By JOSEPH PRATT
Sirens and screams fill the air as fire trucks, ambulances, helicopters and Ohio State Highway Patrol cars arrive to a crash site. The scene is a performance, however, by the local children’s theatre to re-enact what would happen in a real car crash. The troupe is visiting several local schools this spring in advance of prom night, and they have been keeping the attention of students wherever they go.
“When we were approached by the State Highway Patrol to help develop this new type of Prom Promise program, we knew immediately it was something we wanted to do,” Portsmouth Area Arts Council Director Becky Lovins said. “We care very deeply about the youth of this community and see this as a way to help teach them about the reality and consequences of bad choices they can make.”
Lovins said she also has a very personal reason for being involved.
“I lost one of my best friends to a drunk driver when I was a senior in high school and it is something you never fully recover from,” she said. “The pain and heartbreak of losing someone so senselessly is something I never want our students to have to go through. If their talents as actors can touch even a few audience members and stop them from getting behind the wheel after drinking it is worth it.”
Sgt. John Howard has been with the State Highway Patrol for 18 years and has seen many crashes in his line of work. Howard is adamant local students know that accidents happen and the State Patrol is increasing its presence during prom season.
“Our reality is defined by our experiences in life, and in my experiences I’ve seen a lot of dead people; a lot of young, dead people,” Howard said. “The problem is that a lot of people involved in wrecks believe that it can never happen to them. So, we do a lot of things to be proactive during prom season and graduation to spread awareness and let students know that we are out there.”
Howard had the idea to let the local children’s theatre take part in the mock crashes this year, thinking it would best benefit the realism of the event.
“Mock crashes have been done forever, but we wanted to bump it up a little more. I got to thinking about the kids down at the local theatre and thought that it would be really great to have our local talent bring the mock crash to life.”
Drew Cunningham, an actor in the mock crash, has been involved in theatre for seven years and has been in a dozen local performances.
“Our mock crash was a lot better than the ones that I’ve seen at my school, because we were really interactive with each other and involved,” Cunningham said. “We did rehearse the party scene the night before, but everything we did on the crash scene was all made up on the spot.”
Cunningham was on the crash scene the longest, since his character showed the example of being stuck in a car and required to be removed carefully with a hydraulic rescue tool, more commonly called the Jaws of Life.
“It was really scary. When they started to open the car with the Jaws of Life they covered my face to protect it from glass and metal, which made it impossible to see what was going on. It was a sensory overload; being strapped to a plank, my head forced down, and being sticky with fake blood while I cannot see anything and can only hear the Jaws of Life.”
After being removed from the car, a helicopter landed at the school and the students got to watch Cunningham being strapped to a gurney and rushed into the helicopter.
“God forbid if I ever have to be life flighted, but I know what to do to make it easier for them now, because time is of the essence with accidents and this taught me that. The quicker they can get me prepared for the helicopter, on it, and in the air, the better my chances are of survival.”
Alison Thompson has been performing in theatre since she was 3 years old, where she started acting in church shows, and since then has been in around 30 local productions from Portsmouth Little Theatre to Paramount Arts Center. She played the role of the drunk driver during the mock crash.
“I don’t drink at all, but I’ve had people in my family that has been affected by alcohol, so I could really relate in a way,” Thompson said. “It was really scary at first, because we really winged it and used a lot of improv, but we used what we knew and rolled with it.”
Thompson was pulled from the wrecked car and openly told the officer that she had only had just a couple of beers. The officer tried to get her to walk in a straight line, but she failed and was handcuffed and removed from the scene.
“Handcuffs hurt really badly! The entire scene was overwhelming,” Thompson said. “I could only imagine how terrifying it would be to actually kill someone that way. I couldn’t imagine living with something like that your whole life.”