Theatre students held hostage

The telephone rings. My palms become sweaty and heart starts racing as my right hand moves closer to the phone. It rings again. As I glance around the room, I come into contact with a pair of eyes anxiously waiting for the moment when anything can happen. It rings again. As my hand grabs the phone, I move my right foot behind one of the legs of chair near me. Right before the phone gets lifted, I nod to signify the start. As the last ring is heard, I breathe in and lift the receiver to my ear just as my right foot and left hand start to repeatedly smash a chair against the wall. As the chair is being thrown and yelling starts around me, I hold the receiver close enough to my ear to hear the words, “Hello this is Mike. I’m a negotiator with the Vermont State Police and I’m here to help”.

The session begins.

At 7 a.m. on Sept. 25, six Castleton students made their way to Pittsford, Vt. to the Vermont State Police Academy.

Harry McEnerny, chair of the theatre department, received a call a couple weeks earlier that caught his ear. It was from Lt. Reg Trayah of the Vermont State Police. Trayah asked about having a group of theatre students help the department to train the hostage unit. The theatre students would get a chance to hone their acting skills, he said.

The students could be asked to be hostages in a room or the individual holding hostage. When McEnerny presented the idea to his Acting III class, there were a few maybes, but no definites. Due to the hesitant response by students, Harry said, “I stopped asking and started telling.”

Six students, Morgan Bernhard, Courtney LaFlamme, Ryan Bailey, Jonathan White, Andrew Donovan and I, were chosen.

“There were six students that went and I got resistance from every single one of them,” McEnerny said.

But why? For LaFlamme, the nervousness was because “it was all improv and working with police and the fact that it actually mattered.”

Though the nervousness never passed, excitement among the group started growing.

Although Criminal Justice students may know more about the content at hand and the strategies used in these situations, Trayah said he wanted acting students because he “needed people who could change and work independently” and he knew “Castleton had a strong drama curriculum and most of the academy students would be coming from the northern part of Vermont.

“I wanted a group of actors who were not already connected to law enforcement in that area,” he said.

During orientation, Trayah explained the roles the six of us would be playing throughout the day as we communicated with the hostage unit whether it was through a door or via telephone. He said if any of us ever received a ticket from a cop, today was payback. He encouraged us to swear as much as we would like and truly give them a taste of the real world. As Trayah looked around the room, his head quickly turned back to where Courtney and I were standing and immediately said that the two of us would be the two people out of the group who would be paired together because we would be dealing with a civil union case involving a 3-year-old.

Other roles included a young man dealing with schizophrenia, an armed middle-aged man who recently lost a job and whose girlfriend and son just left, and a man firing shots because he was paranoid about aliens coming after him. Andrew Donovan got the alien shooter role. Trayah said the roles weren’t fiction, but had actually happened. Each actor was paired with a trooper to work with throughout the day and made their way to the hostage scenario locations.

For Courtney and I, this meant going to what looked like an oversized shed into one of its cold, secluded rooms where a phone would be set up for the hostage negotiation. We were told that our names were Samantha and Susan and we had a 3-year-old named Ben. Susan was taking Ben from Samantha and leaving to go live with family out of state when all of a sudden Samantha pulls a gun out and holds the two in a room.

While trying to figure out what Courtney and I should do when talking to the police, the phone rang. We both stopped and stared at the phone. I quickly looked at Courtney and picked up the phone to hear the words of a calm hostage negotiator outside. Five different times that day the phone rang and either Courtney or I was on the phone with someone. We interacted with each other by yelling and hitting our hands on the walls to make it sound as if fighting was going on while on the phone. One of the good things about using a phone is that we had the option to hang up whenever we were angry and wanted to temporarily stop the conversation. As we tried to explain our situation, we were picking up the various strategies used by the hostage teams, like long pauses to give time to the individual inside to think over and register the information.

The Castleton actors went through three sessions of the same situation – each time with a new hostage team – before breaking for lunch. All of us thought we were being really mean and rude, just like the troopers wanted. That is until Trayah came over to our lunch table and told us otherwise.

He said students don’t get many chances to yell and swear at cops – so we should truly take advantage of this rare opportunity. He told us to make the final two sessions hell for negotiators. From that point on, the fist banging turned into furniture throwing.

As the day finished up, it was clear the improvisation was becoming a little clearer and we were all becoming more comfortable with the whole situation. By the end of the day, everyone was physically and emotionally drained as we met back up in the common room at the station. As each person returned, more stories were shared about the day’s events.

During that time, we found out that our “alien victim” Andy Donovan, had some very interesting stories. Donovan is a history and secondary education major who put his knowledge to good use. During the negotiations, he said he decided to talk about how the government and aliens were working closely together. He stated that the government was hiding these aliens and then releasing them to go and find out specific information. While talking to the hostage team outside, both the team and state trooper started getting nervous when talk of the government arose. Thinking that only theatre majors were improvising these hostage scenes, the negotiation team had no idea that a history major was inside and could easily make something up about the government.

Before leaving, Trayah thanked the actors for their hard work, which he said was very helpful for the hostage teams. As the group headed back to Castleton, members talked about how each left that experience with something different. Some talked about being able to face their fears of improvisational acting while others talked about learning details of hostage negotiating. But all seemed to be wondering when we could return.

McEnerny asked if I’d consider doing it again.

“Absolutely!” I replied.

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