Here’s this week’s installment of “Ask the Pro” with ventriloquist Bob Abdou:
I received an e-mail from a new vent and we talked about “moving up to the next performance level”. My response to him is also this week’s topic: Professional Growth.
We all go through growth stages in our lives: We’re born, we crawl, walk fast, run faster then walk slower. Each step builds on the last one – but we have to finish one in order to get to the next one. I believe there are four growth stages that all types of performers go through whether ventriloquists, clowns or stilt walkers. If you’re a performer, consider these steps and see if you agree. I’ll stick to ventriloquism since it’s what I know.
You all know the feeling you had when you performed with a puppet for the very first time. It was exciting, fun, silly: all the emotions of love. You bring the puppet to life and play with it to see what character it would develop into. This new hobby brings you joy, the puppet becomes your best friend and you want everyone to accept it as a part of your life. You take the puppet with you everywhere. Wherever you are, so is your puppet. A the ventriloquist convention, we can all spot the “newbies” because they’re carrying their puppets into the lecture room, hospitality room and restaurant. You live for the time when major professionals like Jimmy Nelson, Sammy King, Bob Isaacson stop you in the hallway and take out the time to talk to you and your puppet. (Hey, it happened to me back in 1993 and it made a huge impression on my new ventriloquist life.) Playing is a vital step in your growth as an entertainer. You’re building a relationship with your new art form. Those silly and fun years lay the foundation for the next steps for growth.
Your foundation has been laid with a new puppet partner, now what do you do with it? You don’t necessarily have an act, so the next step seems obvious: you imitate what you see. If you have a “country bumpkin” character, you do a few Mortimer Snerd jokes. (We’ve all told the “If it wasn’t for me you couldn’t talk?” joke at least once in our early career.) Who hasn’t taken an old man puppet, and crossed the arms to given it that “Walter” look? With “You Tube” videos for the world to view, imitating anyone is a click away. When a new vents imitate more experienced vents, it’s not seen as plagiarism. It’s usually seen as just a part of development or a nice tribute. Imitation is important because it allows you to go into places as a performer where you wouldn’t be able to go otherwise. When you imitate another, the feel might be awkward or not right but it is necessary for growth. The imitate step can be a dangerous one. Some ventriloquists have been trapped there and never leave. Some have been known to just quit the business because of becoming stale and stagnate in other entertainers work. However when you feel imitating another performer is getting dull, old and mundane then you know it’s time to move on to the next stage.
After you get tired of imitating others, you know that your next step is developing your own identity as a performer. This is the line that separates the boys from the men (and the girls from the women). In your imitating, you found out that some other people’s jokes don’t fit your personality. So you realize you can rewrite them to fit your act. Your creativity grows and you add new material and new puppet characters. You feel confident enough in yourself that you know you don’t need to imitate Mortimer Snerd or Walter anymore. You have ideas pouring out and the people around you see a difference in your stage presence and they take notice. You know you’ve developed your own signature when people are really laughing at your act instead of chuckling politely. You move further in your career and your peers can see the change and start respecting you as your own performer. You become more secure with yourself and your relationship with your art form grows deeper. When you feel this – you just know it, but you couldn’t get here without playing and imitating.
Once you’ve developed your own act, your final step is perfecting your craft. It’s the key to your ultimate success. You know what you need to work on, what you need to improve, what you need to hone because you know who you are as a performer. This is the road you’ve been waiting to drive on and this is the step that never ends. You’ll be doing this as long as you perform. You feel secure as a performer. You don’t have to worry or wonder about your talent or abilities. Now the phone is ringing for your services, audience members are asking for your business card. Folks will approach you wanting to book you for a gig. You’re earning money doing what you love. You were NOT an overnight success: You worked for years playing, imitating and developing your own act and now you’ve arrived. But your success comes with a price tag: responsibility.
Those of us who have reached the comfortable step of perfecting our craft have to help the next generation to get where we are now. We (yes, me too!) must NOT look at a newbie and think they are weird or a nut job because they are always walking around with their puppet at the convention. We can’t roll our eyes because they’re doing Bergen or Dunham’s jokes. We can’t forget that we were there once. We must pass the torch to those wanting to follow us in our success, jealousy and spite does not play in the picture. If we ignore those wanting to grow, then our success is just horse hockey.
The hot topic at the conventions during the 90’s was “is ventriloquism dead?” Today I believe ventriloquism is at it’s highest peak. As long as people are playing and imitating with ventriloquism it will always be around. However for personal growth, steps three and four are vital if ventriloquism is to be respected and taken seriously. The responsibility rests upon all of us who have the power to do so – And with great power comes great responsibility.
Dan Willinger is a ventriloquism enthusiast and ventriloquist figure collector. He has been collecting for over 25 years. He created the Ventriloquist Central Collection. It now has over 100 ventriloquist figures and over 50 of them are Frank Marshall figures. Because of his love for the art of ventriloquism, Mr. Willinger created the website Ventriloquist Central. For more information about the website, go to: http://www.ventriloquistcentral.com
Copyright 2011 by Dan Willinger
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