Disaster drills and mock court cases are casting -- no union card required.
By Jennifer Kim, Special to The Times
May 11, 2006
IN one month, John O'Donohoe was sued, was poisoned by anthrax, suffered a back injury and took his last breaths. And one look inside his pocket calendar shows that these sorts of setbacks aren't unusual for the Burbank resident.
That's because O'Donohoe is role-playing — as a patient for medical students, a witness in mock trials and a victim in a disaster drill. In a town that's full of actors, the 74-year-old retired elevator constructor originally from New York City has found an easy way to become one himself. "Method acting? I don't know. I just play it by ear," he says.
And he's on to something. Why should the pros have all the fun? There are meaningful amateur roles all about town for the George Clooney and Halle Berry in us all, no acting lessons or agency fees required. Some of the gigs pay; others offer goodies such as snacks, T-shirts and gratitude. You just have to know where to look.
The first place to start: law school.
For more than 25 years, the UCLA School of Law Volunteer Witness Program has cast regular folks to play jurors, witnesses and clients in mock trials. Administrator Summer Rose estimates that the program gets about 100 new volunteers a year.
There are no difficult lines to memorize — performances are all ad-libbed. Witnesses are given background materials to study and also meet with their attorneys before their performance. The cases are tried in realistic-looking courtrooms and are presided over by a robed judge, usually a professor or an alumnus. Students come dressed in their best suits, and everything proceeds as if it is real. (A recent mock docket included a love-triangle murder trial and an age-discrimination lawsuit.)
But bloopers do happen, says volunteer witness Deborah Grossman, 49, who plays the surly Susan Palmer, a bookstore employee who is suing her equally surly boss Bradford Dunbar, played by O'Donohoe, for age discrimination.
She recalls a moment when a plaintiff got a little too graphic describing how her husband died of a massive coronary while in bed. "There was an initial hush out of shock and then a roar of laughter."
Mishaps are "to be expected," she says. "This is an opportunity for students to practice in a supportive environment. No one is going to get sued or go to jail if there is a mistake, unlike in the real world."
Inspired by her involvement with the law school, Grossman, who is also a former administrator of the witness program, is training to become a mediator with the L.A. City Attorney's Dispute Resolution Program.
Erin Templeton, a 33-year-old graduate student in English at UCLA and a fan of television crime dramas, has played Angelica La Beige, a former sex worker and crack addict who is HIV-positive. In this role, Templeton says, she gets "really emotional, both hostile and mean as well as nauseated and on the verge of tears."
Templeton even sets her phone to go off in the middle of a meeting with her lawyers so that she can take her medications, as her character would.
"You should see the law students' faces when I pull out a Baggie full of horse-sized vitamins and actually proceed to swallow them all," she says.
"More difficult behavior is best," says Alejandro Becerra, 28, a recent graduate of the law school. "Susan Palmer was difficult, I had to ask her 10 questions to get her to say yes. She was being stubborn. It gives me the ability to hone in on those skills that really matter."
IF you're seeking thrills, full-scale disaster drills run regularly by state and local agencies need volunteers to play clients and victims too.
In early February, 1,700 volunteers were recruited by the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles for an exercise dubbed Operation Chimera, which simulated L.A. County's response to an anthrax attack in Long Beach and Glendale. (The same drill was conducted in November at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in Exposition Park with 500 people.)
More of a spectacle was Operation Safe Passage, a multi-agency response to a simulated car bomb scenario in March at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. This exercise used pyrotechnics to create real fires in five vehicles and in an aircraft hull, said Dan Sobieski of the O'Brien's Group, the company that managed the drill. There were also multiple simulated fatalities and injuries.
To achieve the appearance of bodily harm, Mathew Ankley, a former emergency medical technician, applied moulage, special effects makeup that closely approximates the appearance of an injury, to simulate gashes, broken bones, second-degree burns and more. He also offered acting tips.
"If somebody had a broken ankle, we could take some of the darker colors of cream and gently shade the area to make it look like there was heavy bruising in the area," he said. "And take some reds to make it look like there is swelling and redness.
"Then a lot of it is up to the individual and how they play it. Sometimes you coach them to favor that particular area, or when the responder comes by and starts touching it, you tell them to yelp really loud and say, 'It hurts!' "
Though all involved took the drill seriously, Ankley says he did notice a few volunteers trading their symptom cards to get different ailments, as was done in a memorable "Seinfeld" episode.
Perhaps the most intense role-playing is by the "standardized patients," or SPs, who are hired by medical schools to teach students skills such as delivering bad news, calming an angry patient or diagnosing a psychiatric case.
The Standardized Patient Program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC runs like a miniature Hollywood production. Candidates send head shots and résumés to program director Dr. Win May and clinical skills instructor Denise Souder. Both say an acting background is not required, but about 70% of their 250 SPs are professionally trained. Some have appeared on shows such as "Cold Case" and "Sex and the City."
The SPs receive seven to eight pages of facts to digest, and it is critical for them to standardize their responses. " 'Standardized' means [the actors] have the same facts and the same responses to different variations of what students might ask," Souder explains. "And so we teach SPs how to be the same with each student."
For example, May says, "A student may ask, 'What brought you to the clinic today?' or 'How are you feeling today?' or 'How can I help you?' and the SP will respond with, 'I have been having a terrible headache.' "
Each case includes about four rehearsals, in which the patients are taught things such as how to cough, walk unsteadily, flinch and display degrees of pain on a scale of one to 10.
Other techniques include adding yogurt to coughs to make them more productive, spraying beer on clothes and in the room to simulate drunk patients, and rubbing onions on the body to create odors. "I've actually done simulations where I've coughed up blood," says Eve Muller, a veteran SP. The illusion is created with stage blood and a Kleenex.
AT one rehearsal, four older male SPs, including John O'Donohoe, took turns portraying a dying Jewish patient. The scene strove for authenticity — each man wearing a yarmulke and holding a prayer book — and there was a discussion of Jewish names and comfort prayers.
After each man took a turn on the gurney, Souder asked, "Are you comfortable with your performance?" All responded positively. "Nice job, you nailed it," one SP told another who got his labored breathing and timing down as he expressed his last wishes.
A common sentiment among the people who role-play in L.A. is how fun and rewarding it is to help the students learn and the city to function. An unexpected side effect is the legal, medical and disaster knowledge they gain while playing.
Muller says, "When my father was ill in the hospital, I was a fireball at that hospital because I knew when they weren't taking care of him."
That's probably worth more than a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
A small sampling of programs that seek role players.
Keck School of Medicine of USC
It hires standardized patients (SPs) for programs including internal medicine, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology clerkships, and clinical performance examinations. SPs are used throughout the year, but are most needed between April and June; minorities are encouraged to apply.
Contact: (323) 442-3483, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.usc.edu/schools/medicine/departments/medical_education/resources/stdpat.html
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
The program needs people of all ages and races, particularly 40-plus and minorities. SPs are used year-round.
Contact: Send head shot and résumé to Standardized Patient Program, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, ED&R 60-051 CHS, Box 951722, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1722.
(No phone calls.)
Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona
It uses SPs in osteopathic medicine, veterinary medicine (as pet owners), pharmacy and in its physician assistant program. There will be an orientation in June.
Contact: (909) 469-5446, email@example.com
Kaiser Permanente CareActors
It hires trained actors (and seasoned SPs) to help healthcare professionals better connect with their patients. Situations include improvised role-plays, patient simulations, scripted scenarios and full-length plays.
Contact: Send head shot and résumé to Lisa Lippman, Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre Programs, 815 Colorado Blvd., Suite 103, L.A., CA 90041 (No phone calls.) www.kp.org/etp
Volunteer Center of Los Angeles
It recruits volunteers for disaster drill exercises, senior and youth programs and much more. Check its website for upcoming opportunities and fill out a volunteer form to be contacted for future events.
Contact: (818) 908-5066, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.vcla.net
UCLA School of Law Volunteer Witness Program
Volunteers play jurors, clients and witnesses for mock trials, depositions and counseling sessions. Next trials begin in November.
Contact: (310) 206-1193, email@example.com
Chapman University School of Law
Volunteers play jurors, clients and witnesses in mock trial competitions during spring and fall semesters.
Contact: (714) 628-2527, firstname.lastname@example.org