EVERY MAN, EVERY WOMAN A CELEBRITY

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I had a “come to realize” moment today while on my bike: EVERYONE has some grade or ranking of celebrity.

In the Old Days, there were celebrities, and then there was everybody else.  If you were an actor in a movie, you were probably attached to a studio contract, were effectively working in a separate universe, with separate parking, restaurants and work spaces from the rest of society.  You knew movie “secrets”.  You mysteriously vanished from this material culture into another, more ephemeral one, one that flickered on screens across the world, and in which you always looked amazing, albeit colorless.

Now we have so many grades of celebrity that it is truly “infinity valued”, meaning that there are infinite degrees of being known and talked about.

That’s one of the reasons modern information gathering and metrics have become so necessary; people want to know WHERE they lie in the order of things.  Who knows me today?  How much?  Where?

I have my acting credits on IMDB.com, (the Internet Movie Database) a site that is used by the entertainment industry for information on actors, directors, writers and others.  Like all the other actors I know, I have a ranking that ebbs and flows like the stock market.  Last week, to my surprise, after being ranked comfortably just under the 20,000 mark (among the 20,000 most popular searches for persons, living or dead, on the IMDB site) I found myself suddenly ranked #1444!

Was it my appearance on America’s Got Talent that caused people to suddenly look up my credits?  Probably.  Now that I’m off the show, and am just a normal, workaday actor again, my ranking is going steadily down, down, down… at the moment I’m at, let me see… ah!  #4525.

I got pretty excited for a moment there.  What a leap!  That’s what my friends who work on Wall Street must feel when something in their portfolio spikes!  Of course, they have figured out a way to turn that into a new condominium, or a trip to Fiji.  I haven’t got that down yet.

But then I realized, perhaps naively, that EVERYONE is a celebrity to some degree.  To some website, YOU are very important.  To some groups, YOU are a key player.  To some organizations, YOU are vital.  (One hopes that the groups that find us important are not just the IRS or the NSA.)  To your family, well, YOU are pretty irreplaceable.  Even if you happen to be in the doghouse this week.  (That would put your ranking temporarily with the guy holding the “Plese help me” sign on the offramp.)

So, celebrity is a matter of degree.  I guess that’s pretty obvious.  But to me it was a bit of a breakthrough.

You ARE important, of course, whether or not you are listed on the IMDB.  You would be important if you weren’t listed anywhere on the Internet, although that’s now hard to fathom.  Your importance is in the eye of your beholders, the minds of the people you deal with every day.  The thoughts of your family and friends.  You are important to me, heck- you read my stuff!

Is this too sappy?

You can rate me at SappyBloggers.com.  I think I’m currently… let me see,… Ah!  #44,561!  Wow!  I’m up from #60,000!

My Other Biggest Fan

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My mom, actress Marion Ross, has been a fan of mine for a long time.  Since I used to dance around our house in the Valley in my pajamas to Gaîté Parisienne.

The photo above is from breakfast this morning; Tamra made some waffes and mom popped by to visit and to wish me luck on America’s Got Talent next week.  I leave in two days.  OMG.

When I was in High School (Taft High, Woodland Hills) Marion mortified me by awarding me the best actor prize at our yearly Creation Fair, for my rendition of Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew.  She was the only judge.  I happened to be the student artistic director of the fair, who also auditioned all the acts, rather like AGT, for their chance to be onstage.  When I “won” the prize that night, thanks to mom, I think I lost a lot of friends.

Her justification, stated at the mic in front of everyone there was, “I’m awarding the Best Actor prize to Jim Meskimen because I taught him everything he knows.”

Strangely, no one ever has said a word to me about this event.  I’m beginning to think that I may have imagined the whole thing.  I hope so.

If I go through to the Semi-Finals in New York, I will have to get mom, Tamra and Taylor out there for it, and maybe mom can have a word with the judges for me… Or not.

 

The Woman Behind The Impressionist

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In less enlightened, (or just more sexist) times, it was said that “behind every great man there is a great woman.”

I’m FAR from being anything like a great man, but behind ME every step of the way is a GREAT woman, my wife, Tamra Meskimen.

(That’s TAMRA, no center “A”.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Camera.”)

In high school, Tamra was a totally charming and award-winning actress.  We didn’t go out together then, but we acted in a play together, Cyrano de Bergerac (she was excellent and really cute.)

When we reconnected years after high school, I fell in love with her on the day– Christmas Day, 1983.  It was truly like an alarm going off, or a bell sounding.  If it had been a cartoon, the balloon would have said “BOING!”

She set in starting to help me immediately.  She’s that kind of person, the kind that makes the world go around.  Not one in a million have that impulse and willingness to just help.

An artistic life is too big for any single person.  He/she needs a team as soon as it can be managed.  Tamra has been on my team since my first beginnings in show business, and I have been on hers.

People often say to Tamra, “How do you live with him?  You must be just laughing all day long!”  Tamra is very polite when she answers that.

She’s seen me in more shows than anybody should ever have to sit through, in the most ridiculous venues and situations.  In the old days, I was forever dragging her off to some weird space to see me perform, (come to think of it, that hasn’t changed much) and I can tell you, she isn’t laughing all day long.  Who could?  But she’s a trouper.

When we were young, broke and in New York, we had a job together at a trade show where we dressed up as Popeye and Olive Oyl.  We had full head masks, gigantic shoes… we really were well cast.  If Twitter had existed then, she would have had a million followers.

She naturally looks out for me in a way that I don’t even do for myself.

There’s the little thing like keeping me fed, taking care of me when I’m sick, helping me bring order to my desk, my accounts, my clothing, taking photographs at shows so I’ll have some good shots to use, giving me my wonderful daughter Taylor and helping raise her to her sane, safe adulthood…   And a million others that she thinks of that I never seem to remember to do.  Tamra is a GREAT friend.  An amazing human being.

A few years ago she founded an improv company, The Really Spontaneous Theatre Company, which specialized in one-act plays, just so we could have something fun to do with our friends, and be actors together.  We did hundreds of shows, each one a new and exciting experience.  She acted in and ran that group, which was like trying to herd cats.

Then, she became a founder of The Acting Center school, a place where actors can get training to become professionals, without the intrusive, critical atmosphere that most “guru-based” acting schools foster.  It’s helping hundreds and hundreds of beginning and veteran actors regain their interest and ability in creating compelling and convincing performances without becoming dependent on an outside “critic”.  I am a student there, and I’ve been getting a lot out of it.

Of course, she’s still a terrific actress who has done tons of plays, web shorts, TV shows, audiobooks, commercials and just about everything there is for an actress to do in legitimate entertainment.

To say I’m her biggest fan is of course, a very true statement; I have seen everything SHE has done, just as she is an authority on all my work.

It is a marvelous thing about being together so long with a person (26 years of marriage along with the years prior to that) that one becomes an expert, an authority on, and an advocate of one’s mate.  We’ve been that for one another, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

So as I head into this next evolution of massive attention, it is not as a single artist going it on his own, but as the second of two parts, one visible and seemingly independent, the other working steadfastly behind the scenes to make sure the visible one doesn’t faint from lack of food, have stains on his suit, or a thousand other possible infractions of good taste, good manners or common sense.

Tamra’s always there for me, and I can’t thank her enough.

Ready or Not, America’s Got Meskimen

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Okay, so NOW it is officially permitted that I say that I will indeed be traveling to New York city soon to participate in the “Quarterfinals” of America’s Got Talent, Season 8!

This has been a long and mostly secret process, until very recently when shows began to air on NBC that had at least some of my first, Los Angeles audition.

That audition was remarkable, in that it went so well!  The judges were very generous and even enthusiastic and the audience went crazy, to be honest.  I was at that point still kind of unaware of what I was getting into; I didn’t have any real clear idea what other acts were auditioning, what the stage was like… it was a very fast “Be there tomorrow” kind of call, and I didn’t even know enough to be nervous.  Nice!

By the time my audition in Vegas rolled around, I was a little more prepared, and, although not nervous, I was “invested” in the game a lot more.  I mean, I kind of HAD to be, since I drove out to Las Vegas by myself, telling none but my family where I was going or why (top secret!) and not really knowing what I would be doing there for three whole days!

Once again, the judges were very generous, but… they did have me and my talented co-contestant (co-defendant?) Angela Hoover, who is also in the show in the “Impressionist/comedian” category, twisting on the hook a little while before they revealed that, yes, we would both be heading on to Radio City Music Hall to compete.

I then had to wait about another month before I could tell anyone that, since the show hadn’t aired yet, but I was busy anyway, performing in Australia at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on the invitation of artistic director, Kate Ceberano.

I’m most excited about the fact that, whatever happens next, I will get to perform LIVE for America’s Got Talent on the vast stage at Radio City Music Hall, where last time I was there, I was up in the third mezzanine with my family watching The Rockettes do their unbelievable Holiday Extravaganza.

I’m afraid I don’t yet know if I am allowed to say when I’ll be there, and I also just plain don’t know if you can get tickets if you live in NYC.  I’ll try and chase that up.

I’ll tell you all I can, just as soon as I can.  If I can’t tell you, I’ll just look coy and stay tacit.

So, please watch and if they ask you to vote for my act, please know that I will appreciate it very much.

America’s Got Talent airs on NBC on Tuesdays at 9/8 Central.

JIMPRESSIONS ENDS SUCCESSFUL 2011 RUN!

Last weekend, November 4 & 5, was the last of my scheduled shows at The Acting Center, and it was really terrific; great audiences, great response and a lot of laughs!

I began the run of this show in March of this year, and performed about one weekend a month; we knew December was going to be crazy with other demands, so we decided not to have shows after the November dates.

JIMPRESSIONS was an experiment.  When I wrote it and put it on its feet with director Tait Ruppert, we really weren’t sure if audiences would find it worth their while.  It’s a work in progress, and one which we will continue to develop, but so far the results are more positive than we ever expected.

There were ancillary wins, too.  On a whim, I decided to post a video of me doing my Shakespeare Impressions, and it went viral, thanks to the Tweets of Craig Ferguson, Stephen Fry, the Facebook sharings of many of my friends and mysterious others; the tally now is over 700,000 views and a lot of very nice comments.

My other follow up videos have been warmly received too.

As a result, I’ve been in high demand, which is really gratifying, and which I am hustling to honor every day.

My intention was to create a funny, inspiring, very entertaining family-friendly show, based around celebrity impressions and storytelling.  Here’s what a few of you had to say:

“I was able to see your show Saturday, you are amazing! Besides being captivated by your craft, I can’t remember when I laughed so much and so freely. I had a delightful and truly heartfelt experience, thank you for a terrific evening. I can’t wait until next year!”  –Susan Kohler

“I was AMAZED!  The way he artfully wove comedy and a heartfelt, personal story around each of his characters was not only hilarious, but also nothing short of masterful!  I never expected to be so moved by a comedy show, but I really was, and I thank Jim for these gifts he gave us!”  – Jierra Clark

“Jim captures the essence of the celebrities he impersonates — from the tightening of the face for former President Bush, to Garrison Keillor’s odd octave changes and looong inhales, to Woody Allen’s patented phrasing and asides — and he slides from one to the other maddeningly effortlessly.  –John Rabe, KPCC

“Not only did I feel like I was in the hands of a major pro, but my face hurt from all the laughing and smiling! The world needs to see this! It is clever and touching and inspirational and just downright GENIUS!” – Keli Landry

“Jim Meskimen is a giant among impressionists. But beyond that he is an amazing actor. These two skills come together in a truly wonderful performance. I’d recommend seeing it now before he only does sold out amphitheaters.”  – Eric Matheny

So, what’s next for JIMPRESSIONS?

Well, a trip to Australia to perform at a business conference, an appearance on the Australian TODAY SHOW, and a few live shows in Sydney and Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

That’s the immediate future.  Next year?  I look forward to returning to The Acting Center, which treated me so well and is such a great home for this show.  And I hope YOU will be in the audience sometime in 2012!

And you can keep your eye out for more YouTube videos, too.  (In fact, I hope you will subscribe!  It’s free.  Like this Blog.)

And when the Letterman show schedules their “Impressionist’s Week”, I hope to be there.

Big thanks and kisses to everybody who came and saw the show and shared the dream with me, my director Tait Ruppert, producer (and incredible soul-mate) Tamra Meskimen this year, and I promise to keep improving the show so that it is even more entertaining for you.

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.

A REVOLUTIONARY NEW KIND OF ACTING TRAINING

For some time, my wife Tamra Meskimen and I have been on a path of supporting and establishing safe places where actors and students can pursue their craft without abuse from invalidative gurus who dominate the performing arts.

In New York for many years, after having enjoyed improv classes that had the goal of eliminating criticism from acting instruction, we were staff at the National Improvisational Theatre (N.I.T.) and shepherded hundreds of would be improvisers onto the stage, and into new levels of self confidence and professionalism.

Many of these students have gone on to be major figures in theater, film and television.

We made many lifelong friends and did innumerable improvised shows, which left behind a trail of laughter which still occasionally resounds from an appreciative former patron with a good memory.

Later on, in the 1990’s, Tamra founded a new company of players in Los Angeles from the ranks of actors who had trained together in New York. and relocated west.

Called “The Really Spontaneous Theatre Company”, we were chiefly dedicated to performing totally improvised one-act plays, what’s known as “Long form” improv. The group shared the original goal of spontaneous creation without criticism, as in their training, and audiences were generally delighted with the result.

In 2004, Tamra began work on another, even more ambitious undertaking. With friend and successful artist/businessman Bill Kilpatrick, she began to explore what it would take to establish an acting school in Hollywood that would avoid all trappings of the typical acting schools around which, in one way or another, all depend upon the evaluation of the student’s artistic choices by an instructor.

It was the same purpose as the earlier training in New York at N.I.T. but with even more dedication and, of course, experience. And it had the strength of being a philosophy which (though completely at odds with the current agreed upon way of instruction) was a much more empowering and ultimately more effective method than other disciplines, even the oft spoke of and little understood “Method”.

The idea of teaching art of any kind without someone acting as a judge of the relative goodness and badness of the student’s work is hard for modern students to grasp. Indeed, many feel a misconceived desire to BE judged, and sometimes harshly, for their missteps along the path of knowledge.

But the grim joke is, the more this kind of instruction flourishes and operates as the status quo, the less really self determined art gets produced, and the entire culture sags and grows more ossified.

The school that has emerged from the pursuit of the philosophy of non-criticism/evaluation is called The Acting Center, and it’s founders, Tamra, Bill Kilpatrick, Christopher Smith and Eric Matheny have worked diligently for years to develop a full acting curriculum that does more than any other to completely cancel out the influence of the invalidative, judgmental “Guru”, and bring about understanding and skill in the student.

Now they offer an excellent curriculum in Improv, as well, with the same emphasis as in the regular Acting classes.

It took no small bit of work, either. Drills were researched and created that allowed a student to gradually test out the relationship between emotions, actions, moods and character, etc. and the courses were piloted, evaluated and revised. (Indeed, the polishing continues, and drills are continually reviewed, taking into account reports from the students themselves, to remove all barriers to making the student responsible for their own artistic judgment, which they then can own and express at will.)

Acting can be a sort of mystical subject; it is so wrapped up in fundamental questions of identity, expression and one’s personal taste. It has suffered, as have all the arts, by an invasion of a kind of materialistic thinking that stressed result over integrity, and often devolved into an effort to please a mentor, or “be the same as” someone else’s idea of what was right and proper.

So this new school is actually quite revolutionary, and so are the results. The actors I have seen come out of the classes at The Acting Center are confident individual creators, uncomplicated, honest, skilled and consistent. They do not toady, nit-pick, lord over others or destroy themselves in the service of their art. They seem… confident.

And why not? Nobody is going to force them to admit they are wrong for what they have figured out is right for THEM.

Perhaps, you might say, someone WILL tell them soon enough that what they are doing doesn’t please.

True. That will happen enough out in the professional world, but THAT is another environment entirely; the workplace. The environment in which one undertakes to LEARN an art MUST be one of good positive control, uncritical support of the student who, after all, just wants to learn how to be a more able entertainer.

This is the gift that The Acting Center offers. I’ve been privileged to watch it grow, and I’m a student myself.

You know what? This stuff works!

For more information, visit http://www.theactingcenterla.com.

(And of course, don’t miss my new one man show, JIMPRESSIONS, presented by The Acting Center. http://theactingcenterla.com/on-the-stage-2/ Check under “Events” at the web site above for more information.)