1 Vital Side Gig for Auditioning Actors

Photo Source: The Morchand Center for Clinical Competence

In 1998’s “Seinfeld” episode “The Burning,” Kramer becomes an actor at Mount Sinai Hospital to help medical students, and in preparation, he snorts pepper to get that perfect wet sound when sneezing.

Yet, what some don’t know is that acting for medical students isn’t just a made-up “Seinfeld” scenario; it’s a very real, lucrative, and flexible side gig.

Union actor Steve Hamm began as a standardized patient (SP) in NYC in 2001, when there was little acting work and he was tired of bartending. When a friend suggested working in a hospital he tried his luck, “and as soon as I got one...work begets work, and that’s how it started.”

In addition to character roles on shows including “Law & Order” and “Blue Bloods” (“I play a lot of cops on TV,” he says with a laugh), Hamm has continued doing medical acting with the Morchand Center for Clinical Competence at Mount Sinai for several reasons: a flexible schedule frees up time for auditions; there’s been a noticeable improvement in his listening skills; and the singular feeling of affecting how doctors treat patients. Along with acting out biological disorders, SPs help future docs be medically as well as emotionally intelligent when delivering hard news about diseases and death.

Hamm once played a father whose newborn son was diagnosed with a terminal illness and would likely die within a few months.

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“In terms of the emotional stakes and backstory and how much is demanded of me, there’s a lot there,” he says. “I draw from my own training and experience in terms of personalizing it. You have to give yourself over to the situation and interact with the students as if it happened to you in your life.” But the job goes deeper.

“One of the most challenging things as a standardized patient is you’re not only playing the case, you also have to hit certain benchmarks…. People think you go in with a thermometer in your mouth and play a guy with shingles, but a lot of the training is how to give feedback about your experience as their patient; it’s like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time because you still have to be aware of what the student is doing so they can walk away with [something useful].”

For that reason, actors who apply to be SPs must be skilled in providing accurate verbal and written feedback, as well as have excellent memory, according to Luis Argueta, program coordinator at the Morchand Center.

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“There are many SP programs and the best way to get in, if you don’t know an SP that can refer you, is to look on medical school websites or keep your eye open for auditions,” he says. “[The Morchand Center] only advertises auditions in publications that working actors use, and we require two monologues plus have a callback.”

Becoming an SP and being a screen or stage actor have more similarities than auditioning, as filmmaker Ben Nabors found while penning and shooting “Actor Seeks Role,” starring Alex Karpovsky as an SP and Dylan Baker as a doctor.

“You put people up onstage or in front of a camera and their job is to be emotionally vulnerable for the benefit of the audience,” he says. “Both [acting and medicine] broker in emotion.”

At the core, actors and doctors alike must practice empathy in their trade.

When Hamm’s stepfather was diagnosed with brain cancer, Hamm’s work as an SP led him to better understand the equal importance of medical knowledge, “bedside manner,” and speaking to patients with grace.

“There are things I understand now that I didn’t understand before,” he says. “I’m not a doctor and I couldn’t be one, but I definitely have a better chance of playing one on TV.”

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