By BRUCE COLLIER
I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. However, I did play one in a scene from “Healing Conversations: Effective Communication for Cancer Care,” an industrial film for medical students being shot in the Pensacola area. The film is a project produced for program developer Professional Resources Group (PRG) by area filmmaker Barnes/West Productions. My scene was shot last weekend at the cancer center of West Florida Health Care in Pensacola.
When finished, the film will be marketed and shown to medical students and health care providers who want to learn what used to be called “bedside manner,” in situations of advanced illness and end-of-life. The film will show good and bad examples of communication with patients and their families. My scene (five pages) was e-mailed to me four days before the shoot. I was expected to be off-book (lines memorized) by Saturday, the day of the shoot. The character I play, Dr. Bruce Tate, presents a fine example of what not to say when informing a cancer patient that her case is beyond medical help.
I got the part by answering a notice posted on Carol’s Curtain Call, a Pensacola-based theatre/film/TV information Website operated by Carol Kahn Parker. The film company held several days of “screen tests,” after which those cast were contacted. This was a paying job – a talent fee plus a stipend for gas. It hasn’t moved me into a higher tax bracket, but it’s always better to get paid for acting.
The lobby of the cancer center (the company had use of the building for the weekend) had been converted into a combination actors’ lounge and costume/prop room. On a long table were sandwiches, crackers, chips, bagels, and cookies, for the cast and crew. A cooler was filled with cold water and soft drinks. Costume pieces – shirts, pants, shoes, skirts and dresses – were draped over chairs and tables, some brought by the actors and others furnished by the film company.
Upon arrival, I was asked to sign a release form by Sue Barnes, allowing the film company full use of my footage (in exchange for the fee) in the film and promotions. That done, I was told the shooting was running a little behind, which did not surprise me. The call was at 3 p.m., but it was another hour before I was asked to suit up and head to the back for a rehearsal with my two fellow actors. Dressed and ready, we read through the scene four times, observed by a coach, a drama instructor at a local school.
Her name was Jean, she was was from Lancaster, England, and she had a full-on regional accent. Jean was a talker and a raconteuse, and kept the waiting-time lively with her stories. The latter ranged from leading a prison drama ministry to the story of her sister, who once tried to kill herself by lying on a train track, only to learn that British Rail was on strike.
Various members of the company would peep into the tiny consulting room where we were rehearsing, assuring us that they would be ready for us soon. In time, they were. I said good-bye to Jean. I may never meet her again, but I know more about her than I do about many of my own relatives. As often happens with actors, the short time together breeds more in-depth conversations than one has with everyday associates. The subject of the film is how to deal with aspects of critical illness, and several of the actors and company members spoke of losing family and loved ones to cancer. “Some of the scenes have been pretty emotional,” said one of the crew.
PRG president Preston Ribnick, along with producer Dov Ribnick, asked us to go to the scene area. The set was a matchbox-sized consulting room, with a couch, several chairs, and a counter with sink and cabinets. There was no room to move, which was OK since we were doing the scene in head-and-shoulder shots. The three-character scene was shot in three segments. The first was me speaking all of my lines while the other actors read theirs off-camera. The next two segments had each of them speaking on camera while we read off-camera. Cue cards were used, which meant I need not have learned my lines. The fact that I had went over big with everyone, so it wasn’t wasted effort. I even got powdered because apparently I have a shiny forehead. Who knew?
The shoot moved quickly. The director and crew worked efficiently, talking quietly among themselves and encouraging the actors. “How was that?” “Great, let’s do another” was heard over and over again. One of the actors had to produce some tears. “Does that sink work?” she asked, pointing to the counter. A few sprinkles of water and she was off to the races.
It was all over in about an hour. I was thanked, relieved of the doctor gear, and presented with an envelope containing my wages and fuel allowance. I have a shoot this Saturday, too. I play a doctor that doesn’t know how to communicate effectively with a diabetic patient. His name is Gillespie. Wasn’t that the name of Dr. Kildare’s wise old mentor?
The films will be shot, then edited and finished. Eventually I will receive a DVD, complete with my name in the credits. I don’t know if they give awards for industrial film acting, but I’ll polish an award-acceptance speech just in case. I can’t do any worse than Kathy Griffin.