The Secret of Ventriloquism
Written by Jay Johnson   

August 2005

When I was growing up there was ad in the back of almost every comic book. It claimed I could “Learn the Secret of Ventriloquism” for twenty-five cents. Even as a kid I knew any secret that only cost a quarter couldn’t be that good. However, I invested two bits to find out.

What I eventually got in the mail was a swazzle (a flat reed-whistle that could be concealed in the mouth). The swazzle was great for making high-pitched bird noises, but alas, no “Secret of Ventriloquism.” I would have to find it myself. This began a career in search of that secret.

Explaining ventriloquism is surprisingly complicated. Does one talk about the history, the performance, the technique or the pure Zen of ventriloquism? You tell me...I find all aspects of ventriloquism equally compelling. But is there a secret? If so, what is the “secret of ventriloquism?”

Well, what is the secret of music? The secret to becoming proficient in any art form is the same -- practice. There is no way around the hours spent learning the craft of music. The same is true with ventriloquism. There is no way around the hours spent learning the craft of ventriloquism. So there it is. The secret of ventriloquism…PRACTICE. If you think there is a mantra or enchanted word that will make you a ventriloquist, you are in for a big disappointment.

A ventriloquial performance is the art of imitating life. The audience must feel they are watching two or more characters in conversation and not one person who has learned a trick voice. In this regard the art of ventriloquism is much like acting.

An actor must make a script come alive for an audience. It’s not easy to accomplish. It also requires study and Practice. Ventriloquism is even more nebulous and difficult because it is a singularly unique form of acting.

Consider two actors on stage. One speaks while the other listens to that dialogue, then they reverse the process and the speaker becomes the listener. It is the precise timing and interaction of this verbal ping-pong match that makes a great performance.

Unlike an actor who is sometimes just listening to another actor, the ventriloquist is speaking dialogue as one actor while at the same time listening to what is being said. Therefore, at the same moment a ventriloquist is speaking he might have to be “expressing” something entirely different.

Too many times a ventriloquist act fails because there is no interaction between the characters, that is, between the ventriloquist and puppet. The ventriloquist has a line, the puppet is lifeless, then the puppet has a line and the ventriloquist becomes lifeless. The audience reads the expressions of the puppet off the facial reactions of the ventriloquist. Even the best puppet has a limited range of expressions so the ventriloquist must use his unlimited human expressions to justify the puppet’s limited expressions.

I was once complimented after a show on the way one of my characters stuck his tongue out at me. I don’t have a puppet with that mechanical movement. What the person actually saw was my reaction to an expression they thought the puppet made. If manipulated correctly, the collective mind of the audience fills in missing expressions and remembers what it could not possibly have experienced.

In a short-lived television series called Broken Badges, I played the part of a policeman/ventriloquist. There was an emotional scene in a doctor’s office with my puppet character Officer Danny. It involved playing Danny as very angry and my character, Stanley , as very hurt. It was made more difficult because both Stanley and Danny also had dialogue with the doctor.

In the first few takes I couldn’t get it right. I was either playing both Danny and Stanley angry or both characters hurt. I just couldn’t seem to make the split between Danny and Stanley work.  To help me “get it,” the director, Kim Manners, called for an on-camera rehearsal. For one take he had the script supervisor read my part and I played only the part of Danny, in the next take she read Danny’s part and I played Stanley .

I suddenly got it.

I could feel how differently I reacted as Stanley when I wasn’t trying to also act as Danny. In the next take I was able to remember those completely different emotions and play them both at the same time. 

This is the challenge and the secret of ventriloquism. If you are asking an audience to believe that two characters are on stage at the same time, you better show them two distinct characters. Never lose your life or the life of your character, even a moment.

It’s not easy. If it were, would it be worth mastering? How do you do it? Practice. Video tape yourself doing a routine. Watch it back twice. One time never take your eyes off yourself. The next time through, never take your eyes off the puppet. Was there any moment when either character was not alive and expressing an emotion? Make whatever adjustments you have to make and record it again and again until you believe there are two people on screen, not one person at a time. 

A violinist practices his concerto until he hears not just sounds but something that transcends the notes on a page. He will practice and practice until it becomes more than horsehair scraped across metal strings, it becomes art.

An actor practices until he is no longer a person just repeating lines from a script. He becomes the very embodiment of the person in the drama.

A ventriloquist must practice until there is no longer just one person performing a trick voice, but two distinct characters on stage. That is when the craft of ventriloquism becomes the art of ventriloquism. That is the secret of ventriloquism.

You now owe me a quarter.