NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Improv acting and policing. It’s an unlikely pair.

But a Brooklyn theater is having success bringing the community and police closer together, through lessons on acting and listening, CBS2’s Christina Fan reported Wednesday.

The raw emotions radiating off the Irondale Ensemble stage aren’t those of classically trained actors. But rather seven officers and seven civilians learning improv.

Terry Greiss founded the workshop after watching the fatal interaction between Eric Garner and police.

“These people are missing cues. They aren’t talking to each other. They aren’t hearing each other,” said Greiss, the founder of “To Protect, Serve and Understand.”

In a fit of anger back in 2014, Greiss wrote to the NYPD commissioner, arguing officers needed theater techniques to de-escalate differences, anger, and frustration. The commissioner asked him to start a pilot program called To Protect, Serve and Understand.

Five years later, Officer Demetrious Starling is one of its proud alumni.

“That program helped me to move forward with…you know what? I can’t change everybody,” said Starling. “But I can change my perspective of certain things, like maybe I used to come in too hot.”


The 10-week workshop brings officers and community members together to eat, talk, and play. The officers must interview a civilian, take that stranger’s story, and then turn it into a monologue. Civilians vice versa, to experience what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.

“A person will ask, hey, why am I stopped? And they go, ‘Oh, we’ll be with you in a minute.’ I’m like, why don’t you just tell the person, ‘Listen, this is why I stopped you,'” said Starling. “Because now it automatically takes that one barrier of like, ‘Whoa, I don’t know what’s going on’ to this and I stopped you because your taillight is out.”

Even though COVID-19 shut down theaters, Greiss still plans to host a two-part virtual discussion with past alumni in the next few weeks. He said conversations of racial inequality, empathy, and policing must continue.

“It’s honing our ability to think in the moment, to react, in the moment, and to make judgments based on real evidence,” said Greiss.

As opposed to dangerous preconceptions.

So far, more than 100 police officers and civilians have participated in To Protect, Serve, and Understand. More than 2,500 community members have seen their performances.

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