it up and make it realistic,” Stosch noted.

Since these encounters are mostly barricade situations, the program has facilitated the scenario by constructing a large frame with a door built into it. It is placed between the negotiator and the actor during the session. The negotiator, relying on audio cues alone, is tasked with creating a rapport in order to accurately assess the situation, gain entry, and take action as needed. Trainees learn how to recognize signs of extreme emotional distress and acquire communications tools to employ in order to de-escalate a crisis.

Actors are given a scenario, along with detailed clinical guidelines so they can accurately portray the relevant disorder. The rest is up to the them. “There aren’t a lot of details given in the scenarios,” said Stockton. “We make them our own.” While her clinical background may be an advantage, most if not all of her colleagues have no specialized psychiatric training, and Stockton approaches the work as an actor, not a clinician.

The scenarios Stockton portrays include a potential suicide poised at the top of a building and a terrified woman who is screaming for help yet has barricaded herself in her home. One of her most volatile scenarios involves a dangerously manic woman who has abruptly pulled her children from daycare without their coats and brought them home in a panic. “She’s clearly gone off the rails and she won’t answer the door,” said Stockton. “The police have no idea what’s happening and the fate of the children is unclear.”

With the scenarios in hand, Stockton and her fellow actors improvise. “You want to play the basic framework of the disorder; to present this person in these circumstances,” said Stockton. She then tunes her responses based on what she hears from the negotiator. “The more detailed work I do on the character and the circumstance, the more I can allow for different responses from the negotiator,” she noted.

You have to throw yourself into these circumstances, because they’re extreme.

Anne Stockton

“What really impresses me is that [the actors] are portraying these illnesses, and they’re not following a script—they’re rolling with what the [negotiator] is saying,” said Stosch. He frequently checks in with the actors when the sessions are over. “They’re able to stay in character, and afterwards they’re also able to convey how they felt during the negotiation and whether or not it was effective.“

“You have to throw yourself into these circumstances, because they’re extreme,” observed Stockton. “The characters are not always loud and big—though sometimes they are—but in their own ways they’re intensely involved in their situations.” She derives deep satisfaction from the process, and especially enjoys working without a script. “It’s very freeing,” she said. “It’s a way to commit as fully as one can to a circumstance.”

Anne Stockton performing her play “I Won’t Be in on Monday.” Courtesy of Off the Wall Productions

“The actors are integral. I think they make the program,” said Stosch. He noted that to succeed in these role plays actors have to be “as passionate as Anne and the other actors are—you have to understand what [the NYPD is] trying to do and how we’re working to change our response to the mental health crisis.”

Her experience with the program has had such impact on Stockton that she wrote and performed a play inspired by her experience. Her award-winning show “I Won’t Be in on Monday” portrays a woman struggling with bi-polar disorder during a police encounter. Though her story explores her character’s behavior prior to crisis mode, Stockton used her knowledge of disordered behavior and how police interact with disturbed individuals to craft a dramatic situation that escalates from calm to caged. “’Monday’ grew out of role plays,” Stockton said.

Stockton continues to juggle the various aspects of her portfolio career, including clinical work as a psychiatrist, her acting career, and play writing. Through it all, role play with the NYPD remains a top priority. As she observed: “I’ve learned a lot from it; it’s some of the best work I do.”

Photo by Cheyenne Tex-Leon

DARA O’BRIEN is a playwright and actress based in New York City. Her article “Company Managers: Women at Work” was published in WIT Journal in July 2016. Her plays have been presented or developed at The Cherry Lane Theatre, Urban Stages, the Abingdon Theatre Company, Resonance Ensemble, and HB Studio. She received the Thomas Barbour Playwrights Award for her play “Early Sunday Morning,” which had a staged reading featuring Melissa Errico by The Schoolhouse Theatre, and was featured in the Naked Angels Tuesdays@9 Reading Series. She is also an actress whose work includes the New York premiere of “Gideon’s Knot” by Johnna Adams, directed by Austin Pendleton at 59E59 Theatres, and Lady Capulet in “R&J” for Web Series Shakespeare. When she isn’t acting or writing for the theatre she is blogging about food at AEA, SAG-AFTRA. Dramatists Guild of America.

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