The Difference Between Impersonation and Acting

There is an ongoing debate among actors as to whether it is better to start with externals and move to internals, or vice versa.

It doesn’t really matter where you start, as long as you approach the internal aspect in an “organic” way.  Whatever triggers that for you is fine, if it works.

Years ago, Paul Muni and Laurence Olivier were among the best actors of their generations, and both began with externals.  “What sort of nose does my character have?”  Truthfully, they fall a bit short as actors by current standards.  Their approach seems like artifice to today’s audience.

Meryl Streep has received criticism throughout her career for paying meticulous attention to hair color, accent, etc., the implication being that it is all about externals for her.  The thing which keeps some people from feeling warm and fuzzy about her is probably more a function of the characters she has played than her approach as an actress.  In addition, Streep’s chameleon nature is under a microscope in film in a way that it wouldn’t be on stage.

You can develop an honest performance by starting with externals.  Joanne Woodward has acknowledged that she starts with what her character looks like, what sort of hat she wears.  Woodward is entirely believable in her roles and won a well-deserved Academy Award for The Three Faces of Eve, so she has used this approach to great success.

Probably more actors start with internals than externals, but there is NOTHING WRONG with feeling that you start with externals, as long as you do it properly and dig a good foundation as well. 

In fact, I think you’ll find that anyone who starts with externals and does it well is also pursuing the internals simultaneously.  He just starts paying attention to externals earlier than some other actors do.

Which brings us to the matter of impersonation, which is not the same thing as acting.

For people who make a living as an impersonator, like Frank Caliendo and Rich Little, capturing the unique identifying characteristics, tics, and vocal peculiarities of well-known personalities and casting them in a humorous light is much more important than creating a completely believable character.   They are comedians, not actors.  Believable isn’t the point for them; recognizably accurate is.

Any time you play a real, historical person on stage, particularly people we’ve seen and heard on video or film, you risk becoming an impersonator rather than an actor.  It is easy to be so concerned about being faithful to their external nature that you forget to do the extra work required to find the inner person who manifests those externals.

It’s not easy – playing real people on stage is very challenging, just as talking directly to the audience is.  Combine those two things in a one-person show, and you’ve got your work cut out for you.  Line readings become a very strong temptation in this situation.  After all, it’s unnatural to speak to people who never talk back, who don’t respond “in character”, because they aren’t characters, they are audience.

One-person shows are a peculiar combination of acting and stand-up work, especially the comic portions of the show.  Only the best actors can pull them off in a way that makes the audience entirely suspend disbelief, because “staying in the moment” during them is so damned hard.  Without that, we simply make a tacit agreement to be entertained as opposed to moved.  We accept the mimic and laugh at the humor inherent in the lines.  In other words, we laugh at the jokes, not at the character and his situation.  It’s more about entertaining than it is acting.

When you choose to play a stereotype, you risk impersonation.  All right, no one “chooses” to play a stereotype, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t something we can end up with without realizing it.  Stereotypes are always based on externals and generalized adjectives.  There is some bit of truth behind them, or they wouldn’t be stereotypes.  However, if you don’t discover what makes this individual’s stereotypical qualities unique, you won’t be an actor; you’ll be an impersonator.

I don’t think I’ve yet explained the difference between “over-actors” and “under-actors” (we all are one or the other; learning to act is about finding the balance between the two).  But I think “over-actors” are more susceptible to mimicking and the line readings that can result, because they are more concerned with “entertaining” the audience than “under-actors” are.

[I am framing this piece with Youtube video links to two of my favorite one-character plays about famous people, with actors who make it look easy:  The Belle of Amherst, with the incomparable Julie Harris, who was nominated for more Tony Awards (ten) and won more (five) than any other performer; and Mark Twain Tonight, which Hal Holbrook has been performing for 47 years.  Both actors won Tonys for their performances in the original Broadway productions (Holbrook has had three Broadway runs of the show.)  The link to Mark Twain Tonight is just a promotional piece, as the full video from the 1967 television production isn’t the best quality, but you can find it on Youtube as well.]

The Taming of the Shrew

The American Conservatory Theatre’s 1976 production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew remains my favorite version of this funny play.  I played Bianca years ago, and while ours was a respectable production, William Ball’s version is, for me, nothing short of perfection.  The commedia dell’arte conceit is ideally suited to the play, and it’s just rollicking fun from start to finish.

If you’re afraid of Shakespeare, don’t worry!  This is a very accessible version, and solid evidence of why Shakespeare needs to be seen, not read.  (I just got a link on Facebook telling me the Duchess of Cornwall is trying to make this same point, thank you very much!)

I watched the play again recently when reading a link on actors’ interpretations for an upcoming post, and I realized this video is a great way of giving us common ground to talk about some issues, as well as demonstrating some things I want to talk about.  So I will be referring to this production at various points to help illuminate what I’m trying to say.

The PBS videotaping plays out over 12 Youtube videos, which I believe this first one will link you to as you go along.  I’ve also included them in the links in the righthand column, for easy future reference.

Enjoy!  (For those who want to go directly to Kate & Petruchio’s meeting, which is out of this world, go to Part 5 using the link in the righthand column!)

Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I just got back from 12 wonderful days in Stratford, Ontario.  Ten shows during that time, with the following report card:

stratfordFiddler on the Roof — great production all the way around, with no weak spots, although no standouts, either.  Grade:  A

The Three Musketeers — a good production of iffy material.  People keep trying to adapt this novel, just as they keep trying to adapt The Great Gatsby, and to similar effect.  Stratford’s production values are exemplary, although the set changes on this were unnecessary, and even perhaps a little distracting.  I wasn’t wowed by D’Artagnon, but again, it’s the material.  Dramatically, the second act holds together much better, while the first act is rushed exposition.  Grade:  B (as enjoyable but also as filling as cotton candy)

How to Disappear Completely — a very compelling performance piece incorporating documentary film, stage lighting, and storytelling to examine the right-to-life issue.  Powerful experience, and it leads me to think that we all have a performance piece in us about the most important events of our lives.  Grade:  A (not an A+ as the performer, while a good storyteller, is not a great storyteller.  He is, after all, a lighting designer and documentary filmmaker by profession.)

Measure for Measure — I’d never seen nor read this play before, and it was very different from what I expected.  Updated to post WWII Vienna.  Interesting play, but somehow a bit bland in the final product.  Grade:  B

Mary Stuart — Perfection, start to finish.  Probably the strongest cast of the bunch.  You could also see the director’s hand in it, and he is utterly fabulous.  Grade:  A+

Waiting for Godot —  (Pronounced GOD-oh, for those of you have been pronouncing it incorrectly, like me, all these years.)  Another excellent production.  Grade:  A+

The Thrill — Superb cast, inadequate script for this world premiere.  I believe a reviewer called the plot “inert”.  I second the emotion, and walked out at intermission.  A play in which little happens until just before intermission, and is going to take 1 hour and 20 minutes to do it in doesn’t deserve my attendance.  (Can you tell I feel strongly that contemporary plays should come in at 2 hours with intermission?)  Grade:  C-

Taking Shakespeare — About a college prof tutoring a theatrically challenged student.  Solid script and the student (the same actor who played D’Artagnon) was excellent.  The professor, a big name in Canadian theater, was fine.  Not brilliant — I question a choice or two — but just fine.  And a 2 hour, 5 minute show with a strong plot, I can live with!  Grade:  A

Romeo & Juliet — Didn’t know this play could be boring, but apparently in the right production, it can.  A completely uncharismatic Romeo didn’t help matters, but he had help in earning the grade:  D.  (And I left at intermission on this one, too.  I knew the end, after all.)

Othello — Fascinating staging:  a proscenium stage with a square, raked, rotating platform used to utterly brilliant effect.  Solid, solid cast.  But the fact that I started to cry one minute later when I met my husband in the street took me quite by surprise.  So I guess that despite my fondness for Mary Stuart, I must give the crown to Othello.  Grade:  A++