What Do Actors Have That Doctors Need?

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Photo Source: NBC. Pictured – George Clooney as Dr Doug Ross on ER

George Clooney tells a good story about the ER role that made him the world’s favourite doctor and catapulted him to mega-fame: “We had just shot the pilot and we all went to the local restaurant to eat, still dressed in our medical scrubs. A child started to choke on a French fry and we all started shouting, ‘Someone do something!’ Everyone stared at us expecting us to do something as they thought we were doctors!”

Yet in something of a role reversal, it is doctors that are now asking for help from the acting profession. A report last week from Ireland describes how doctors take acting lessons to improve their communication skills with patients.  

Dublin’s Abbey Theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland) is playing host to the initiative to give acting training to doctors following criticism of the country’s maternity care system as “insensitive” and “paternalistic and patriarchal.” In particular, doctors are coming under fire for poor communication skills and a lack of empathy, especially when conveying unwelcome news to distressed patients.

In a creative approach to the issue that highlights both the growing esteem in which drama training is now held and an increased understanding of its scientific processes, leading doctors are taking part in “role play with the drama teachers from the national theatre – acting out real-life scenarios where there have been tragedies on maternity wards.”

The report adds: “The drama training allows doctors to play out how they would normally react, and then have their performance assessed to see where they have gone wrong and how it could be better.”

CEOs + ‘Executive Presence’
But it’s not just the medical world that is turning to actors for help – it’s the world of business, too. A recent report in Forbes magazine describes what actors can teach us about “executive presence” – that elusive quality of leadership that will determine whether or not a promotion or job offer will come your way. Referencing two actors who have become executive coaches, it says: “Lubar and Halpern borrow from the actor’s toolkit and show that leadership presence is about effectively tapping into your own experiences and, through storytelling, help others relate to you and therefore connect with you on a deeper level.”

Business education publication Mission.Org develops this theme: “Presence is as imperative to leadership as it is to acting, and is a rare skill that separates the brilliant leader from the mediocre….How do actors develop this elusive presence? In a nutshell, they rigorously train. Before ever setting foot on a professional stage, the first thing an actor does is sharpen their non-verbal communication skills. This first step is the difference between an actor who is taken seriously and one who is ignored.”

In many ways, acting training and leadership projection are natural partners (Ronald Reagan, anyone?) – which is why it has become something of a growth industry. UK company React trains executives in over 30 countries with an international team of actors. Their website describes how “React draws on the techniques and principals of drama to help people and organisations learn in the best way possible.” Their clients include the BBC, the National Health Service and global pharma-giant GSK.

All of this plays into an encouraging sign that the art, craft and science of acting are being increasingly recognized as having benefits that flow well beyond theatre, film, and television. The skills actors accumulate at drama school don’t have to remain on the screen or stage but can be taken into many other spheres of working life.

And while not every actor will become a UN ambassador, there is a reason – beyond their celebrity – why so many have (Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, Orlando Bloom, and Emma Watson for starters). It’s because actors are trained experts at the very thing the doctors in Ireland were lacking: an ability to reach inside and tap into sources of empathy and personal experience, and to translate this into relatable presence that can build bridges to other people.


For more from Backstage UK, check out the magazine.

Pete Martin
Pete Martin is Backstage's London-based UK Editor.
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