by George

Ventriloquism for Dummies: An FAQ

What is Ventriloquism?

Watch my lips move.

How does it work?

There’s no big secret, but to explain in scientific terms (“the voice is made up of a motivating force, a vibrator, and a resonator… the ventriloquist uses interior articulators while keeping the exterior ones immobile”) complicates the issue, and will not make a great ventriloquist.

To start with, the ventriloquist has to be able to talk without moving his mouth. This is hard because there are six letters he (or she) can’t voice, lips immobile (B, F, M, P, V, W) because the breath has to be impeded, diverted or stopped in the act of expiration either by both lips, or by the lips and teeth. So, in order to be able to say words that contain these problem letters, the ventriloquist substitutes another letter, one he can say without moving his lips: B = D, F = TH, M = NG, P = T or K, V = TH, and W = OOO or L.

The ventriloquist then puts his lips in a comfortable, convenient position (for he certainly doesn’t want to be wearing a pained grimace throughout his performance) and employs those substitutions. Sounds simple: isn’t. Years of practice. To learn this, to sit in front of a mirror for hours, cloistered away, seeking improvement, is a boring solitary activity. It takes determination, and would-be ventriloquists are often lonely young people, shy, lacking self-esteem.

When he has mastered this, the ventriloquist learns how to manipulate his boy, to make his boy alive, for his ace in the hole is misdirection, in particular the movement of his boy’s lips: this is where people are going to be looking.

To make the boy look alive, he teaches him how to express emotion—some favourites include Surprise (you open your mouth, thrust your chest forward, and swivel your head from side to side), Thought (you cock your head and stare off into space), Embarrassment (you turn your head away), Shame (actually, this is the same as embarrassment), and Excitement (you jump up and down on my arse and speak quicker).

It’s a good idea for him (it’s probably a man, come to think of it) to differentiate his voice as much as possible from the boy’s to create the illusion of the delineation of character, to make his own a little higher or lower (or even, to give the boy a speech impediment he does not share, or to affect one himself) and to repeat any problem words clearly in his own voice.

If he then performs the act at a rapid tempo (which is why a mischievous boy with a zest for life is a perfect conduit for the Ars Ventriloquia), the audience’s will to believe does the rest.

What will be expected of me during this process?

A hard slog. Some, who know a very little about ventriloquism, will argue that none of the hard work will be down to you. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

A new boy, an ingénue, must be at his most sensitive and receptive to take advantage of his first communion: these tentative moments will dictate everything that follows in the most important relationship of his life.

Granted; I, Garrulous George, was a special boy, a commission (and perhaps you are too) but for most it’s a complete lottery. No one wants to get off on the wrong foot with a new partner—your partner must like you, must see himself in you. Only in that way can the two of you work together to create the partnership that will be more than the sum of both your parts. Your understanding and your technique will develop hand in hand, in the creation of this new whole. It might seem absurd, and of course I don’t want to overestimate your role in this, but I wouldn’t want to play it down either.

(Much of this information appears in my forthcoming book, “Ventriloquism for Dummies”, for which I have chosen not to avoid the obvious title, the title that writes itself, a title so obvious that to avoid it would be precious.)

What is the history of Ventriloquism? How did it come about?

There are two histories of Ventriloquism! Here is the one that is most relevant to you:

Once upon a time, there was a carpenter called Mastro Cherry. One day he was holding a common block of firewood, nothing fancy, just a thick solid log. He had decided to make it into the leg of a table, and was about to start whittling, when he heard the piece of wood say: “Please be careful! Don’t hit me!”

Scared, Mastro Cherry handed the wood over to his friend Gepetto to make a marionette out of it.

And that piece of wood was Pinocchio.

Beyond that, you really don’t need to know very much. You don’t even need to know the rest of the Pinocchio story, through which the boy becomes increasingly delusional, egged on by his insane maker. The novel certainly contains one of the most offensive last lines in all of literature: “How ridiculous I was as a Marionette! And how happy I am, now that I have become a real boy!” says Pinocchio after he has been made human for having a kind heart. Gee, thanks.

But, whatever the book’s faults, from this real boy, all other boys, and thus ventriloquism, come.

Pinocchio is a fairy story: Mastro Cherry didn’t really exist—but someone, in real life, saw a piece of wood and heard it talk. Gepetto didn’t really exist—but my maker, Romando, does. And Pinocchio didn’t really exist, and definitely didn’t become a real boy—but I exist, as do you. Pinocchio wrote the book on boys: the meanings of some fairy stories are unclear, but not this one, not to me. We were wood, and then someone had an idea, and then we were boys; and humans were odd enough to suspend their disbelief and imagine that we could talk.

And that is the history of Ventriloquism.

Hold on! You said there were two histories of Ventriloquism!

The rest is just clever talk, but in the interests of fair play, and since you ask, I’ll pay it lip service:

There is an entirely different creation myth, an opposing view, that the magic of the Ars Ventriloquia has its origin in ancient times; in Necromancy, the divination of communication with the dead, where the priest, speaking as if possessed by the dead man, groaned messages to the wonder of all; in “talking” idols, whose effigies hid conduits leading to secret chambers where intoning priests gave the stones their speech; in the Old Testament story of the Witch of Endor, the first ventriloquiste, whom Saul asked to bring forth the spirit of the prophet Samuel who, on arrival, predicted forthcoming gloom. These necromancers were called Engastrimyths—literally, in-belly-speakers: for the voice was thought to come from the stomach where the spirit lived and whence it communicated. The greatest incarnation of these was the Pythian Oracle at Delphi who, amidst a lot of smoke and mirrors, uttered the God’s words in an incomprehensible frenzy—words that were then interpreted one way or another by priests and poets.

(You’re coughing politely and wondering what this has to do with Charlie McCarthy, I know, but I’ll finish anyway… I’d like a fair presentation of both views for your balanced assessment.)

By the 16th century, such divination was forbidden, and ventriloquism was therefore witchcraft, a far cry from how we think of it today. But in 1584 Reginald Scot set out to debunk witchcraft in his classic The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by revealing how the magicians did their tricks. And by 1688, the dictionary gave two meanings for the word ventriloquism: a) an evil spirit and b) a trick. It was a time of transition.

By the 18th century, the meaning of the word ventriloquism had changed entirely: it no longer carried the meaning of the experience of one being possessed by a voice (someone whom a voice enters, like the Pythian Oracle or the Witch of Endor). It now meant the person who could capture the voices of others through imitation (someone who projects a voice). This is the dawn of the ventriloquist as an invisible entertainer, who throws his voice away from himself, projecting it into others, into distant spaces, abstracting himself from the performance.

Even in the heyday of the great practitioners of Distant Voice (Vattermare, MacCabe, and Love), the art was still misunderstood, and almost wilfully misinterpreted—as can be seen in 1840, in a very popular (and silly) book called Valentine Vox by Henry Cockton. Only a child could believe the eponymous hero able to throw his voice such absurd distances (and he does it in real life, never on a stage—at least, not on a stage on which he is a player); yet there it is page after page, Valentine saving the day, Valentine astounding one and all, and then explaining it to people who become “convulsed with mirth”, when really they’d have wanted to kick him in the teeth. (Why did Cockton write such a book? Because it is always in the interests of tricksters to imply that their magical gifts are real.)

Vox Knight was the last great proponent of Distant Voice, the skill of the virtuoso ventriloquist throwing his voice into unbounded space: but Distant Voice is now a lost art because of what had happened since.

Put simply, I had happened. You had happened. You, and all your brothers around the world, brought ventriloquism a spectacular new popularity. The key reasons for this: we’re hilarious, we’re cute, and we’re very very cheeky. Now it was about the character of the boy capturing the ventriloquist’s voice (and the audience’s attention) before that voice had a chance to explore distant space.

What had been a ponderous entertainment (too many voices, too many motionless characters, too many costume changes, no drama) became a slick fast moving portable double act. The drama now—finally, drama!—depended on the ventriloquist’s natural voice versus his assumed voice, and the psychological interplay between the two.

And then came the greatest development: the boy took over, and the ventriloquist became his straight man. The boy became the star of the show. (And a better argument for Darwin, I have never seen.) He killed his father. Among us, my brothers, this is commonly known as The Pinocchio Moment. It is the nearest you will ever get to becoming human, except in fairy stories.

Coster Joe was the first boy to experience this rapture. The other half of his double act, Fred Russell, invented the concept of the ventriloquist as the straight man: he was the father of Modern Ventriloquism. But it was Coster Joe who emerged as the real personality—the things he got away with! Fred could never have said half of them. Skating along on fast patter, their act was “The Original”.

That’s the story of the men who made Ventriloquism, but who made me?

If you don’t know who made you, I recommend you find out as soon as possible. To understand your lineage is to know your own potential and limitations. Help and consultation can be arranged. For the time being, let’s call him Gepetto X.

There have been many Gepetto X’s, but few greats.

I was made by a genius: Joseph Romando of Romando Theatrical Properties of Henley. There were great craftsmen before him, and there will be many more, but to be a Romando boy is something. Look at my predecessors, those old boys of yore, with their snapping nutcracker mouths (jaw droppingly stupid) and their dull emotionless faces. Tell me I wasn’t sired by a kinder, cleverer man. And Romando was not only a great artiste, but an innovator.

For example, his first challenge was the jaw. Being the one part of a boy that must move, this had passed through many stages evolutionary stages. I once saw a Neanderthal head where, while the jaw stayed still, it was the head itself that moved up and down by means of a pullstring on or around the external occipital protuberance. Barbaric! I remember another where a handle protruded from the back of the neck which, when pushed down, opened the lower jaw by means of a hinge and a spring attached to the inside of the cranium. Such fossils are ancient history, and I gaze on them (as at primitive cave drawings) full of wonder and grateful for civilization. In the more immediate past, a boy’s entire jaw moved up and down. Let me be more specific: it was not his entire jaw at all. It was the six square inches immediately below his mouth, while the rest of the mandible was frozen.

Aside from the fact that no one actually talks by dropping their jaw two precisely vertical inches and then snapping it up again (and that very few people indeed, apart from certain African tribesmen, click during speech), the drawback was that this design required an unprepossessing crevice on each side of the mouth dropping from the corner to the bottom of the chin. Further, there had to be an open space in the neck from the chin to the Adam’s Apple for the jaw to fall into when the mouth was open.

Romando found this aesthetically unbearable, particularly the hole in the throat, and his first contribution was to conceal it with the use of fine chamois leather painted like skin. (I, for example, am partially made of a lady’s fine kid glove: father felt these gave the greatest flexibility.)

So much for the revolutionary modifications on the surface. How about the inside my head? Well, it’s complicated up there, no doubt about it, but nothing compared to what’s happening inside your ventriloquist’s head. We’re both miracles, it seems to me, based on the same design, the same system of pullies, sharing the same impulses, producing the same effects. Every time you wink, a message has been sent from your brain, and that message speeds, quick as you like, down your metal nerve, tells a metal muscle to flex and, wink, here’s looking at you, madam.

Romando made superior boys in every way. His brushes were more delicate, his sculpture more sensitive, and his mechanisms more innovative. But greater than any of this: he gave us personalities. It was as though we had personalities before we met our partners. It’s a wise child knows his own father.

Find your own Gepetto X. Never be an orphan.

You’ve answered many, if not all, of my questions, Garrulous George, but I’ve noticed that you’re wearing socks that don’t match. One is red and the other is green.

Yes, I have another pair just like it at home.