Jan Ravens On … The Changing Face of ImpressionismDate: 28 September 2009
Renowned impressionist Jan Ravens is currently on tour with her show A Funny Look at Impressions, which comes to the West End's Lyric Theatre for a one-off gala concert on 5 October in aid of UK charity Changing Faces.
Ravens was the first female president of Cambridge University Footlights and as director of their revue The Cellar Tapes, won the first Perrier Award. Since then, she's become well known as a contributor on the legendary Spitting Image, and subsequently for playing all the women in Dead Ringers, including her infamous takes on Anne Robinson, Ellen MacArthur and Kirsty Wark.
She has also appeared on Question Time, danced with Anton du Beke on Strictly Come Dancing and she won Celebrity Mastermind in 2008. Theatre work includes After Easter and Pentecost (RSC) and The Relapse (Chichester Festival Theatre).
A Funny Look at Impressions came about after I did a platform discussion at the National Theatre last June. It was called Changing Faces, about the difference between portraying real people in topical comedy as opposed to drama. When I did it, people seemed to find it quite interesting, because even though they'd seen a lot of impression shows, they hadn’t seen one that talked about it as a genre, technique, or issue. So I decided that I would extend it into a full length show, and James Seabright kindly said that he would promote it and take it on tour. So that’s what we’ve done.
I’ve written most of it, which was a huge challenge for me. Writing is the thing I’ve never been confident about. I’ve always found the blank page a very unforgiving audience. I always wonder ‘oh my god is this funny?’ because you haven’t got an audience there laughing to tell you whether it is or not. That’s been a big thing for me, performing jokes that I’ve written. But so far on tour the material has gone down well and people are laughing, hooray!
In terms of format, it's a kind of tour of the world of impressions, and we stop at points of interest along the way. So we look at the history, but don’t stay too long at the museum - we look, get a few interesting facts, and depart. The show explains how one goes about doing an impression and creating comedy characters. As an impressionist, you’re like a cartoonist. You have to draw out eccentricities and foibles of public figures and exaggerate them to comic effect. It’s also a bit of a trip down memory lane because I talk about my career, my past as an impressionist, how I started off, how I got involved with Dead Ringers, and how it all kind of grew.
Being pegged as an 'impressionist' can be quite limiting for someone who would like to be doing some poetry and soul searching! I’m a pretty good actress, but I’m an unusually good impressionist. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. Even if I weren’t doing impressions, I think naturally I’m a funny person, I have a comedic eye. Also, I have chubby cheeks and big blue eyes, and you don’t get to play tragic heroines when you look like me! It’s not just funny voices though, you have to be them and get inside their head. It’s like über-acting. That’s what the really good impressionists do: they try to be the person. It’s a kind of necromancy. You see them magically without any costumes or make-up.
I first got involved with the charity Changing Faces when I was asked to do a gala for them a couple of years ago. I got really interested in their work partly because of putting this show together and realising that today there is such a ridiculous obsession with appearance. It's partly due to the new wave of politicians, who are obssessed with conforming and not offending anybody, and it's massively to do with the craze for celebrity.
That said, I think we’ve only got ourselves to blame for the 'culture' of celebrity. People say “Oh Jordan, she’s marvellous, she knows what she wants and she goes for it”. But I think in fact she’s an awful role model for all these girls. I’ve seen her on tour doing book signings and such, and there are queues around the block of young girls with their mothers, waiting to buy her book. And I think ‘You’re no kind of role model because you’re obsessed with your appearance and everything is superficial’. I’m not saying she isn't a good mum or businesswoman, but she’s not a good role model to these girls who are already obsessed with their appearance. She shows girls that you can have any bloody surgery you want to make yourself look different. Anyway, that's me on my soapbox!
The thing about people with facial disfigurements is that they are at the cutting edge of this culture of conformity. They attract attention but it’s attention that they don’t want like staring or rude comments. So, Changing Faces works with those people with disfigurements and tries to help them face the world with more confidence. It also works to get corporations to change their attitudes. They have this scheme called Facial Equality, where companies can sign up to have a policy of facial equality. They work not only with the people with disfigurements but with everyone to help change our negative attitudes towards disfigurement.
We all do this thing of looking at each other’s faces and making assessments about them - we do this all the time. Obviously, if someone’s face is different from yours in an extreme way, you’re going to be afraid. If you have the awareness to say ‘Yes, they look like that but let me find out about them,’ you may see that they’re artistic and sensitive or maybe they're a complete shit. Either way, the judgement you make won't be based on that person's outward appearance.
- Jan Ravens was speaking to Theo Bosanquet