My favourite acting game is one I have played since before I understood that people onstage are pretending to be other people; that people on the TV weren’t actually murdering each other. It is possibly the oldest, simplest and most universal game ever played. It’s the imitation game (sorry Mr Cumberbatch, not you). Considered by many (normal people) to be juvenile, offensive, socially unacceptable and embarrassing to one’s strolling companions, this age-old game is an absolute corker.
For me imitating other people is instinctive. I often look at the gangly, lopey walk of someone – their arms flailing either side, and immediately want to launch down the street after them, attempting to pass as their doppelganger. Or perhaps an elderly woman negotiating a staircase after her more spritely husband. Or a middle-aged man scrutinising his 50’s quiff in the bus window. To put oneself in the shoes of another, is surely one of the fundamental challenges and attractions of the acting craft.
In the imitation game’s simplest form, you observe someone’s gait and attempt to emulate it with your own body. The rhythm, pace, swagger, jolt level, knee-lift height, hip-swing, stoop, percentage of sole contact with the ground per step etc. This becomes more challenging when the person (animal or mineral) is vastly different from one’s own physical apparatus. Of course this is what is enticing to an actor and beneficial to the development and maintenance of their craft. It highlight’s areas of our body that we haven’t used in a while, movements we have not yet accessed and perhaps limitations we were not yet aware of (like not owning a luscious booty). Played in the street spontaneously, the imitation game is akin to a dancer ripping out a spontaneous high kick and I think provides a similar high.
The game really takes shape when there is an audience involved, which I believe is the eternal search of an actor. The imitation will become distorted or exaggerated, when your inner performer takes over and you begin to interpret your subjects movement for dramatic effect. This exaggeration is one of the basic principles of clowning. Perhaps the audience even becomes the object of imitation! With the audience as an active participant, the game takes on a new level of complexity – does the “imitatee” change their behaviour? Do they begin to imitate your behaviour? At what point does the behaviour cease to originate from an individual party and become a joint creation? The game may also increase in complexity by including more people, until eventually it forms a basic model of society – continual observation and imitation, with the original behaviour morphing and evolving indefinitely.
This is why I love the imitation game – it closely resembles what we do naturally and subconsciously as humans and ensures that we, as artists, remain connected to our society. Which in my opinion is the most important part of our job, our role – to provide a looking glass to the world around us; however distorted the art requires that reflection to be. By observing our imitation, others may gain a greater understanding themselves and the world around them. It is of course recognition that plays a large part in the joy of comedy and the punch-in-the-guts of tragedy. And what better way of ensuring this truthful reflection or recognition than launching down the street after the gangly, lopey man?
*Please note the author in no way encourages the use of this game for bullying purposes. Unless amongst friends.