Who’s Talking?

THE curtain rises on the performer and his doll. As they exchange jokes, the doll seems to be alive, with a voice and personality all its own. Of course, it is actually the performer—a ventriloquist—who is producing the doll’s “voice,” ever careful not to move his own lips while doing so.

Would you like to learn more about this unusual art form? Awake! interviewed Nacho Estrada, who has been a professional ventriloquist for some 18 years.

What are the various types of ventriloquism?

In what is called near ventriloquism, the performer’s voice seems to come from nearby, such as from a doll on his knee. In distant ventriloquism, the performer’s voice seems to come from far away. A ventriloquist can also muffle his voice so that it seems to come from an enclosed area—perhaps inside a closed box. Some ventriloquists can imitate sounds, such as an animal call or the cry of a baby. And they do not move their lips while performing.

A good ventriloquist is quite convincing. One reportedly uttered a muffled cry for help as a hay cart was passing by. People actually stopped the cart and unloaded the hay, expecting to find a poor victim underneath! Of course, nobody was found.

How has ventriloquism developed over the years?

It is believed that many years ago ventriloquism was used to deceive superstitious people into believing that they were communicating with the dead. In time, ventriloquism was exposed as nothing more than a human skill. It thereafter found a respectable place in the field of entertainment, and today it is sometimes even used for educational purposes.

Through the centuries various settings have been employed to amuse audiences and display ventriloquists’ unusual abilities. By the 20th century, it became popular for ventriloquists to exchange dialogue with a wooden doll.

What prompted your interest in ventriloquism?

I was drawn to its potential for bringing joy and laughter to people. When I was a boy, a local salesman interested me in the art by explaining that the word “ventriloquist” is derived from the Latin words venter and loqui, which mean “belly speaking” or “speaking from the belly.” This is because it was formerly thought that ventriloquism resulted from a peculiar use of the stomach. He then showed me some of the basics.

The next day I tried it at school. Using the distant-voice technique, I made my voice sound as if it were coming from the public address system, and I called myself out of  class. It worked! Later, I learned more about ventriloquism through a correspondence course and then took it up professionally.

What does your work as a ventriloquist involve?

Although I have occasionally performed at banquets and ventriloquist conventions and have even made a few appearances on television, most of my time is spent teaching children at school assemblies. Humor is very much a part of the show. For example, during a program on personal hygiene, I point out to Maclovio, my wooden doll, that because he has not brushed his teeth, I can see that he had eggs for breakfast that morning. Maclovio answers, “You’re wrong—it was yesterday!”

How is ventriloquism accomplished?

It is often said that a ventriloquist throws his voice, but this is only an illusion. We use a special tongue position to produce alternate sounds for letters that require lip movement, and a technique of breathing from the diaphragm produces the misimpression of distance.

Ventriloquism works because most people have not trained their ears to recognize the source and distance of sound. They need the help of their eyes. To illustrate: At the sound of a siren, your ear tells you that an emergency vehicle is approaching and that it is coming from far away. But how far away is the vehicle? From what direction is it approaching? To answer these questions, likely you will have to look for the vehicle’s flashing lights.

A ventriloquist takes advantage of this by producing a sound at the appropriate volume and by directing the attention of the audience to the source that he wants them to think the sound is coming from.

What suggestions would you give to a person who is interested in learning the art of ventriloquism?

First, know your purpose, and be prepared to avoid anything that conflicts with it. I mention this because like many other forms of entertainment, ventriloquism is sometimes used for unwholesome purposes. Personally, I am drawn to ventriloquism for its potential to engender love and fun. I limit my work to material and events that serve that purpose.

To become proficient at ventriloquism, you will need three things—technique, imagination, and practice. Technique can be learned from a how-to book or video. Next, use your imagination to develop a believable personality for your doll or puppet, and learn how to make him or her seem lifelike. Finally, practice. The extent to which you do so will determine the level of skill that you acquire.