When ventriloquism comes up in a conversation with magicians, it is usually met with one of three responses: 1. Cool, I love puppets. 2. What’s that? Or 3. That’s for kids. Regardless of the response, it’s fairly evident that ventriloquism is misunderstood by most magicians that don’t have a direct connection to the “Vent World.” — that’s inside slag for the ventriloquism community at large. The reason could be because most magicians don’t encounter many ventriloquists in their lifetime and hence don’t have much interaction with the art.
But what ever the reason, love it or hate it, the fact that many magician dismiss ventriloquism mystifies me and makes me believe that many people in the magic community just don’t really understand the art of ventriloquism or how it works because if they did, I believe they would realize that ventriloquism is actually a magical illusion that can be done close up or on stage, just like what you can accomplish with a small magic gimmick or a large scale stage prop. To explain this further, let’s take a look at five key elements required to accomplish either a close up magic effect or stage illusion:
Now let’s break these down and look at how they apply to ventriloquism.
1. Props/Gimmicks: In the magic world there are many variations of props and gimmicks. Some are visible and others hidden. They’re everything from a simple deck of cards to a large box with swords going through it or an enormous buzz saw connected to a stainless steel operating table. There are the things that help the magician accomplish the trick or pull off the illusion. In Ventriloquism you have two main types of props or gimmicks. You have the traditional or “hard” ventriloquist figure (sometimes called a dummy) usually made of basswood or some kind of casted resin material and the “soft” ventriloquist puppet which is generally made from cloth and foam. Much like magic props, figures and puppets can come in all shapes, styles and designs. But for the vent, a dummy/puppet is the prop they rely on to create their brand of magic.
2. Sleight Of Hand: Wikipedia defines sleight of hand, (also known as prestidigitation or legerdemain) as hand methods and finger techniques used by performing artists in many art forms to entertain or manipulate. Based on that definition what a ventriloquist does “behind the scenes” with his puppet or figures definitely fits. Depending on which type of prop a vent uses (figure or puppet) determines the type of sleights he will execute.
The vent that uses a “hard” figure learns to manipulate levers on a headstick to articulate the figures facial animations. Depending on the complexity of the figure, a could be manipulating as many as ten or twelve animations with eight or ten levers/buttons. Granted most are not this feature rich but five or six animations with four or five levers is not uncommon. The vent also must learn how to manipulate the stick to move the head and manipulate the body to create life-like movement. A vent that uses a soft puppet will have to develop the sleight of hand skill to create life-like animation of his partner with his hand, fingers and arm.
3. Misdirection: Nearly all magical effects can’t be pulled off without some kind of misdirection. Or as some magicians prefer, directing the attention of a spectator toward a certain action while another, more covert, action takes place. This is precisely what a ventriloquist does when he operates his puppet and specifically the mouth of his puppet and doesn’t move his lips. The attention of audience is drawn away from the ventriloquist’s lips and is focused on the figure.
The vent even uses his eyes and body to direct the gaze of the audience toward the puppet. It’s classic misdirection. And just like a magician’s misdirection is aided by principles of human behavior and psychology, like big action covers the little action, tension equals focus and the brain’s retention of vision, so is the ventriloquist’s. For the vent, it’s something called the visual capture effect. Which is basically the brain’s natural tendency to give precedence to visual cues over other senses. So when the vent’s lips don’t move but the puppet’s lips do, the brain takes the eye’s cues for the sound location over the ear’s, thus creating the basic illusion of voice throwing. Couple that with the brain’s natural social intelligence which causes it to interpret consciousness from body movement, facial expressions, vocal tonality and point of view.
Since the the figure moves its head and body, can interact with the audience, seemingly recognizes his environment and has a distinct voice and point of view that is unique to him, the brain recognizes it as “real.” This is why a vent figure can appeal so alive to an audience.
4. Patter/Scripting: So you have your props, honed your sleight of hand and worked out your misdirection and but in order to preform a magical effect of any kind you still need some kind of patter or script or you’ll be standing there with nothing to say to that eager crowd. Often, the words you say and the timing of your statements create additional misdirection for you to accomplish your magical effect. Your patter and script is fabric of an entertaining show. It allows you to connect with and engage the audience.
The same is true for a ventriloquist routine. What you say to set up a premise gives your dummy the opportunity to deliver a joke or say something that establishes his character and/or point of view in a humorous way. How you react to the figure’s lines creates realism, adds to the misdirection and ultimately allows you to create the ventriloquial illusion. Scripting and patter is the backbone of presenting a polished magical performance regardless of the genre.
5. Acting/Reacting: The grand master magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin said, “A prestidigitator is not a juggler; but an actor playing the role of a magician; he is an artist whose fingers have more need to move with deftness than with speed. I may even add that where sleight of hand is involved, the quieter the movement of the performer, the more readily will the spectators be deceived.” This is a quote that often shows up in magic books and articles to describe how a modern-day magician should view himself. Essentially, in order for a person to authentically pull off super natural feats which are truly impossible they must act as if they are possible and natural. Only then can you deliver something so extraordinary in a causal way. You also must react to your own mysteries and fantastical accomplishments in an organic manner congruent with your magical persona. This is also true for the ventriloquist. A ventriloquist must act.
A ventriloquist is an actor playing the part of two separate characters. He/she must act in the persona of his straight man character whether the admonishing parent, the exasperated partner, the embarrassed best friend or the innocent bystander and he/she must act in the persona of the wise-cracking side-kick.
The ventriloquist must also react as both characters and to one another in a natural way as to not let on that he knows what’s coming and is reacting to himself much the same way a magician must hide his knowledge as what the outcome is of the trick he has not yet revealed the conclusion to.
So ultimately the ventriloquist is an actor who uses ventriloquism which is really just magic principles to create the most stunning, improbable and mind blowing illusion of all — creating the illusion of life. The ventriloquist makes people believe there are two living beings on stage when there is only one. She uses deception to make you talk to, feel for and believe in plastic, fur and wood. When done properly the ventriloquist’s character are alive to his audience and to them, it’s magic.