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Shaun Johnston British, now living in Hudson Valley NY Email address
Writing, operating. Written prior to public performance. WRITING I write as if for a play script. For a more complete record I could note who’s being addressed, and emotional reactions, plus the usual stage directions. I compose my own remarks as straight as possible, just the way I’d talk to people. Straight, serious, earnest, no “isn’t-what-I’m-doing-funny” smile. I won’t make the dummies say anything a person wouldn’t do, in their situation. I treat them with respect, though they may not treat me or each other that way. The performance is a play, so should seem sponteous. I can use all playwriting tactics. I can insert pauses--dummies can seem puzzled, they don’t know what to say next, they’re confused. I can make slips of the tongue, talk about a “dummy script,” and they complain about the drift of my questions, as if I’m suggesting they’re dummies. or putting words into their mouths I shouldn’t. I can show regret at what I’ve just said, try to wind it back, etc. I can go off at a tangent, then have difficulty getting them back on topic. OPERATING Concealing one’s lips’ movements just takes practice. I keep my mouth slightly open and make my tongue come forward to meet my upper lip to make the difficult “p” “b” “f” and “v” sounds. “W” and “y” sounds remain difficult. Most difficult for me is “woman.” I conceal throat movements by wearing a high-necked sweater. My dummies lack movable eyes that blink, so I must make the most of what they do have: that their eyes turn in the directions they face, how mobile their heads are, and how sensitively I can control their lower jaw movement. EYES FACING AS THEY TURN--The dummies must always be looking somewhere, that is, their faces turned somewhere, not vaguely off into space unless that’s appropriate. They’re looking at me, at each other, at the audience, or up or down to show mental state. My default is for them to look at the audience, or up and down vacantly. I notice real panelists turn every so often to the moderator when speaking as if for reassurance, I have the dummies do that. HEAD MOBILITY--Apart from what most ventriloquists do I try to have the dummies mimic how I move my head when I speak--shaking it (”I don’t think so”), nodding slightly (”I think we should”), or nodding strongly for emphasis (”Isn’t it obvious”). I start with the dummy having its head straight, as it starts to speak I tilt it to face up and have it continually drop the head to animate it, also roll the jaw from side to side. Ideally a speaking dummy’s head should be in gentle movement almost all the time, without wandering aimlessly from side to side. And by default the body should not move as the head moves. Then body movement adds emphasis. CONTROL OF LOWER JAW--Ventriloquists often just make the jaw flap. I can mimic how it really moves during speech. Most important is to start and end as speaking begins and ends. Besides that, move it as little as possible, just generally follow the drift of the syllables up and down a little. Pronouncing all syllables looks unnatural. Also it seems to help to open the mouth slightly before speaking. Because my dummies have flat faces, they’re usually turned forwards so the audience can see them. Then, I can’t see how they look. I have to know from how my hands feel how they’ll be looking. I may use two mirrors at ground level to each side so when appearing to look towards each dummy I can actually monitor them in a mirror. Working with two dummies I have to memorize the movements of the speaker, the dummy that’s not speaking, as well as my own responses, so we all respond to what’s being said. I have to stay looking towards one dummy as I start making the other one speak, and only then turn to face towards it, as if it’s drawing my attention by speaking. In actual performance I plan to have my dummies take questions, so I’ll have to be prepared to do all this on the fly--I’ll have to have stock reactions for each hand to what the other hand’s dummy is saying--smiling, looking shocked etc. I’ll have to know without looking how far open each dummy’s mouth is and where it’s facing. I won’t have enough attention-capacity available to monitor the dummies in mirrors. I have purchased a personal PA system such as is used by teachers and tour guides so I can amplify my voice. Around $40. Microphone goes around the neck, base unit and speaker ties around the waist, so one could walk around and still be heard.