The Surprising and Stressful World of Simulation Acting

“My caper-green Jimmy Choos are worth more than this HR pissant’s monthly salary. He thinks he can judge my behaviour in the workplace? He’s never had an intern like Skye with an ‘e,’ who films TikTok videos in the staff bathroom. She arrives late, doesn’t wear a bra to client meetings, and spells my name wrong on legal documents. She’s gone snivelling to HR because I raised my voice. What should I have done, massaged her third eye with frankincense? God, this generation is so entitled, it makes me sick. When I was in my 20s, I had to work twice as hard as my male colleagues. I had to bring in double the clients, make coffee, and ignore it whenever they grabbed my ass. I survived in this industry as a woman because I’m tough. I honestly don’t know how Skye graduated from university. She has the work ethic of a spaghetti squash.”

I look around at the room of wide-eyed HR trainees. Some of them are clearly intimidated, while some try to hide their smirks. One asks me questions, and I respond⁠—in character. It would be far too easy to slip into entertaining them because this role is so fun to play, but that isn’t why I’m here.

I am giving a standardized simulation of a high-achieving executive who is sent to HR for bullying her staff. The only way I can effectively play this role is if I find sympathy for this unlikeable character. Bullies never think they’re bullies—they see themselves as victims. If I sense I’m not being respected, I demean and dismiss my interviewer. If I sense I’m understood and sympathized with, I might consider changing my behaviour.

I also do simulations for police, paramedics, pharmacists, nurses, doctors, and social workers. Each time, I play out a carefully researched and rehearsed standardized scenario to give trainees a chance to practise interactions. I may be a victim, perpetrator, witness, patient, or problematic employee. The students learn to negotiate with a real person instead of merely studying descriptions and diagrams in textbooks. Nobody wants a doctor to turn red-faced and stammer while discussing the friability of a vagina. Life is tough enough. An assaulted child can shut down quickly if not spoken to with empathy and patience—often the child has been conditioned to believe it’s their fault in the first place. Essential skills have to be practised with a real person, whether that means handcuffing someone while reading them their rights or draping a torso while doing a chest exam.

Most sim artists are professional actors who have won awards, performed across the country, and worked in TV and film for years. We’re the real deal. I secretly love the jolt of surprise I get from students when they realize I’m all in. They get real tears, real anger, real fear, real surprise, real dialogue flying at them from an authentic place. How they behave in the scenario alters how I shift, manipulate, cooperate, or resist. All of a sim artist’s reactions are standardized, so each trainee gets the same opportunity. It’s akin to memorizing all possible outcomes to a “choose your own adventure” novel. While staying within the memorized options, I must respond as naturally as possible to whatever the trainee says and does.

Simulation work provides paycheques between film and theatre gigs, and it has also granted me a fascinating window into challenging professions. I’ve watched police officers quickly assess dangers, de-escalate a potentially violent scenario, and gently talk me through my options. I’ve gained appreciation for how doctors and nurses balance empathy and professionalism—telling my character she has a glioblastoma brain tumour is no easy task, nor should it be. How does a doctor help my character stay hopeful yet realistic while facing a survival rate of just 6.9 per cent? How does the doctor hold space for shock and despair while also guiding my character toward the next steps? And how does a social worker patiently extract sensitive information from a child abuser? If I’m playing that character and I feel judged, I won’t talk. I won’t reveal sensitive and important information. I can feel judged by a lack of eye contact, by a tone of voice, by a posture.

Some of these simulations strike close to personal experience and can trigger post-traumatic stress or disassociation.

After an eight-hour shift of sim work, performing up to 24 high-octane scenes back to back, I am exhausted. The body doesn’t know it’s all pretend. Blood rushes to the cheeks and flushes them. Fluid full of sodium, bicarbonate, chloride, and potassium floods the lacrimal glands and produces “emotional” tears. Sweat excretes, cools, and evaporates on the skin. Adrenalin makes the heart beat faster, the muscles tense with fear, and the breathing become shallow, bringing less oxygen to the brain. The body thinks it’s had one of the worst days of its life.

Coming in and out of character is a vital part of the process. Pretending to have severe depression all day can leave me feeling genuinely depressed. Between scenes we are encouraged to take a few deep breaths, feel our feet on the ground, and stretch. At the end of the day, I repeat my name, address, and phone number. I remind myself I am safe and well. I make sure I feel settled and recalibrated before getting into my car to drive home. Some of these simulations strike close to personal experience and can trigger post-traumatic stress or disassociation. Whose life hasn’t been touched on some level by sexual abuse or heart disease? We traumatize ourselves as actors, whether for the sake of entertainment or education.

But oh, boo hoo, big deal. My husband is a first responder, a fire captain, and I am in awe of his bravery. He saves lives; I invent them. He can carry the elderly out of fiery buildings and extract children from smashed-up cars; I can do a Swedish accent and cry on command. In comparison, I feel a little…silly. I admit this to him one night, and he stares at me, bewildered. He leans in, grasps my hands, and says, “Bella, what you do saves me.”

He explains that going to the theatre is his way of processing his day. Sometimes he goes for a lighthearted escape, and other times he finds a drama cathartic. He was a theatre subscriber long before he met me. He loves Bard on the Beach for outdoor Shakespeare, and he likes the Firehall and the Cultch for what he calls the “edgy weird stuff.” He tells me, “Art sees miracles in the day to day and points out what needs to be seen and who needs to be heard. It reminds us of our humanity and why we do what we do.”

I guess it’s true, we all have our role to play. And we all save each other, in our own way.

Illustration courtesy of OneLineStock/Adobe Stock. Read more stories about community



Post Date:

January 3, 2024