What we do

We are actors in a break room in an office building on the far west side of Manhattan. It could almost be any city bordered by water for all the new office buildings going up around it. I hardly recognize my hometown anymore, especially in neighborhoods that once lay fallow. There is even a new subway station with a grand entrance decorated with a huge mosaic worthy of an ancient Greek temple, at least in size. The building we are in, a 1940s relic, is slowly losing its view of the Hudson River to massive glass-faced erections in shapes unimagined by Euclid.

I am on an acting job in New York City. As actors, we take note of everything from the elevator ride to the mood of our director as he greets us. This morning, he is distracted, less affable than in rehearsal. His clients are his focus today. Noted.

It’s an odd job, acting for hire. You won’t see the scenes we play today on television or in the theater. We are training health professionals to interact with family members experiencing a medical crisis. For me, and my fellow actors, we are honing our skills and doing something we love for a greater good. But also for a paycheck. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t have the prestige of a film role. We are all trained professionals and we instinctively create an ensemble almost immediately. I am the elder today. Well, these days I am almost always the elder. It’s interesting to see how the casting director chose us to be a family from head-shots and auditions. My “daughter” has similar features, but green eyes (from her father, I presume.) My “younger brother” has a tinge of red in his dark hair and my blue eyes.

Our scenes are mostly unscripted, so we have also been cast for our improvisational skills. We are given an objective, brief character background and specific bits of information that need to be included depending on our interactions. If it sounds complicated, it is. But that’s what makes it fun.

The rehearsal day—eight hours with a short break for lunch—had us working together to build our detailed back-stories. It was an exhausting day made more so by the MTA, from which I recovered with a hot bath and leftover lasagna.

In the break room on the first day, I discovered that the actor who plays my character brother has worked with one of my college friends who is now a director. Also, that he spent four years in the Marines, having enlisted at 17. He tells me that fact often gets him cast because the director knows he has discipline and can follow orders. Anything that distinguishes you from the masses of other actors, he says, can help get you in the door. My “daughter” is in her early 20s and a newbie to New York. She works as a birthday-party clown for a living. She was trained in musical theater in a small Southern college. I don’t envy her youth. She will have a long road, and I dearly hope she is treated well.

Our scenes are dramatic, with lots of grief-filled moments. At the end of the first day presenting to a group of healthcare professionals, I hear one say to her colleague, “That was like watching a Lifetime movie!” I took it as a compliment.


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