Presenting at EG

Tamra and I are heading up to Monterey to go to the EG Conference, (which is not, as I had supposed, a gathering of people who are fans of the actor E.G. Marshall) where I will be presenting about 20 minutes of my Jimpressions material for an eclectic audience of interesting and interested people.

I’m still trying to work out how best to fill my time and create something that is a bit deeper than my usual celebrity voices “tour”.  There’s something sort of daunting about being asked to go to something like this, where I’ll be basically sharing the platform with physicists, filmmakers, polar biologists, architects, violin makers, designers, the royal calligrapher, and a woman who rows across oceans.

The temptation is to try and create a talk that somehow positions celebrity impressionists as being on the same level as Dr. Linus Pauling.

On the other hand, there is an terrific opportunity here to explore some of the more subtle and personal aspects of doing other people’s voices for a more sophisticated crowd that isn’t just interested in hearing a guy do a Christopher Walken imitation.

It’s also going to be streaming live on the web, and I will be helping  interview the participants in between presentations over the three days.  If you are interested, and I can guarantee that there will be much to be interested in, go and check out the website: https://www.the-eg.com/ and sign up for the webcast.

And I will let you know my experiences when it’s all over!  Maybe E.G. Marshall will actually be there…

200 Voices Silenced: The passing of Steve Bridges, 1963 – 2012

Last week, the sad news that impressionist and friend Steve Bridges passed away at the age of 48. He had recently flown home from China, and was complaining of extreme jet lag, but it is as yet unknown why he collapsed.

I met Steve about ten years ago on a pilot for a show featuring impressionists called “Headlines”, and at that time I recognized him to be an excellent mimic and improvisor/comedian. I owe my present Tom Brokaw impression in part to him, since his own version of the news anchor’s mushy delivery was so amusing to me that I began to focus on it myself.

I last ran into Steve at The Tonight Show a couple of years back, where I was doing some voiceover of some celebrity while he was appearing, in full makeup, (by the talented Kevin Haney) as President G.W. Bush. His dedication to the presidential characters he did involved the costly and time-consuming steps of having top makeup artists create prosthetics and wigs that he would have to have applied before each appearance. He managed to develop that into a very lucrative business and travelled the world performing Bush, Obama, Clinton and others.

He told me at that time, which must have been early in 2009, that he was next going to tackle Obama, in full makeup, as he had done so successfully with G. W. Bush.  Inside, I have to admit, I winced.  I didn’t see how he was going to pull that off.  But, as I was to discover, he pulled it off better than anyone else.

Contributing to that successful rendition was the brilliant makeup artist and sculptor Kazuhiro Tzuji, with whom I had the pleasure to work with at Rick Baker’s studio for The Grinch.

Although he specialized in presidents, Steve Bridges also had a large collection of celebrity voices in his bag of tricks, some 200 or so, which is a LOT. I never got to spend as much time as I wanted to with Steve, but he was always very friendly and charitable to me, and I am disappointed that we won’t have an opportunity to collaborate again… any time soon. I’m a great believer in the “Unvanquishability” of the human spirit, so I would not say that he is lost to us forever, and I look forward to enjoying his talents again. In the meantime, there are many terrific performances of Steve on his YouTube Channel that I highly recommend you check out and enjoy.

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.