Cat Doctor



In order to pay my mortgage I currently still have to have jobs outside the creative sector. And the one that I work most often is for U Penn School Medicine’s Standardized Patient Program.

A standardized patient or SP is a person who portrays an illness or medical situation in order to allow medical students to practice their skills. So that for example, the first time someone has to give a life threatening diagnosis, it can be to an actor and not a real person. And the mega bonus of this system is that the “patient” can then come out of character and have a substantive discussion about how what just happened affected them. So that the medical professional to be can get some insight into the patient perspective. And in doing this they can start to see cause and effect – when you do this particular behavior it makes me feel a certain way, has this particular result.

It’s kind of satisfyingly scientific actually. It removes the judgment and anger from critiquing interpersonal skills and reduces it down to inputs and outcomes. Try this particular tactic to gaining my trust? I can tell you what the emotional output is in this scenario.

I like this job in part because it has taught me to listen. It has taught me the value of the subjective experience. It has taught me that intention is often not a useful tool towards substantive change. I can want to make you feel better but if my choice of words in expressing that is offensive or off-putting then my intention is a moot point.

When I train the performers I use metaphors of theater a lot. And when I get back into the rehearsal room, I have started using the tools of this SP trade in return. The language of linking action and behavior to some relatively objective measure of emotional outcome is really really useful.

Lately though, I’ve been noticing this trend in my day job that is puzzling. And it’s one that I’ve been subsequently trying to untangle in my theatrical work.

I’ll call this thing “Cat Doctor.”

Fact: I love cats. Love them. Seriously, if that toxoplasmosis parasite that makes you love cats is real, I have it. If there is a cat in a window, I will stop and talk to it. I literally want to smash the small furry bodies into my face.

And that’s weird. And very unique to me.

So if were in a doctor’s office and a cat in a little white coat and stethoscope walked into the room I would be overjoyed. I would be so pleased to be treated by cat doctor that I’d be a little beside myself.

But that doesn’t mean that cat doctor is a good doctor.

And so when I train my SPs I tell them that they have to watch out for the cat doctors – the students that they love for reasons that aren’t really anything to do with their medical skills. This can be because it reminds them of their best friend in 8th grade, or because the person is really attractive or has large ears and that’s just funny. Whatever the reason, when cat doctor syndrome occurs, I tell my SPs to be on double watch for their scores, because they need extra vigilance to make sure they can back up with substance why they are rating this person high.

I’ve been throwing this term around a lot in auditions lately. And I think about it in relation to collaborators.

Does the same cat doctor rule apply to the arts? If I see an actor who’s a bit of a mess, who’s a little bit off, but for whatever reason tickles my fancy, am I a fool to just trust that gut instinct? Should I resist casting the catactor?

If I love to watch them, can I trust that others will as well?

Every director I know has an actor that they love to work with that I just don’t see the charm of. Someone they just want in the room. Maybe they’re just blinded by some intuitive thing… Or maybe the particulars of an artistic process aren’t supposed to reduce down to objective quanta in the same way as a med school exam. And perhaps whether or not the audience can see exactly why, that cat doctor has a magic or influence that matters. They treat the problem with a strange and unconventional approach that just happens to work, even if it looks crazy.

Or maybe I’m just too distracted with the cuteness.



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