November 2, 2021

LCT Staff Members Head to Jackson Correctional Institution

By Seth Kieser

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 - The La Crosse Community Theatre, a multi-generational cultural institution of La Crosse, had the opportunity to expand its cultural impact beyond the stages at the Weber Center for the Performing Arts. For the first time, LCT staff members acted as role-playing participants in a program sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Dr. Jeffrey Garbelman, the Crisis Intervention Coordinator for the WI DOC, contacted LCT's Director of Education and Outreach, Alex Attardo, to partner for this training opportunity. Dr. Garbelman expressed a need for actors to participate in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT/CIP) at Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, for onboarding staff members.  

“Crisis Intervention Training or CIT/CIP is a program done with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections,” says Garbelman. “The goal is to train police and correctional officers in methods to improve our response to those in the criminal justice system struggling with mental illness. Officers are trained in de-escalation techniques, educated regarding mental illness, and also, self-care. The training culminates in role playing in which participants engage with actors playing the role of inmates in a mental health crisis.” 

Attardo and Mary Cate Wesling, LCT's Patron Services Manager, were two of four role-playing participants in the training. Each of the four participants engaged in a one-on-one training session with Dr. Garbleman before arriving at Jackson Correctional Institution. Wesling stated, "Dr. Jeff made certain we knew the exact setup for our individual scenarios, but he also encouraged us to do what felt comfortable in the moment! He trusted our acting expertise and our ability to apply real-life emotions to the training we were conducting."

Each participant was taken to a different area of the prison to conduct their scenario. An on-site facilitator was placed at each location to guide the scenario for both the role-playing participants and those staff members actively participating in the training. Other participants observed the scenario as it played out, and they were engaged through effective questioning from the facilitator as the scenes played out.

Attardo describes the process of integrating into the training scenario as follows: "Before arriving at Jackson Correctional Institution, each actor chose a scenario. The scenarios centered around individuals struggling with various forms of mental illness; I was acting in a scenario that took place in the cafeteria, and the individual I was portraying was living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which affected all his interactions. Dr. Garbelman had worked with this prison community member struggling with OCD, so this scenario was crafted based on his experience. Each actor was paired with a facilitator who guided the participants through the scenario with the actor. We were all placed in different areas around the facility, which separated other groups and created different environments for the participants and actors. I was paired with Dr. Garbelman, and he warned me that he would often stop to have the participants analyze the actor's behavior, which allowed the future staff of Jackson Correctional Institution to collaborate on how to de-escalate this particular situation. At the end of the scenario, Dr. Garbelman would debrief, and then, we would do the scenario again for the remaining three groups.” 

In the end, the facilitators and the role-playing participants strive to provide the trainees with the authenticity that will give them insight into potential incidents they may encounter while interacting with the prison population. "As an actor, an experience like this is second to none. You get to explore your craft in a judgment-free environment while helping others perform at higher levels in their place of work. The corrections officers and staff members were so grateful to us; they were sure to thank us as they left each training and let us know how much they enjoyed our acting contributions to the training scenario," said Wesling.

“I reached out to La Crosse Community Theatre because it is clear from their webpage that they are deeply invested in their community in addition to providing theater productions,” said Garbelman of LCT’s participation in the training session. “The group was simply remarkable. The mix of acting talent and desire to make a difference in the community was remarkable. Through their participation we trained and graduated dozens of officers. The reviews were clear and consistent, the officers felt the most important part of the training was the role plays with many remarks on the realism these actors brought to the scenes. I cannot thank them enough.”

After this experience, the staff at LCT are already exploring other possibilities for similar training opportunities for both the staff and community volunteers. "One of my goals as the Director of Education & Outreach," says Attardo, "is to build strong relationships with the community and bring the power of theatre and education out into the Coulee Region. This opportunity with Jackson Correctional Institution explored the power of community education and outreach. Having actors assist in training programs only strengthens the educational experience for the training staff. At LCT, our community comes together at the Weber Center to enjoy the stories we present onstage; however, we can grow together through high-quality, impactful educational training when we bring the same talents out into the community. My goal is to develop long-standing partnerships with many different lines of business that could benefit from partnering with local actors to strengthen their workplace community. Overall, the effects of this type of training benefit the larger community, so I'd love to keep exploring and developing opportunities to collaborate."