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Learn the Basics of Ventriloquism

Ventriloquism is the art of speaking out loud without moving your mouth or face. The word, ventriloquist, comes from the Latin that literally means, speak from the stomach.  A skilled ventriloquist will “throw” his or her voice to appear to come from elsewhere, usually from a dummy or puppet.  Over the years, there have been a number of famous and very successful ventriloquists, such as Edgar Bergen “Charlie McCarthy” and Shari Lewis “Lamb Chop”, or Terry Fator “Emma Taylor, Ernie, and “Winston the Impersonating Turtle,” just to name a few. 

However, originally, ventriloquism was a religious practice and used to speak to the dead or foretell the future. But in the 18th century, ventriloquism took a U-turn from religion to entertainment with people throwing their voice into puppets at carnivals and traveling funfairs, as well as in vaudeville in the US.  Today, with media’s ability to convey the illusion of “throwing the voice,” the field of ventriloquism is waning, with only 15 full-time entertainers in the year 2000.  That said, if the public’s taste for live comedy continues to grow, (and it looks as if it will) so will the number of ventriloquists. 

Although people generally smile when picturing a ventriloquist speaking through a dummy who is sitting on his or her lap, this art form is really quite difficult to master, but highly entertaining when done with skill.  Other than being somewhat of an actor, ventriloquists must pronounce words without moving their mouths, when at the same time smiling and pulling off a good routine.

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Build Your Skills and Technique

Very few ventriloquists earn a college degree, unless the degree is in something other than ventriloquism, such as acting, directing or theatrical production, drama, the theater arts, or dramatic theater. Most aspiring ventriloquists take online courses from professional ventriloquists, read dozens of books, watch YouTube videos, or take a workshop. But, as this field does take a certain amount of showmanship, a degree in the performance arts is smart as well. 

Taking courses in acting and the performing arts, such as theater, can greatly benefit a budding ventriloquist. After all, half of your act is a performance.  Learning the ins and outs of comedy and comedic writing is also important. Post-secondary drama programs are offered at most colleges and universities in the US.  In these programs, students can hone skills, but also learn what goes on behind the scenes, like how to write a business contract. Classes that may benefit ventriloquists include stage production, acting, even music.  Students will learn through participation in college productions how to overcome stage fright, how to memorize lines, effectively convey emotions, and get into character. 

Obviously, speaking in public is a skill all ventriloquists must have or cultivate, as is the ability to work independently, take initiative, have a healthy respect for deadlines and show times, time-budgeting skills, persistence, adaptability and flexibility, a healthy self-image, self-discipline, dedication, and the ability to bounce back after disappointment. 

Voice or vocal training can also be beneficial, because as a ventriloquist, you will not use your own voice when speaking for your dummy, and inflections in your voice will add to its personality and authenticity.  And while being on stage is fun and exciting work, it is work, and all performers (including ventriloquists) must treat this field as a career.  That’s why business and marketing skills are as important as performing. 

When just starting out, professionals already in the field will advise “newbies” to practice by holding a finger over your lips. This is a good way to prevent you from moving your lips, but also show you how your lips do move by pronouncing certain words or letters.  As ventriloquists just starting out go through the alphabet, they will notice that there are certain letters that are more difficult than others, like F, M, B, P, V, W, and Q.  Usually professionals will substitute these letters for sounds that are similar, such as ‘TH’ for F, or ‘N’, ‘NAH’, ‘NEH’ for M. This all sounds very silly at first, but as you practice you will begin to notice your lips not moving as much and letters and words sounding more authentic.

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Ventriloquism for Dummies

All ventriloquists have dummies or puppets that ‘do most of the talking.’  But, to be convincing, a ventriloquist will experiment with different voices and pitches; accents and even the speed with which he or she speaks.  It’s also important to be able to bring your dummy to life with animation and movements. Maybe your act requires your dummy to be mischievous or angry. Turning its head a certain way, or moving its arms can better communicate a feeling or temperament. 

‘Dummies’ vary in size and can be anywhere from a foot tall to human-size and larger. Most dummies or puppets are make out of papier-mache or wood, but other materials like fiberglass-reinforced resins, latex and neoprene are also used.  Some people, like Jeff Dunham and Frank Marshall, have gotten famous by creating dummies.  Dummies can be designed and customized with glasses, mustaches and beards, clothing, etc. And not all dummies are people. Some are animals and other beings. 

As you, the ventriloquist also speaks, you will have to practice interrupting, speaking in your own voice when not speaking for your dummy, animating your dummy, tilting your own head, etc., all of which takes practice.

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Gain Experience & Advance Your Skills

To hone your craft and learn new techniques or build on what you’ve already learned through coursework, ventriloquists are wise to seek out opportunities to entertain audiences in playhouses and theaters as much as possible. With each performance, you add to your resume and portfolio while learning from your mistakes and successes. Local theater can also provide the chance to network with people who may provide opportunities to perform or audition.  Maybe you are offered a role to appear without your dummy in a local theater production. Although it may not be the perfect way to hone your specific craft, it will give you further experience on stage in front of an audience. 

As with every field of art, ventriloquism is no different. It takes practice to become good, and years of practice to become successful. Practicing every day will help your career develop, and playing games or watching TV with your dummy will help you sharpen your technique and bring it to life.

Get to Know Our Experts

Patrick Murray

  • Title:
    Ventriloquist
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Las Vegas, NV
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I was working as a dock worker unloading trucks and boxcars in Chicago when I found the toy dummy my mom had given me when I was 6 years-old. I took the dummy and rigged it up so it could drink. I had a drinking contest with the dummy at the company Christmas party, and it was a huge hit with the employees. All my fellow dock workers encouraged me to pursue ventriloquism and comedy as a career.
    • I studied hard, and practiced the techniques while working nights on the docks. I began taking lessons with Mike Rzeminski. At the first lesson, he handed me a professional ventriloquist dummy and told me to “do something”. After a short demonstration of what I had practiced, he told me I didn’t need the lessons; I needed a professional dummy and to get on stage.
    • Mike was a partner in a night club called “Little Bit O’ Magic” and he got me booked there on the nights I wasn’t working on the docks. I performed every chance I got at night clubs, private parties, any place that would allow me stage time. I even walked around as a ventriloquist at McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago. I became a regular at comedy clubs and ended up getting a steady booking at “The Sabre Room”, a famous Chicago area night club and dinner theater.
    • Eventually, I got a contract on a cruise ship and toured the Caribbean for a year as an entertainer on board. Later, I became a cruise director but continued to perform my act.
    • After 4 years as a cruise director, I went back to being a “guest entertainer” in order to concentrate on performing and writing, while taking contracts at places like Atlantic City and Resorts International and Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
    • I currently star in my own show Ja’ Makin’ Me’ Laugh at The D Las Vegas.

    Recommended Organizations

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    I recommend any and all educational opportunities. Acting classes, improvisation classes, writing classes, a degree in theater, learning the technical aspects of theater, sound and lighting, etc. All will be a huge boost for any performing artist.

    Keep healthy

    Health is key. Deep breathing is a major factor in successful ventriloquism. Exercise (I practice yoga, breathing exercises, and cardio.), eat healthy, and no smoking.

    Practice and stage time

    For a while ventriloquism was considered a lost art. Recently, it has had a rebirth. Puppets and ventriloquism seem to be getting “hot”. Perfect your craft, get as much stage time and practice as possible, and use modern technology such as social media and YouTube to market yourself.

    Jimmy Vee

  • Title:
    Ventriloquist
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Orlando, FL
  • Experience:
    18 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • Puppets have fascinated me since I was a child. Sesame Streetthe Muppets and Fraggle Rock were huge inspirations. When I was in third grade, a ventriloquist performed at our school. This was the first time I had ever seen ventriloquism, and I was hooked.
    • When I was a freshman in college, I began making marionette puppets. One day while walking through the mall, I met a man with a puppet kiosk. I told him about my marionettes, and after seeing my work, he invited me to place them in his “store” on consignment. So I did.
    • Later, the man brought out a ventriloquist puppet that looked like a dim-witted bird and started performing ventriloquism for some kids who were hanging around the kiosk. I was mesmerized. I asked the ventriloquist to teach me, and he recommended I go to the library and check out a book to learn it.
    • Shortly after, I learned a bit of magic and balloon sculpture and put together a 45 minute show. My first shows were in people’s garages for $75.
    • As I developed my skills, my show, and marketing ability, I increased my rates and started booking more shows. Soon I was doing 4 and 5 shows a weekend at several hundred dollars an hour. I used the income to pay for my college education.

    Recommended Organizations

    • International Ventriloquist Society is the world organization for ventriloquists. This is a relatively new organization that is organized by Maher Studios.
    • Puppeteers of America is a national non-profit organization and has produced over 160 national and regional festivals to celebrate and share the art of puppetry.

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    The art of ventriloquism can surely be learned and performed without a formal education. But to have a successful career in show business and as an entertainer, it would be very helpful to have a formal education. Certain educational tracks would be more valuable than others as a working ventriloquist. I would recommend business, marketing, or theater degrees.

    Be a specialist not a generalist

    This tip is an easy concept to grasp but an extremely difficult one to put into practice. The key to success as a ventriloquist is to have clarity and focus. Pick a group you most like to perform for and build the best show you can for them. Don’t focus on writing church material and comedy club material. Don’t work on both a kid show and a corporate show. Choose what you do best and feel most comfortable doing, and put all your energy into that thing.

    Find the people who spend money on what you want to sell

    If you want to make ventriloquism a career, you’ll have to find out who spends the money you want to make on the type of show you want to create. Then build your show for them.

    Show business is equal parts show and business

    Many people who have gotten involved in the theater or entertainment arts, like ventriloquism, are typically artistic types who prefer to focus on the performing aspect of the job. While having a wonderful show is important (a prerequisite actually), it is really only the beginning. Sales, marketing, networking, budgeting, accounting, contracts and collections are just a handful of the business tasks you’ll need to become proficient in if you are going to make it in show business.

    Get started by learning

    It’s pretty easy to get started in ventriloquism. You can buy a book or take an online course like the one by ventriloquist Tom Crowl or the Maher Course. But the very best way to jump-start your career in ventriloquism is to attend the Vent Haven ConVENTion in held Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky every year.

    Kevin Driscoll

  • Title:
    Ventriloquist
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Boston, MA
  • Experience:
    4 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I always enjoyed ventriloquists and watched ventriloquists on TV in the 1950’s.
    • I went to every Jeff Dunham show whenever he performed in the Boston area.
    • After my youngest son went away to college, I had the time to try ventriloquism.
    • Around that time, I bought a Jerry Mahoney replica puppet on eBay.
    • I watched YouTube videos and read books on ventriloquism to learn.
    • I started performing with my puppet at open-mic comedy venues in the Boston Area. My first performance was terrible, but I received encouragement to keep trying.
    • Finally, I created my own website and started charging for my shows.

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    Although I have a master’s degree in music, I do not believe there are any schools for ventriloquism. As such, it was necessary for me to educate myself with every resource that the internet provides. It is absolutely essential to practice, practice and practice. You can also start out by performing for free at open-mics.

    Just do it

    Practicing all day in front of a mirror will never teach you what comedy is all about. You need a live audience for feedback to determine what works. Also, comedy is so subjective. What is funny to one person may be offensive to another.

    Ventriloquist Infographic