ACCEPT IMITATIONS: A Beginner’s Guide to Performing Impressions, Chapter Four: VIEWPOINT

If a useful definition of acting is “Knowingly taking on another viewpoint”, then the subject of doing impressions is just another facet of acting, because more than anything else, your performance will live or die on this one point.

No one views the world from exactly the same position in space as anyone else, at the same time.  Even the famous Bunker brothers Chang & Eng, the so-called “Siamese Twins” who were co-joined at the chest, had to turn to one another and ask, “Is my tie on straight?”

The thing that makes Bogart, Johnny Carson, Barack Obama, or for that matter Bart Simpson unique and recognizable as voices has as much to do with how they view the world as the frequency of the sound waves they produce in our ears.

Indeed, some child performers or women, whose voices are much higher than those of most adult males, can do a great job of creating impressions of famous men even though their tone is completely inaccurate and would never be mistaken for the real thing.

They do this by sufficiently embodying the character and presenting it to us with whatever sonic ability they have.  You are aware they are a young person or a female, but mainly that they are also BEING the person imitated.

It’s still quite entertaining.

It might be wise to observe at this point that “Voice” has several meanings, and that one of them could be said to be, the expression of personality.  Part of that is how they sound, but that also includes WHAT they would say, based on their own unique viewpoint.

We sometimes hear about the “voice” of an author, for instance, whom we perhaps have never actually heard aloud, but whose opinion and style is nevertheless well known.

This is very valuable information: HOW the celebrity sees the world.

How do we find this out?  By study and observation.  These days that is rather easy to do by making use of the web and the limitless collection of recorded performances of actors and public figures.

Of course, direct and personal contact is the very best and most reliable method.  The best mimics of celebrities are, naturally, their former personal assistants, which is precisely why so many famous people require their assistants to have their tongues removed once they leave their employ, and rightly so.

What is done with the tongues of former personal assistants?  I have no idea.  But I make it a habit never to eat at any deli in Beverly Hills, or if I do, I order the tuna melt.

There is a secret about taking on the viewpoint of the character you are playing, and that is this: it’s much easier to do it that way than to simply “imitate”.  Being the character is a quick and direct way to present the person, and is the only way you can be assured of really achieving a convincing and effective portrayal.  This not only applies to celebrity impressions, but doing Shakespeare, Ibsen, Molnar, or a guest spot on “The Suite Life with Zach & Cody.”

Try this: walk around your home with the viewpoint of someone you would like to imitate.  DON’T say anything, just walk around and look at your surroundings from their point of view.

How would they regard your bedroom?  What might they think of your furniture?  What would draw their interest on your shelves?  Would they be bored or interested in your home and possessions?

This is actually the bedrock of your impressions; the sound vibrations they make when they talk are built on THIS fundamental element.

It’s also a lot of fun to do and nobody has to even know you are doing it.  You can do it in a crowded place, like a party or a concert, or at your job at the Pizza Hut.  Just practice looking at the world from the eyes of your subject.

Like I said earlier, it’s the most important element of the whole skill, so it’s worthwhile spending some time on and will help you develop the raw materiel of your act, when you decide to create one.

The other important point about becoming familiar with the point of view of your subject is that once you know it very well, you can depart from it for comic effect, simply by doing something intentionally that that person would never do or say.  That is, I believe, part of the strength of my now famous “Shakespeare in Celebrity Voices” video, which features 25 celebrities doing that speech from Richard III that most of them would never, EVER be heard reciting.

Especially not George W. Bush.  I mean, come on.

So, it cuts both ways.  The key is KNOWING the viewpoint so that you can do what you like with it, either by honoring it exactly as to intention, or departing from it entirely for laughs, or some other brilliant use that I haven’t stumbled on yet.

Advertisements

ACCEPT IMITATIONS, a Beginner’s Guide to Performing Impressions, by Jim Meskimen, Chapter Two

KNOWING YOUR OWN VOICE

If you were a Las Vegas building contractor, and someone hired you to put up a huge hotel/casino in a specific location, and you accepted a lot of money upfront and got workers on the site with all the materials without ever bothering to find out if the building site was on a mountain, a desert or in a swamp. you would shortly find yourself immersed in slowly drying concrete as part of a highway overpass.

That is NOT the way to attract the opposite sex.

Which, we recall from all the anthropological data that we so wisely skipped in the introduction to this book, has everything to do with why grown men imitate things.

To review–HUNTERS.

So, we would be guilty of the same error if we began to imitate things, willy-nilly, or Milli Vanilli, without first getting very familiar with the lay of the land, I.E. our OWN voice.

How DO we sound?

You may recall that when you FIRST heard a recording of your own voice, the experience was an unpleasant one.  This, as far as I can tell, is universal.  Anyone who says they loved the sound of their own recorded voice the first time they heard it is lying and should not be allowed to drive you anywhere in an automobile.

The reason, I believe, that hearing one’s own voice, particularly for the first time, thru the apparatus of a recording machine is so shockingly disagreeable is because we never hear our voices that way; we hear a much fuller, much more expressive and tonally rich sound, through both the vibration of the air outside our bodies, and from the vibration of our bodies themselves.

The recording just peels off the thinnest sound waves off out of the air and totally ignores all the more robust, deeper waves that make you sound sexy and irresistible.

When I first heard my voice on my father’s old reel to reel mini-recorder (and I can pinpoint that upsetting memory to the day, hour and place) it was as if some awful sorcerer had set up a ghastly puppet to taunt me, a little boy, with vengeful malice, by imitating in a thin, weedy and insubstantial mockery my own, euphonious voice.

Years later, I took a tape player and pulled the same exact stunt on my own daughter.

Are all men devils?  Shut UP.

So, as performers, one thing we really need to work through is the awful reality of our own voice as it sounds to others.  And luckily, it’s not that hard to do.

You simply have to record yourself a lot and listen until you no longer break out in hives, or want to jump out a window.

How long will that take?  I don’t know.  Hours?  Days?  I just told you I DON”T KNOW.

But I do recommend you get on it right away.  It’s actually important.  That’s why it’s part of Chapter Two, not Chapter 66.

(By the way, there IS no Chapter 66.  This isn’t an eBook on How to Understand Women, this is Accept Imitations, the Guide to Doing Celebrity Impressions for Beginners.)

Now, If you have an iPhone or any kind of recorder that you can hold in your hand, make it your business as soon as possible to record yourself talking to others.  You don’t need to tell them you are doing it, just make sure you destroy the recordings before they fall into the wrong hands.

At first, you will be self conscious and, like a sixth grader who knows he is being watched by his babysitter as he pretends to do his homework, until she leaves the room and he can get back to World of Warcraft, you will not speak naturally.  Your voice will be “on its best behavior” and you will be “a phony sounding person” and a “weirdo” and your companions will say, “What the hell is the matter with you, you sound like a bad actor!  Are you recording us?  You better destroy those recordings before they fall into the wrong hands!”

And then you will have fewer friends, again VIOLATING all the social/psychological reasons for doing impressions that we wisely avoided addressing earlier.

Simply record yourself and then listen to the whole thing from start to finish.  You may NOT fast forward or Scrub forward or stop until it’s done.

At the end of that horrible experience, you will either feel older, younger, or about the same.  If you feel older or younger, start from the beginning and do it again.  If you feel about the same, then sober up and try it again.

Again, once you have heard the whole recording for a second time, judge your reaction.  Are you considering a vow of silence?  A career as an underground explosives expert?  A camp counsellor for the deaf?

If you answered any of the above, YES, then go back and listen to the whole thing again, and again and again until you no longer have a reaction of any kind and can be comfortably familiar with how you sound.

Like I say, this can take hours.  Or days.  Or possibly longer.

There is an ancient story that Native Americans tell about the owl, much revered in their culture.  His continual lament of “WHO?” they claim, comes from a time in the incredibly distant past when the very first owl heard his voice on a Sony answering machine, and demanded to know the true owner of that voice.  All these many centuries later, the owl, much revered by Native Americans, still demands to know “WHO?”

He clearly needs to record and listen to his own voice more, if he is ever going to become revered for his celebrity impressions by the Native Americans, as well as his keen eyes and appetite for rodents.