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Films help social services and budding actors

Siobhan Bremer and Anthony Albright are actors in training films being produced for use by the Stevens County Social Services. Director Craig Gagnon works the camera. Photo by Nancy Woodke, Sun Tribune.

By Judy Korn

UMM News Service

Charged with delivering cutting-edge, career-specific information to mental health crisis practitioners, Craig Gagnon and Liberty Sleiter found a way to do so using ingenuity, creativity and local talent.

Gagnon is crisis response manager with Region IV South Mental Health Initiative, and Sleiter is program supervisor for Stevens County Social Services.

They enlisted University of Minnesota, Morris theatre students and faculty to portray mental health workers and people struggling with mental health crises in training films.

The films are a collaboration between Region IV's Adult Mental Health Initiative, funded through the Department of Human Services, and Stevens County Social Services, which received a DHS grant for children's mental health.

The training films present new crises intervention skills and techniques. Both programs, for adults and children, support mental health professionals and practitioners in developing community-based mental healthcare delivery systems to meet specific needs of area communities.

"Very little new crises training has been developed since the 70s and 80s, and no training materials were designed for rural Minnesota," Gagnon said. "The new videos provide a consistent example of new techniques to every viewer. They have been very successful."

Gagnon and Sleiter, program manager for the children's crises team, wrote the scripts that the actors received during the recording sessions. In one vignette, Morris campus senior Rodney Fair played the role of crisis worker while Michael Spaulding played a young person under duress.

"The most challenging part," Fair said, "was to memorize lines right on set. If I messed up, I had to cover while on camera. Hopefully, this experience will help me get acting jobs after graduation. Emotionally, the experience brought on a lot of pressure. Even though I was acting, my character, the counselor, was solely responsible for helping the person in his time of crisis."

Ten vignettes resulted in two training videos.

"We had high expectations and the students did an excellent job with minimal coaching on my part," Gagnon said. "They were extremely professional and adaptable. As faculty consultant, Siobhan Bremer, Morris assistant professor of theatre, did a great job of directing. She was essential to the production."

Bremer, too, was pleased.

"The students memorized quickly and did a fabulous job acting," she said. "I was proud."

Actors who participated in the project were: Fair; Spaulding; Anthony Albright; Lizza Sunde; Hayley Saccoman; Nick James Parker; Tim Schmidt; and Bremer.

The Region IV South Mental Health Initiative is one of 15 statewide projects involved in redesigning and implementing improved systems for delivering mental health services. It serves Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens and Traverse counties.

While the films were created primarily for these counties, they are available to other programs. Most recently, a North Dakota community creating a crises program from scratch requested copies of the films.