Don’t jump the gun
If you haven’t read the previous blog introducing ventriloquism, click here to read it first. Consider it mandatory homework before learning the cheats. To learn these techniques without having a grasp of the basics will lead to sloppy ventriloquism.
Now for the cheats
Even though learning the techniques will make you an expert ventriloquist, there are some cheats that you can do to accomplish a good ventriloquist act.
The visual perception of the audience plays a big role in believability as well. Use this to your advantage. The purpose of Ventriloquist legends such as Fred Russell setting the vent dummies on their knee was actually a visual distraction technique. By having the puppet on their knee, it was in front of the ventriloquist. In combination with the ventriloquist making the dummy more animated through the use of physical gestures with arm rods, etc. and minimizing their own physical gestures, this gave the dummy visual dominance to the audience. So have your puppet slightly in front of you whenever possible.
Another thing that occurred, by having the dummy on the knee or slightly in front of you, is that it allowed the ventriloquist to look down at the dummy. With the head tilted toward the puppet, it slightly masks the mouth of the ventriloquist so that it covers slight lip movements.
An example that I use when teaching this is to have my students watch famous ventriloquists. After reading this, since you are on the internet anyway, do a web search on Edgar Bergen and his main character, Charlie McCarthy, one of the most well-known ventriloquist acts of the mid 1900’s, and if you watch his act, you will think the act is great, but watch it again while covering up the dummy and only paying attention to Edgar Bergen and you will see that he was not a very good ventriloquist as far as covering his words. His use of misdirecting the audience’s attention helped considerably.
If you follow the aforementioned techniques and you have a little distance (a minimum of 5 feet) from your audience then you will be able to pronounce the letters with minimal movement and it will not be noticed. A lot of beginners do this because it allows them the ability to pronounce the letters without having to exchange letters. Whatever you do though, do not make this a habit and end up not learning how to do letter exchange or your act will slowly become sloppy as you do more and more performances. The reason for this is because you will run into more and more people who have seen your performance in the past and this time will be concentrating more on you than the puppet.
Another thing that will help you to cheat at pronouncing is a good accent. In a previous blog post I discussed character development. By knowing your character, you can create an accent, lisp or vernacular that will help you bypass letter exchange.
For example, “good morning” would be a difficult thing to say because of the M, but if your character were Australian then he or she could say “gud daee” instead.
If your character has a speech impediment, you could do the porky pig thing and have the puppet try to use a word and stutter it out only to get fed up and frustrated and replace it with another word that means the same thing (something that doesn’t require letter exchange).
The ultimate cheat is to pre record the puppet’s lines in a manner that appears to look natural and realistic. This is really difficult though. It requires a lot of practice to get the timing down perfect. Gaps, speaking over other character’s lines, etc. makes for a sloppy performance. Also, the recording levels need to match the non-recorded lines or you can easily tell that it is a pre-recording.
Hopefully I haven’t scared you away from trying your hand (and voice) at ventriloquism. Once you get into it, you will have a blast and find yourself practicing all of the time. If you become proficient at it, you will find it to be a real benefit for one man operations or a full on puppet team.
In the next post, I will cover ventriloquism one more time. If there is anything that I have missed or you want to have me get more in depth with, let me know.
Again, I recommend Tom Crowel’s Ventriloquist training if you are looking to get really detailed training from a master of the craft.