x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Art imitates life for jobbing actors

Perfomers helps young professionals in role-play rehearsals to help them gain experience in their training.

NEW YORK // Acting is commonly considered an extremely insecure profession, prone to the sways of fortune even in good economic times. But a group of actors in New York has a stream of work that is not only steady but recession-proof. Student doctors, trainee journalists and Jewish seminarians all use the services of an agency called Professional Actors Training and Helping (Path), where actors play a range of characters to help train would-be professionals for real-life scenarios.

"The recession has had no effect on business," said Ray Iannicelli, an actor who has appeared in films such as Prizzi's Honor and The Bonfire of the Vanities and who started Path about 20 years ago. "Anytime an actor acts, it helps and this work certainly helps with improvisation skills. A lot of the work draws from life experience, but clients also guide us, especially if it's a new scenario." The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at New York's Yeshiva University uses Path actors to train their students to cope with emotionally disturbing situations they could face as trained rabbis. These range from informing a person of the death of a loved one to dealing with a suicidal teenager or a victim of abuse.

"The students might be book-savvy but come from cloistered backgrounds and are not necessarily socialised," Iannicelli said. "One day they will have to be almost like psychiatrists in their community and deal with the real world, which has divorce, infidelity and homosexuality." He also worked with the Gannett chain of newspapers and helped to create the scene of an accident in which trainee reporters had to interview survivors.

But the bulk of Path's work is with medical students, who need to develop communication skills to elicit information from and to give advice to often traumatised patients. "The use of actors has become a big trend in American medical education since about 10 to 15 years ago," said Charles Schwartz, a medical professor at the Montefiore Medical Centre in the Bronx. "In the early years, we did have a psychologist who played patients, but it's expanded since then."

He recalled with a shudder his time as a student when doctors and medical students would stand around a bed and talk about the patient in the third person. "Why they did this at the bedside, I have no idea. I hope all doctors these days include the patient and not talk above the level of the patient." At a recent training session at Montefiore, medical interns had to deal with scenarios including a patient with Aids suffering from acute renal failure, who was refusing dialysis treatment because of his Rastafarian religious beliefs.

"God takes care of me," said LB Williams, a Path actor (Law & Order) who was playing the patient, named Andrew Badu. "Even so, we have hospitals but that's not to say that God isn't good," said Khamranie Bhagroo, a medical intern interviewing Mr Badu. "Well I will pray harder and ask God to do for me what the machine does," Mr Badu said. "I do not want to be hooked up to a machine." At the end of the session, Mr Badu still refused to undergo dialysis but he did agree to return soon to a clinic.

Sharon Parish, the supervising doctor, commended Ms Bhagroo for staying calm and not revealing any frustration with the patient. "We saw medical fact versus belief and opinion," she said. "Patients may resist you, but the information may percolate and he did say he would come back to see you - although there's not a lot of time" given the patient's acute renal failure. Philip Levy, a Path actor who has appeared on Law & Order and Sex and the City, said he had become more health conscious since working with doctors.

"I spend about one-third of my time doing medical work and the rest trying to become an actor," he said. "The medical work is wonderful and keeps you in shape psychologically and physically." Iannicelli has about 200 actors on his books, ranging from teenagers to people in their eighties, some of whom have specialised skills. He recently had to provide some actors to play psychotic patients for a medical seminar. "They had to hear voices in their heads and talk to things around them because such people can't have a linear conversation," he said.

Much of Path's medical work is seasonal, mostly occurring between September and March during the academic year. But it certainly beat Iannicelli's old job of selling pots and pans at flea markets just to make a living. "That really was back-breaking work!" sdevi@thenational.ae