Conducted by Peter Dodenhoff
Reprinted from Law Enforcement News, October 7, 1985.

Domestic Violence

It is not role-playing in the usual sense of the word, although it involves extensive use of improvised characterizations. It’s not psychodrama, although it can be powerfully cathartic to participants. It’s structured, but extremely fluid.

It is structured improvisation?, the linchpin to a dynamic, experiential training approach being championed by PACT Training, Inc.®. This upstate New York-based organization, formed in 1980 by Joyce St. George and Frank Canavan, grew out of pioneering work in domestic-dispute resolution done by the New York City Police Academy in the late 1960’s. The Police Academy’s original concept underwent its own gradual metamorphosis over the intervening years, shaped by experience, research, carefully crafted graduate education on the part of St. George and Canavan, and the input of PACT’s multi-disciplinary Board of Directors and corps of volunteer “actor-trainers.”

St. George and Canavan reflect the duality embodied in PACT. They are both purveyors and consumers of irreverent, unbridled humor, but are dead serious when it comes to PACT and its training efforts. Likewise, they are both experienced, street-smart former practitioners, who hold master’s degrees from New York University in the highly specialized field of crisis-intervention training. St. George spent six years as an investigator for the New York State Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor, while Canavan recently left the private security field after 14 years to devote himself to PACT on a full-time basis.

Full-time is perhaps an understatement when speaking of the work that goes into PACT. For starters, PACT is a non-profit organization, meaning that both of its Co-Directors are actively engaged in fund-raising as well as training. PACT subsists on its modest fees for services and on contributions from private individuals, corporations and foundations. (Among those whose donations and grants have supported the work of PACT are the actors Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Al Pacino, New York Shakespeare Festival producer Joseph Papp, the New York City Police Foundation, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, and an array of private companies, ranging from Citibank to People Express Airlines to R.H. Macy, Inc.)

The support and recognition given PACT by its benefactors and training audiences alike can still prove unequal to the enormous task that St. George and Canavan taken on. Long hours are the rule rather than the exception, coast-to-coast travel for training sessions can wreak havoc on personal lives (perhaps in double doses, since St. George and Canavan have been married since 1982), and the grind of constant fund-raising efforts can at times offset the joys of top-quality training ventures. Through it all, the structured improvisations go on at a breath-taking pace, and with a gusto that invigorates and enlightens training audiences from New York City to Oakland, from Minneapolis to New Orleans.

PACT’s structured improvisations cover an array of subject matter that is almost indescribably broad. Certainly domestic violence resolution, which gave PACT its genesis, is still a major component of the training, but the list goes on to include stress management, training the trainer, elderly and juvenile issues, alcohol and drug abuse, death and dying, rape crisis, hijack management and much, much more. The programs have been designed for public criminal justice agencies, private security, human services agencies, banks, corporations and educational institutions, with the same level of expertise brought to bear regardless of subject matter or training audience.

The PACT story could go on at considerably greater length (although for more information one can write or call PACT, PO Box 106, New Kingston, NY 12459; (845) 586-3992, FAX (845) 586-4277), or But it’s perhaps best told in it Co-Directors’ own words, and with that in mind, the only word remaining to be said before proceeding is “curtain.”

Peter Dodenhoff: Your own label for the approach used by PACT is “structured improvisation.” How does this approach differ from others that might be similar in certain respects – things like role-playing, psychodrama, play-acting, etc.?

St. George: The bottom line is that we bring a package with set scenarios that are structured but not limited. They’re flexible. We take on the portrayals of the problem people, so that the people in the classes enter into the situation as themselves in their professional capacity, with their only concern being to practice or refine their skills. In role-playing, what you have very often is a classroom situation where a teacher will divide up the group and some members of the class will have to portray the people who have the problems, the people who need the help. In terms of rape crisis, for example, you would have to have a policewoman play a rape victim, or a police officer portraying the husband of a rape victim, and they would have to assume what that role would be. They would be responsible for expressing and demonstrating all the emotional upheaval that a person in that predicament would be expressing. Very often, a classroom person can’t do that. If they do, it’s not controlled.

But that’s only one part of it. The second part of it is that even if they do that successfully, it doesn’t mean that somebody is going to be able to work off that person and practice skills and intervention. In essence, you’ve got both people in a classroom situation learning the same skills, so how does one teach the other?

P.D.: So the essential difference, then, lies in the experience that you and your actor-trainers bring to the situation, or is it more than that?

Canavan: What’s confusing here is the term “role-playing.” No matter what type of experiential technique is used – whether it be structured improvisation, or simulation, or games, or psychodrama – there’s a certain amount of role-playing in every one of those. It’s a question of who takes on the roles and what roles are being used. In structured improvisation, we take on the roles of the victims and the role of the professional is left up to the classroom trainees, so that all they have to take care of is that which they’re training for. They don’t have to worry about what the other person is thinking, only what they’re thinking.

St. George: And because of our backgrounds, we offer our professional experience through our portrayals and our characterizations. So if I’m portraying a rape victim, and somebody who is practicing their skills says to me, “Well, you were stupid to go out at night and that’s why you were raped,” that’s just an inappropriate thing to say to someone; it’s very judgmental. As a trainer I know that, and what I would do is let that person understand the impact of that kind of statement on a rape victim by reacting as a rape victim would. Then, I would take it one step further and redirect that person toward a more appropriate response.

Canavan: In effect, structured improvisation is a living organism. During the structured improvisations that PACT does, the training goes on through the improvisation. It’s not hit and miss. If we see halfway through that the trainee is not learning what he’s supposed to be learning, or he’s making inappropriate actions or responses, we don’t have to wait until the discussion period to say that they lost it halfway through. Halfway through our process we can correct them in the character that we’re portraying, so that the trainee does have the chance to regroup during the process itself.

P.D.: Given the broad array of subject areas in which you’ve applied the structured improvisation approach, have you found that the success of this approach varies from topic to topic, or from trainee group to trainee group?

Canavan: It depends a lot on the training group, and how we go into it. If we are the primary instructors, as opposed to being one part of a larger training program, then there’s an even balance between the didactic instruction, the structured improvisation and the discussion. When we are supplemental, coming in at the end of a very structured lecture series – for instance, at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where we come in at the end of an eight-week training period – we come in to test the skills of the trainees. So it varies from group to group in that respect.


P.D.: There are those who would use the terms crisis intervention and conflict resolution almost interchangeably, but you appear to avoid this, using the terms to mean two apparently different things. Could you elaborate on this?

Canavan (to the sound of muted laughter): The reason we’re laughing is that we just had this conversation this past week with the people at Citibank. Traditionally, we’ve dealt with crisis as a very emotional situation or process from a very human point of view – victimization, rape trauma, death and dying. From a corporate point of view, management will use the term “crisis management,” say if the goal of the organization is not being met, that’s a crisis. It may not be a personal crisis, but rather it’s more of a bottom-line issue. If the ultimate goal of the organization is being threatened in any way, then it’s a crisis. If you’re confused about this, so are a lot of other people.

St. George: What we term a crisis is a life-threatening situation in which coping mechanisms are not able to meet the challenge.

P.D.: Let’s put it in terms of law enforcement. Crisis would involve victimization types of events. Would conflict then pertain more to the in-house type of occurrences, such as interplay between personnel and that sort of thing?

St. George: It could be a patrol officer trying to get a bum off the street; that could be a conflict situation. Any time one person says yes and another person says no, and they stand their ground, you’ve got a conflict. That’s really an awful lot of what police see. They’ve got to express a certain rule that society tells them to express, whether or not they agree with it, and the other people can say no.

Canavan: Where the stress comes in is that the police officer, by virtue of his trade, has to confront. He can’t resort, as most people do, to flight or fight. He’s got to fight or he has to cool things off by some other method.

P.D.: This approach evolved out of efforts that began in the late 1960’s in the New York City Police Academy. But what of your own input? How much of yourselves and a graduate program that you seem to have tailored to your own needs went into what is now the PACT organization and the structured improvisation concept?

St. George: This is not just our idea. We went through graduate school to build an academic foundation for us to understand better what we’re doing, but a lot of people contributed to the method, and still do. A lot of what’s making PACT as powerful and as well recognized and as excellent as it is isn’t us as much as it’s the people we’re bringing in: the actor-trainers, the Board of Directors, the staff. Sure, NYU’s Gallatin Division allowed us to build a degree program, and through that I was able to take an acting course, which I’d never taken in my life. I was able to take educational theater courses to get a basic foundation in what other people are doing in this kind of field. There were courses in sociology, leadership, psychodynamics, and Frank was able to do similar work, so we were able to broaden our own horizons. Yes, that really does help, and it also has a lot to do with learning how many things we didn’t know and how many things other people know, and we left ourselves open to getting other people to help us.

Canavan: Rather than authors, we consider ourselves editors of an anthology, and we’ve gathered a lot of information that people have put together over the years, and a lot of ideas, and we’ve sort of put a package around it.

St. George: Take something like our domestic violence program for police. Ray Pitt, the chairman of our Board, is a family therapist and sociologist, and he helped us develop that entire program so that we would understand the psychodynamics of a family dispute. Then, as we did the programs, more and more people, mostly police officers we had been working with, gave us further food for thought, sot that it’s now a very rich program.

In addition, what Frank and I were able to do through the Gallatin Division studies was, first of all, to come up with the name “structured improvisation,” because it really didn’t have a name up that point, and then really detail what we have to include. We had to get more technical in terms of how we integrate training points and objectives into a scene. Now when we write up a structure improv sheet, it’s usually based on case histories, but we have to include training points and we negotiate with the client to come up with training points and objectives, very specific goals that they want their people to learn and that we want to include. So each of the scenes now is very technically devised, with every training point clearly targeted by the actor-trainer. This is all stuff that we started playing with back in Gallatin in 1979.

P.D.: Just how much interaction is there between yourselves and a contracting client? Is such interaction necessary in all cases, simply desirable if you can work it out, or do you find in some cases a sort of “one size fits all” package will do the trick?

St. George: All of the above. (laughs)

Canavan: One of our goals this past summer was to develop a generic file that we can reach to and just pull out a program. We’re able to do that to some degree, but one of the selling points of this whole process is that it’s real for the trainees. To make it real, you’ve got to use their jargon, you’ve got to use their environment, use things that they can relate to. It has to be very relevant. Because of that, we need a liaison between PACT and the client we’re working with.

St. George: Very often, the agencies with which we deal aren’t too sure of what they’re after. One of the things that we’re able to do by sitting down with the agency is to nail down exactly what they want and how they want us to achieve this. There are times, as with People Express, where it took three or four month of research to come up with a hijack management program that was in sync with what they wanted. But then you have the North East Multi-Regional Training out in Chicago, who recognized us as bona fide trainers and said, “You come in with the package. We trust whatever your judgment is.” So in that case we really developed the entire thing with no contact. The only thing we did was to reach out to different representatives out there to make sure that our information was correct and that our views on their laws were correct.

Canavan: And because of all this, what we see evolving is that we no longer consider ourselves facilitators; we consider ourselves primary instructors.

P.D.: Is that a format you prefer, having total control – artistic control, if you will – rather than being brought in and given marching orders by a client?

St. George: It’s not really artistic control. We’ve run into situations where we really did know more than the instructor did. Not that we’re such great shakes, but we really did have so much information that it would’ve been so much easier if we’d had the whole package under our control, because we could’ve designed it so that each component part made sense and ran smoothly behind each other one.

There are times, too, where we bring in experts, picking and choosing who we’re going to work with. We have people who are sort of our resident experts in different areas, who will join us and work with us in depth.

Canavan: That’s part of a resource pool that we’re developing. Eventually, one of our goals is to produce our own workshops, and we want to have this pool of resource people that we can turn to.


P.D.: You’ve both been quoted as saying that you don’t use many professional actors in PACT, but rather you lean toward people with backgrounds in the helping professions to serve as your actor-trainers. What’s the key difference, and the key contribution that people from the helping professions make as opposed to the professional actor?

Canavan: We do use some professional actors, because they do bring something that we need a lot, and that’s expertise in acting.

St. George: But we’re even finding with the professional actors who are coming to us that most of them have some background in human services in some way, shape or form.

Canavan: As far as the people in the helping professions, we have found that, especially with the elderly, there are people who have spent years in, say, social work, who come to us and we’ll give them basic acting skills. They are then able to transform those life experiences, coupled with the training that we give them, and bring a richness to the role that heretofore was really unheard of, in terms of trying to train someone. You just can’t replace 20 years of experience. And what happens then is that it doesn’t end as soon as the moderator calls “curtain,” because they then play an integral role in the post-scene discussion. They interact with the training audience and they can again draw upon their own experiences and say this is how it really is.

P.D.: There’s just so much that can be offered to the trainee in the way of experience during a training program. How do you go about preparing a trainee group for the much broader array of possibilities they may run into on the job?

Canavan: To steal a line from Joyce, a lot of times what we want to do is plant a seed, to give people the idea that there are alternative ways of dealing with subjects, alternatives ways of handling problems. We make the disclaimer in the beginning that we are not here to teach you everything about your job; that’s impossible to do in three or four hours. We do try to focus on one particular subject, but we’ve found that a lot of times these subjects are interrelated with other subjects, and the same way of handling one particular problem can be brought over to handle another problem.

St. George: We try to do two things. The first thing is to help the people understand the principles behind the techniques that we’re teaching in terms of crisis intervention or conflict and stress management. There are certain principles which, if they can understand them, they can then adapt them to different situations. The second thing we do is to try and design a program that gives the class an array of experiences that they may face, so that they can see the whole gamut. It depends on the amount of time we have, but in many of our workshops we’ll do different types of situations that they may encounter, and we’ll always start out with a situation that may be the classic, run-of-the-mill, easy-to-handle situation. Then, as the workshop progresses, they become more complex, and we build on each scenario. We can really show them how the gamut of experience runs, and how to adapt these techniques to each situation.


P.D.: You require a substantial training or break-in period for your actor-trainers before you send them out into the field. What are you attempting to achieve with this extensive shakedown period besides simply familiarizing your personnel with the PACT method?

St. George: What we’re trying to do is to agree that we all speak the same language out there. We give our classes a few weeks in stress, in conflict and in crisis work. We put them through the same workshops that we put agencies through. Then we teach them some of the acting techniques that we learn through the improvisational characterizations. We teach them the training techniques that we use, in terms of how to integrate a training point into a scenario. There’s an awful lot of things: how to validate somebody through your character, so that they know they’re doing well; how to alter somebody’s direction if they’re not doing well, without hurting them.

We also use this as a weeding out period, because there are some people who are just not, well, they’re not inappropriate, but their sense of what we’re doing is not in sync with ours, or some other reason. We weed them out because this is a very powerful took, and you could hurt somebody, really damage somebody through this technique. So we have to make sure that the people we use in PACT are people who are sensitive to that sort of thing, and people who could learn how to redirect.

Canavan: It goes back to what we were talking about before: professionalism. We’re at a point now where a lot of clients will turn to us to give them the training they need, and say, “You’re the professionals, you know what you’re doing.” With that comes the responsibility to maintain our integrity, and that’s one of the reasons we went into the eight-week program, so that when these people come out and we take them into workshops, we are confident that they’re going to do exactly what they’re supposed to do.

P.D.: Have you ever run across a situation in which trainers or trainees have been simply overwhelmed by the powerful emotional dynamics of a scenario, perhaps to the point of hysteria, shaking, or loss of control in some fashion?

St. George: Any time you’re dealing with heightened emotions, it can bring out a lot in people that they never bargained for. We focus on training, which is one of the primary differences between us and psychodrama or sociodrama; they’re more into the therapeutic or cathartic thing. One time we were doing a death and dying scene for People Express airlines. We had two people doing a scene in which they played a brother and sister who had just been give the word that their mother had died, and the training objective was to help the airline’s customer service representatives deal with people who were distraught, which is something they see very often. The brother was the kind of guy who distanced himself from the grief, while the sister was sort of underdistancing herself, so she was all over the place with tears.

One of the two volunteer trainees, in the middle of the scene, said, “I can’t do it anymore; she’s saying everything that I said when my mother died,” which was a year earlier. She was really starting to fall apart, so it became a question of what do you do then. What we did is we took care of her, and I asked her what she wanted to do. She said, “I want to go into the bathroom and wash my face, and come back and tell her everything that nobody would say to me when I was going through this.” She did that, and we had a short discussion with the rest of the class while she was in the bathroom. The brother and sister stayed in character during this, and then the trainee came back very quietly and just started talking to the sister and telling her everything that she ever wanted to say to somebody. Tears were coming down on everybody in the audience, and it was one of those very touchy, and touching, scenes that you see every now and then. Afterwards we had a great discussion and told her how great she was to be that vulnerable and open. We also spoke to the training coordinator and made sure that this person would be checked on for a few days, which they did.

Canavan: That’s the bottom line there. One of the reasons that both Joyce and I got into victim counseling ourselves was that need to be sensitive to feelings. We’re dealing with very hyper situations here, and there’s a responsibility that we have to take on for the trainees. We’ll always ask how they’re doing, if they’re okay. That’s sort of universal.

P.D.: Even in the absence of obvious signs of distress?

St. George: Yes, because somebody will come across cool and calm, and as soon as you call “curtain,” you’ll see the color just drain from them.

Canavan: At the end of the workshop, we might go over to somebody and say, “That seems to have hit you really hard; are you okay?” Then we can at least refer them to some service that’s available for them. Because again, we open up Pandora’s box here.

P.D.: Do you ever find yourselves, in the course of day-to-day events, reading through the daily paper and spotting a relevant news item, then saying to yourselves, “Boy, was that incident handled badly”?

St. George: We’re very evaluative.

Canavan: As a matter of fact, Steve (DeValk, PACT program coordinator) brought in the New York Times article on the way the TWA hijacking was handled…

St. George: We got into a blow-by-blow account of how the one stewardess handled things. Talking about all the really great things she had done and all the other things that we would question. All in all, she did a great job.

But we tend to evaluate a lot. It helps us to refine what we’re doing. There are certain things we’ll look at and say maybe we really need to look at how we’re addressing this particular issue. Maybe there’s a technique we’ve never tried but should start looking at.

Canavan: It goes back to the whole idea of the living process. We’re constantly learning, constantly testing ourselves, reading and learning more. If we want to grow, then we have that responsibility.

P.D.: In 1982, PACT was said to be the only professional training organization of its kind. Is this still the case three years later?

St. George: I think so. There’s no group that I’ve ever heard of where you have a volunteer component of experts who are from every type of human service field and who volunteer their time to be part of this kind of program. Segments of what we do are being duplicated all over the country, but the formula hasn’t been replicated to my knowledge.

P.D.: Given the apparent success of your approach, why do you think you’ve not spawned a host of imitators?

Canavan: It takes a lot of work. And also a lot of times people will ask why they should pay a lot of money to have something done, when they can do the same kind of work. The answer is that we devote all our time to it, and we take the time to do the research and to build the characters and develop the roles. It’s a no-nonsense thing with us, whereas people who use role-play and try to imitate us will say, “Well, I can do this in ten minutes before the class starts.” The result is ten minutes worth of “bah.” That’s what they’re getting.

St. George: It’s sad to say, but human relations really takes a back seat to a lot of other things. There’s so much money being poured into computer training now. There’s not that much being poured into complex human interactions; it’s always taken a back seat to other things. The mechanisms for it are very complex and very time-consuming, and agencies don’t have that kind of time. And other organizations, I don’t know why, just haven’t been building in that direction.


P.D.: The city of Minneapolis, where PACT teams have worked in the past, was recently the test site for a major program to examine ways of handling domestic violence. To what extent do you search for, acquire and absorb the volumes of criminal justice research, in that area or any other, in order to stay abreast of things?

St. George: We do a lot of research, whether on domestic violence or any issue. We stay on top of things, first of all, through our own library, which is constantly updated, we’re on innumerable mailing lists, including the NCJRS and others. We also have people on our Board who keep us informed as to what’s going on, and we used the independent research of college interns on a variety of subjects.

P.D.: How routinely are the results of major research incorporated into your training packages? Is it a regular thing, or are you evaluative in that respect as well?

St. George: It’s a little of both. We routinely try to update all our research, but if we find a trend in training to be going a certain way, then we will inundate ourselves with what’s going on in that particular area.

P.D.: One of the findings of the domestic-violence study cut across the grain of conventional wisdom in suggesting that arrest in some situations may not be such a bad idea after all, as opposed to separating the parties or offering counseling. Did that specific finding force you to rethink your own approaches to the subject?

St. George: Oh, indeed. This whole concept of PACT was built upon the family violence intervention program of the New York City Police Department in the 60’s, which said counsel and mediate. And we had to come back and say, “Wait a second, if you keep counseling and mediating all you’re doing is enabling the pattern of violence to keep going.” We had to go through an entire change in our own thinking as far as what domestic violence is about in order to do our program. The amount of resistance that we met was incredible, but I think that because we were able to make our own turnaround, and presenting this to a lot of police officers, a lot of them started grabbing on to the different ideas. It was a big challenge for us.

P.D.: After five years in this business – still the seedling stage, you might say – have you been able to put the future into focus? What long-term goals are on the drawing board for PACT?

St. George: The goals that we have are twofold. One is to create an institute of training that would incorporate this kind of technique with other experts, and really build on this technique to give people the kind of experience they want.

Canavan: One of the things we get a lot of inquiries on from police agencies is how they can go about training their trainers. Right now, we haven’t got the kind of facilities where they can send their people in to us for one-on-one or one-on-five training. So we’re looking to create an institution so that that kind of training can take place. We also want to start producing our own workshops, so that we become the creators.

P.D.: You work together on this enterprise, and are married as well. How do you juxtapose the two elements so that neither element suffers at the hands of the other?

Canavan: We use a benchmark. When we start calling each other “respondent,” it’s time to wind down! (laughs)

St. George: It takes a lot of work and a thick skin. And thank God we’re in the field we’re in. I don’t think we’d ever be able to do it if we weren’t. We’ve gotten so much in the way of insight and knowledge about what’s going on with human dynamics that when we see ourselves doing it, we’re able to pull some plugs. We respect each other’s space a lot. The organization plays a part, too, so to deal with one is to deal with both, and what we’re doing is to get organizational development experts to come in and help us out. Our Board helps us out, too. Mainly, it just takes a lot of patience.

On top of that, Frank has expertise in areas that I don’t, and I have expertise in areas that he doesn’t. So it’s a matter of working with our differences that’s going to make it work.

© Law Enforcement News, 1985