I’m bad at condensing backstories sometimes, but I’m going to try my best here. During my first summer at The Ant-Cruelty Society (summer of 2014), one of the longer-term regular programs that we ran (thanks to a grant from Hive Chicago) was a 10-week summer camp with 8th grade students from the ChicagoQuest charter school, where we enlisted their help to develop a Flash video game based on our Humane Education program Paw and Order: Furry Victims Unit, which is itself based on the actual work of the Society’s Field Services Department.
Throughout the course of this program, Humane Education Manager Elliott Serrano (who was running the camp and overseeing the development of the game) created an activity to help the kids get a more hands-on idea of what it would be like to conduct an investigation into an organized dog fighting ring. Though this sounds pretty bleak, it was actually a lot of fun to participate in, because along with Elliott and the video game’s developer Rob, I got to play one of the witness characters. That means that I was brutally interrogated by the student participants in the program and answered their questions based on the “script” or backstory that I was assigned.
After revamping our popular After School Program this semester to bring the focus back around to animal welfare (it had gotten a bit distracted in recent years, shifting into more of a generic anti-violence program), our Humane Education Specialist Sarah Williams decided to repackage this activity for their section on Animal Advocacy.
Anyway, I mention all this (like I said, I’m long-winded with backstories) because this past Thursday, I was invited to reprise my role as “Witness No. 3” in our improv production of Paw and Order, and any chance to stretch my acting chops is a chance I’ll take.
Each session of the After School Program is 2 hours and 30 minutes long, so they spent the first part of Thursday’s session on our standard Paw and Order presentation – the one that we will give to any school or outside groups that come in or invite us out for our Humane Education programming. This was followed by a puppy break (yeah, we do that) and then the main event of the evening was the big activity.
Sarah is a seasoned RPG participant who is fresh off a recent run as a DM/GM (game manager) for a campaign, so naturally, she took the lead on creating the different characters for the activity. Instead of a dog fighting ring, this story was more of your standard case of animal abuse/neglect. I was Clark, the 27-year-old barista and friend of Adam (played by Elliott) who took me to a party where the owner, Janet (played by Sarah), was neglecting her dog to the point where he was malnourished, sickly looking, and covered in scabs or something gross like that.
The basic gist of the game is that the students break into groups of 3-5 people and then assign different roles to each member. The investigators would then examine the crime scene (see below) for evidence by writing notes and taking pictures (what would we have done in 2005 before every teenager had a cell phone??). They bring all of their evidence back to their groups, and together, they select I think it was up to 5 pieces of evidence to formally submit. Then the facilitators would go over each group’s list of evidence and, if they selected items that had corresponding “clues” (e.g., the footprint was left by a person wearing size 11 shoes), they would give them the list of clues that they earned by submitting the right evidence.
Groups would then reconvene and look at the clues to determine which witnesses they wanted to and could feasibly bring in for questioning based on the information they had at hand. They would also use the clues to determine their line of questioning (at least, the groups that were thinking ahead would). They could also select new witnesses or redirect their questions based on answers they get from their witness interrogations. So then they would select their witnesses and bring us up one at a time and ask us questions to try to flesh out their investigations. The students not selected to do the initial crime scene investigations were the ones in charge of interrogating the suspects.
I feel like I held up well in the hot seat. It was maybe easier for me since my character was basically Nice Guy Unrelated To Any Criminal Activity Who Just Happened To Be In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time And Really Wants To Comply With The Police. The fun part was adding little details to the portrayal to see how the kids reacted, so like when they “brought me in,” I would make sure to shake everyone’s hands and then sit in a very non-aggressive, open position. Always saying “please” and “thank you” and addressing the participants as “sir” or “madam.” Things that only taking the bare minimum requirements of acting classes in college to earn a minor in Theatre Arts can do for you (actually I was terrible at that in college). Of course, I made sure that all of my answers aligned with Sarah’s guidelines.
They were allowed to ask up to 5 questions per witness, but even then, the interrogations lasted quite a while, so the group ran out of time to decide on who they were going to arrest. The big reveal was saved for the following After School Program session on Tuesday, March 1. I didn’t attend, but apparently every group guessed correctly.
Janet did it. In case you’re interested.