01

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.

  • What is “throwing your voice”?
  • What is the job outlook for a ventriloquist?
  • What can a ventriloquist earn just starting out?
  • Can a ventriloquist actually become famous?
  • What role, other than sitting on your lap, does a dummy or puppet play?

02

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.

  • Why are some sounds or letters more difficult that others?
  • Why is speaking in public so important?
  • Why is it important to attend a college or university to become a ventriloquist?
  • What other fields are similar to ventriloquism?
  • Do ventriloquists hire managers or agents?

03

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.

  • Where do ventriloquists find dummies or puppets?
  • How do ventriloquists make their dummies come to life, so to speak?
  • Do all ventriloquists use only one dummy or many?
  • How can ventriloquists train their voices to be different then their speaking voice?

04

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.

  • To perform professionally, must a ventriloquist move to LA or New York City?
  • How can a ventriloquist add to his or her portfolio and resume?
  • How do ventriloquists deal with disappointment on stage?
  • How can a ventriloquist get over stage fright?
  • What are some organizations or clubs that ventriloquists can join to network?

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