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How to… imitate famous people

Jack Lane as Norman Wisdom. Photo: Stephen Candy
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1. Find the story

When I began work on the script for Wisdom of a Fool [the story of Norman Wisdom] it became clear I’d have to be ruthless with which elements of Norman’s life I was going to use as a narrative. I researched him heavily, cross-referencing stories, talking to his children and making sure I was speaking from his soul. Through this process, the same key moments continued to arise. They were clear indicators of his motives. The hardest part was choosing what to leave out. I had to decide what would advance the story as opposed to telling an anecdote. Where possible, seek out the family of the icon you’re trying to portray, not only out of courtesy but also for research. Being around [Wisdom’s adult children] Nick and Jackie has been invaluable. They share many of Norman’s traits. Observing those is the ultimate tool for character development.

2. Work on the character

I workshopped the play over five months, tirelessly trying to find Norman’s voice and physicality. I wanted to play the man and the persona, as that’s what he would default to in the public eye. Doing so makes the moments you drop that persona all the more potent. The audience feel they’re getting a glimpse of something new or a side they’ve not seen before. It’s a fine balance. Play only the persona and you’re simply impersonating, offering no revelations. Play only the man and you can become disengaged with your audience. They won’t recognise or enjoy their idol’s story on stage.

3. Believe in yourself

You must trust your gut and follow your instincts. If you’ve worked hard, you’ll know more than anyone about the person’s life you’re telling. The audience will sense the moment you stop believing. If you drop the voice or physicality for a couple of seconds they’ll be on to you. I’ll put my neck on the line and say this kind of role is more exhausting than originating a character. You’re constricted in the skin of someone people already have a reference for. The hard part is making that look natural.

Jack Lane is the writer and performer of Wisdom of a Fool, at London’s Lost Theatre, March 8-11. He was talking to John Byrne

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