Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How to be a Ventriloquist

Tony and Charlie
My friend Steve Axtell of Axtell Expressions, Inc. asked me to judge the ventriloquist video contest he is currently sponsoring. I have watched over a hundred 2 minute videos in various age categories. 
It has been an enlightening and concentrated experience.  After watching these videos I have noticed that there are general notes I could give to most every vent student.
Since time restraints and sheer volume keep me from fully explaining to each contestant individually, I thought I would use this space to express some thoughts. 
Note: I refer to the ventriloquist as he. I saw some really wonderful "she" ventriloquists in the competition. I do not mean this blog to be sexist or politically incorrect. It just saves me several typing steps to write "he" instead of "he/she." So female vents... don't think this only applies to the guys.
I always make the comparison between ventriloquism and music. You practice for hours with your puppet (your instrument) and perfect the routine (your music). The same rules apply to both art forms at this student level. You must perfect your technique, rehearse, for hours and hours before you play music.  You must practice until the instrument almost performs by itself. You come to a point in your rehearsal when the technique transcends rote behavior and orbits at a higher level.  When you perform this integration between instrument and music you have a performance... you have ART. 
Here is where the analogies part company.   When a musician plays music on an instrument the experience can be totally appreciated with your eyes closed. How the musician is creating the music physically with his instrument is not important any more. It is all about the emotion and phrasing of the music itself. The music and the musician become one in expression. 
The interaction between the instrument of a musician and the character of a ventriloquist is totally different at performance level. The musician is communicating through his instrument. The ventriloquist is communicating WITH his instrument. The routine and the ventriloquist become TWO in the expression.
The art of ventriloquism is creating the illusion that there are two separate expressions on stage at the same time. The trick: it's all being done by one expression. In the videos I saw performers with great lip control and great puppet movement but it wasn't the art of ventriloquism. 
It should look like two separate expressions interacting together in a spontaneous conversation, each listening and talking in turn. What I saw mostly were ventriloquists  who would deliver a line while the puppet remained motionless, then assume a blank motionless stone-faced expression while the puppet became animated and delivered their line. 
Sometimes the puppet would never even look at the ventriloquist nor react to what he was saying. The same was true with the ventriloquist, and even though he might actually be looking at the puppet he did not look like he was listening. The expression on the face of the ventriloquist was that of a "lip control trance", concentrating on doing a funny voice not listening to what a character was saying. 
Here is an exercise. Find some place where people are having an animated discussion. Watch two people in conversation. They are both alive, active, engaged and involved the entire time. Even when one is just listening there is eye contact, head nodding, blinking, finger tapping or just fidgeting that visually communicate that the listener is involved. You will never see a person in real life stare into space and remain motionless while the other is speaking to them. 
A ventriloquist has more of a responsibility to this active conversational engagement since a puppet (even as good as an Axtell puppet) has less range of motion than a human. A ventriloquist has to work with a puppet so much that even when he is not thinking about it, the puppet is moving, thinking and reacting to what ever is happening on stage. To repeat the discipline of the musician.... You must practice until the instrument almost performs by itself.
Keep your character active, thinking, reacting to what is going on. By the same token the ventriloquist has to keep his own personality active, alive and thinking at the same time.  It may seem like patting your head and rubbing your stomach for a while, but the fingering on the neck of a violin seems difficult at first. 
Ventriloquism and acting overlap like music and phrasing. I would encourage all ventriloquists who are serious to find a good acting class and study. Acting comes from the root word action. You will learn how to communicate your emotions (actions) non-verbally with facial and body movements. When you are on stage you can never "zombie" out and be uninvolved with the action nor can your puppet character.  Actions speak louder than words. A good ventriloquist can keep the illusion of simultaneous dual expressions alive on stage even when neither character is actually talking. Turn off the audio of your video practice tapes and see if it looks like there are two separate characters always alive, active and talking to each other. Look at what the vent is doing when the puppet is talking and look at what the puppet is doing when the vent is talking. But remember the three rules of ventriloquism are the same with any art form discipline: Practice, Practice and Practice some more.
For what it is worth.
As you were,


P. Grecian said...

Amen and amen.

Steve Axtell said...

Jay thanks so much for taking the time to judge the Axtell Puppet Video Contest and to further spell out the mechanics of what brings a puppet to life in a vent routine. Your comments to each of the contestants will be treasured forever coming from the two and only, Jay Johnson!
Steve Axtell

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much Jay for conveying this excellent insight to all. It truly does boil down to practice, practice, practice, especially pertaining to character development. I can relate to the movie " The Karate Kid" the segment " Wax on, Wax off " with enough practice and effort the act/relationship becomes so polished that it is indeed seamless.


Cheryl said...

I was lucky enough to receive the entire series of Soap for Christmas - and this is exactly what I have noticed and been delighted by while watching. Both Chuck and Bob are always fully engaged in the scene. In fact, I watch your scenes several times just to take everything in. Simply amazing!

Roy Stone said...

Great write up Jay. Thanks for the time and hard work. I know it will help me in my future vent work. Also thank you to all the judges for your time and effort. And thank you Steve for giving the opportunity to us to do this kind of thing and get such great feed back. It helps us grow our talent.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jay Johnson, for your very insightful and constructive comments. I have taken the general comments to everyone, and have applied this advice, to my act. I am seeing immediate improvement and I am working to get more. Thank you to.Steve Axtell and all the judges, for your time. It is events like this that help an art form grow. It elevates the bar, on what wonderful and amazing things are possible, in the future. Win, lose, or draw, we all end up winners.

Josh Herman

Tom Farrell said...

This should be required reading for everyone taking up vent.