As a ventriloquist you have a lot on your mind during a show.
You must manipulate the puppet, synchronize its mouth, change your voice, remember your script, control your lips, etc. etc.
These skills need to look effortless.
If they don’t, the audience will never buy into the illusion of life, which is the soul of your performance.
All of this is achieved through constant practice and play with your puppet or figure. It must become second nature.
So you can …
Focus your attention on the audience.
Entertainers are not hired to perform a show.
Entertainers are hired to engage people. If you can’t keep people engaged, the rest of the skills are lost.
The problem I see with so many acts, ventriloquism or otherwise, is the person on stage fails to connect with their audience. So today, I’m going to share some tips that can help you overcome this hurdle.
Before we get to the tips, I want to ask a question.
Do you watch other entertainers perform?
Not just ventriloquists, but comedians, musicians, jugglers, magicians and other artists?
When you watch them, what do you look for?
A good show? Funny material? Artistic skill? Or overall entertainment?
Personally, I look at how they work with the audience.
In 1991, I was on a cruise ship with a Welsh comedian named Kenny Smiles. (He has long since passed away, but I will never forget him.)
Kenny would perform three, one hour sets on each week long cruise. At every show, Kenny would earn not one, but two standing ovations.
Kenny liked me and made me his opening act on two of the nights. After my spot, I would sit in back and watch him work.
One night, a singer asked me why I always watched his show. I told her I was studying his act. She replied “You can’t use his material.” and she walked away.
She didn’t get it.
What I wanted to learn from Kenny was how he made the audience love him. How he interacted with them. How he kept them involved with his act.
I needed to understand what brought these people to their feet twice at every show.
The other acts on the ship were good.
But Kenny Smiles was great.
And I wanted to know why!
Here are some of the lessons I learned from Kenny on that cruise so long ago …
Know Your Audience.
Kenny knew the type of people that came on that ship. He understood what age group, lifestyle and financial situation that cruise line catered to.
And Kenny was a master at relating to that crowd.
He was friendly and approachable. He was one of them. Kenny was the kind of person you were comfortable around. The kind you wanted to hang out with.
Yet Kenny was also in total command of the insanity around him. He was obviously the center of attention and everyone was rooting for him.
I learned: Know who you will perform for. Ask your client ahead of time about the makeup, age range and any other details so you can understand the group. Then, before you go on, take a look at them. Watch them for a bit. Know what kind of people they are before you walk on stage.
Command Your Show
Kenny never stopped. He never stammered. He knew what he was going to do and when he would do it.
I learned: You need to know your show inside and out so you can concentrate on the audience and their needs. A backup plan you are just as familiar with is a great idea in case things need to change.
Make Eye Contact With Your Audience.
Kenny would attempt to make eye contact with each person in the room. It isn’t a one time thing either. He would keep checking back in with them.
Eye contact helped him gauge audience reactions.
Were they paying attention? Did they look bored? Were they smiling and laughing? Or were they serious? Did the audience want him to go faster? Or need him to slow down?
I learned: You must monitor the audience at all times and adjust your performance accordingly.
Get Your Audience Involved
Some people really want to help the entertainer. Others fear they will be picked on. Kenny was a master at finding the right volunteers. He would also calm the ones who were shy with a knowing wink.
When he incorporated audience members into his show, people would lean forward. They wanted to watch what happened.
I learned: I must find ways to encourage participation and provide interaction with people in the audience.
Keep Them Laughing
Kenny would illicit a laugh from the moment he walked onstage. He would then keep everyone laughing throughout his show.
Sometimes it was a joke. Sometimes it was a look. Sometimes something happened to him. That laughter made everyone pay close attention so they wouldn’t miss anything.
I learned: Comedy is an amazing ice breaker. People love to laugh. They are also quick to love someone who makes them laugh. A laughing audience is more receptive to everything you do, which makes your job easier.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
Kenny would allow audience volunteers and his band members to get the last laugh on him. Audiences loved the fact that he could take a joke too. These moments made him all the more human and relatable to his audience.
I learned: Allow yourself to have fun. Try not to take yourself too seriously on stage. Plan moments where you can “Be Human” too.
Kenny was larger than life onstage. He commanded the room. His comedy was memorable. I still remember jokes he told almost 30 years ago. I can even picture his face when he would tell them.
Kenny also sang country music. Yes, a Welsh Comedian that sang Country Music. His vocals were great.
Every part of his act was polished as close to perfection as anyone could get.
I learned: You can’t skimp on your skills and talents. Try to be your very best every time you go onstage.
Change Things Up
The audience was never sure what Kenny would do next. It sometimes seemed as if he was just as surprised as they were. (Although every moment was planned and rehearsed.)
One moment Kenny would be joking with someone in the audience. The next he would be singing a country song. Then a volunteer would get the upper hand as Kenny tried to involve them.
The show flowed. It wasn’t haphazard, but it was constantly changing content and pace.
I learned: Too much of one thing, no matter how good, can become monotonous. Variety is the spice that keeps people coming back. Find ways to vary your show’s pacing and material so there is always something new and exciting happening.
Kenny had fun onstage. His audience could tell. He really loved what he was doing. And so did they.
I learned: Audiences will follow the performer’s lead. If you are having fun, they will feed off your enthusiasm and have a great time too. If you aren’t having fun, they can sense that too. So on days you aren’t, learn how to fake it, because this is extremely important to your success.
Understand The Power Of Gestures
Kenny could break up a crowd by just turning his head and giving them a stare. He could emphasize a joke with a simple body movement that made the punchline even funnier.
He actually choreographed these simple movements. That was because Kenny understood the power of movement or “stagecraft.”
I learned: Every movement is important. The smallest tilt of the head, movement of the hand or orchestrated bow can add an extra layer that carries something to a higher level. Audiences may not even notice them, but these nuances create a more dynamic performance.
Have you honestly taken notice of these elements?
Most people tend to watch an entertainer and think, “Wow, he was great!” They weren’t focused on the things that made the performance special.
And that is your goal when on stage. You don’t want people to notice them. You want these techniques to blend together as a seamless, captivating program.
Now that you have these insights, I hope you will begin to notice how others use them. They are an especially beneficial study when watching big name artists. Afterall, they are big names for a reason.
(Unless they are a Kardashian.)
Before you head out to start figuring how you will incorporate one or more of these tips …
Let me know your thoughts, ideas or additions in the comments section below!