Monday, September 12, 2011

I’m not really a patient, I just play one at med school…

Many long years ago, I was in a restaurant in Carmel with my sister Trish. We were hoping to spot Clint Eastwood, but, instead, we sat next to two women. From their conversation, which we couldn’t but help eavesdrop on, we learned that they were actresses.

They were talking about their craft, preparing for roles, Method Acting, the intensity of their work, etc. We kept glancing over to see if they were anybody we knew. Or even recognized as extras on Hill Street Blues or St. Elsewhere or some other show of the era.

Then one of the women started talking about the great role she’d just had.

Needless to say, our eavesdropping ears perked right up. Only to droop down once we learned that she’d just played a stewardess in a Delta Airline training film.

I know enough writers to truly get that writing’s not the world’s easiest way to make a living, especially if you want to do the type of writing that you want to do (Great American Novel), and not the type of writing that, say, someone might want to pay you for (technology white paper). Still, it’s possible to make a decent living, especially if you’re willing to do the work that pays. At least IMHO, which is based on my humble experience.

But for actors it’s another matter.

If you can’t find arty-art acting work, you can do ads where you play the woman with the headache, and behind the scenes voiceovers (if Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen didn’t hog all the work), and I guess you can read books on tape (or whatever they call them these post-tape days). There are some corporate gigs. At a trade show, my company hired an actor to run through our spiel (while perched on a cherry picker over our booth), and I recognized him from an Advil ad.

Still, as with arty-art writing, there are a lot more people who want to do arty-arty acting than there are arty-art acting jobs. And seemingly fewer non-arty-art acting alternatives.

But there seems to be one interesting one, and that’s playing what is called a “standardized patient” so that medical students can study up on how to interact with people, not just textbooks and beakers.

Win May, who oversees the standardized patient program at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine says she has recruited actors who have appeared on TV shows such as "Mad Men" and "The Closer" or starred in commercials.  (Source: Wall Street Journal.)

The thought of working opposite John Slattery or John Hamm playing an ad exec suffering from smoker’s hack or enlarged liver or VD almost makes me want to go to med school. Is it too late to figure out Organic Chemistry?

In New York  City, what with plain vanilla Law and Order shutting down, and taking with it all those wonderful bit parts as the squabbling the finds the dead body on their front steps, or the crime scene cop, there are fewer jobs out there. But quite a few opportunities to get into med school.

Weill Cornell Medical College, the Manhattan school connected to Cornell University and New York Presbyterian Hospital, pays actors $25 an hour typically for an eight-hour day. The medical college invested $13 million in a standardized patients center opened in 2007. Along with a dozen exam rooms stocked with medical equipment, there are hidden cameras that record every interaction between students and actors; two-way mirrors allow faculty to observe.

Quinn Lemley, who does a one-woman Rita Hayworth show, is one such actor-as-patient. When interviewed for the article, she was playing a “newspaper editor with severe chest pains and a drug habit.”

I’m glad they give the patients a bit of a back story, but I guess that Quinn doesn’t get to sing “Put the Blame on Mame.”

Working with pretend patients is a required part of the med school curriculum, by the way, and has been since 2004. There’s even an organization dedicated to this practice: Association of Standardized Patient Educators.

There is a downside to using real actors, as opposed to the amateurs that med schools in the hustings have to use, given that their precincts aren’t crawling with would-bes.

"Sometimes, actors are a little bit dangerous because they want to take the character somewhere and we don't want that," [Karen Reynolds] says.

She runs the program at Southern Illinois, which is in Springfield, where most of the bad actors are working the State House, not the play house.

Dr. Yoon Kang is in NY, where there’s no dearth of actors, makes the same point.

"We want stars but we need to temper their star quality," says Dr. Kang, who worries about divas who could frighten young students. "We don't want the Laurence Oliviers to take too much dramatic license."

“All right Mr. De Mille Dr. Kildare, I'm ready for my close –up."

And, all you actors playing “standardized patients” out there, just remember, you are big. It’s the pictures that got small.

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