2017 Vent Haven Convention:
The Year of Improving
By Annie Roberts
The 2017 Vent Haven Convention was the year for improving ventriloquism both personally and collectively. With the recent renaissance of ventriloquists on national TV, more and more people are hoping to become the best in the field, and the best stop on that journey is the only gathering of ventriloquists in world at the Vent Haven ConVENTion in Hebron, Kentucky, a place where people understand what you do.
The lectures at this convention really stood out as exceptional. For everyone who attended, they will certainly be better from the instruction given. Tony Award® winner Jay Johnson knocked it out of the park with his “Acting for Ventriloquists” lecture. Jay opened by saying this next year is the year of improving so from now until the 2018 convention, everyone should get better. He plans to check on you and says he will be giving a quiz next year. Jay said that nowhere in theater do you find one actor doing two parts at the same time which is why it is so hard. He suggested practicing routines with someone who will read the vent lines and the vent reads the puppet’s lines. Practicing this way can help you really understand each role individually. He also suggested taking acting classes or even finding an acting coach. Bob Baker commented, “Jay Johnson’s lecture was so important. His explanation of actively listening really resonated with me.”
Linda Perret, a veteran comedy writer but a new face at Vent Haven, lectured on “Comedy Writing Techniques,” of course. Someone once said, “Writing comedy is easy. First, you pick a topic. Write down everything that is not funny about that topic and then write something else.” Linda said we don’t really write jokes, we let jokes happen, but it only happens when you prepare your mind for it. You do that, she says, with research, preparation, and concentration. She also said comedy writing is like Legos. Legos come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Alone they are just pieces of plastic but with some skill, practice, and trial and error, you can build all kinds of amazing structures. It’s the same with jokes.
Another critical aspect of performing is rehearsing. Todd Oliver lectured on “Improving Your Rehearsals.” He talked about the difference between practicing and rehearsing. You practice in front of a mirror; you rehearse in front of a camera. Mirror practice is for the basics – lip control, manipulation, getting lines down. Rehearsing is to see how it all looks put together. Both are essential and necessary to build confidence. Todd said Ronn Lucas gave the advice of cutting off the fat which means keeping your punch lines close together. You can do that by watching yourself on video and constantly editing for the best material. He also quoted John Lennon who said for every hour you play in public, you should have 100 hours in practice. It’s about putting in the time.
Two strong sessions dealing with the business side of ventriloquism came from Tom Crowl who talked about “Improving Your Brand” and Jimmy Vee’s session “Improving Your Bookings, Business, and Bank Account.” Tom Crowl started off by talking about what people think branding is which is what a person thinks about you when they see and hear your name, but really a vent’s brand is the audience’s experience with you. It’s more than just your show. The best way to brand yourself is to break out of your shell and show who you really are. The greatest success stories currently in the world of ventriloquism are the people who standout creatively, who do something different or better than others. Branding can be a shortcut for getting chosen when you set yourself apart from your peers.
Jimmy Vee said his mission is to inspire people through creativity to think differently to be better by breaking norms and making life ESP…enjoyable, simple, prosperous. In addition to having a killer show, vents need to have some marketing skills and systems to manage the business. These include having a clearly defined niche or target group for a finely crafted product. Vents need to have a list of prospects in that niche and a strategy for growing that list. A process for keeping the list and growing relationships with this targeted group is essential. Developing a simple process for booking a show and encouraging the client after to share their experience will help improve bookings and build your business.
Dale Brown and Executive Director Mark Wade did a very useful workshop on “Successfully Using Audience Volunteers.” As Dale says it will probably get you the biggest laughs and provides opportunities for ad-libs that can be used again later, but it’s risky and can go horribly wrong. Mark spoke about getting kids up on stage from his vast experience as a kidshow entertainer. Dale spoke about using adults from his years of corporate entertaining. One important key is not to get people up on stage right away, but more toward the middle of the act. You’ve got to give the audience time to get warmed up and for you to study the audience to find a good candidate. It’s better to go out into the audience and pick somebody rather than asking for volunteers. Look for someone who is having fun at your show and never embarrass the person on stage or make them feel bad. You want everyone at your show to have a good time.
Taylor Mason lectured on “How to Be Funny” also focusing on comedy writing because that is one of the hardest parts of being a ventriloquist. In Taylor’s words writing comedy is a nightmare, it’s homework, but you’ve got to do it. He says there are three ways to write jokes: 1. Write them yourself. 2. Steal them from someone else. 3. Pay someone to write them for you. The best is #1 to write them yourself because it’s cheaper and it’s ethical. If you steal jokes, people will call you a hack. Taylor writes jokes by trying to look at all kinds of different things in new ways. His stream of consciousness method of making connections between things is what has worked for him like seeing all the balled socks in his sock drawer as smiling at him and having personalities.
Always a convention highlight, Jeff Dunham lectured on “Your Act – Improving What You Think is Right.” He says ventriloquism is a tool used to entertain. There are lots of different ways to use the tool – teaching, preaching the gospel, singing music, or making people laugh. You need to choose your focus, your type of ventriloquism, and be good at it. You can read about comedy ventriloquism in a book, but you only really learn it and perfect it when performing in front of a live audience. Vents need to fail in front of an audience, then succeed, then fail again and learn from that failure in order to figure out how to be good. That kind of learning you can’t get from a book or from somebody else. Vents need to put in about 10,000 hours to become good. You have to make the audience laugh in your own way.
Jeff Dunham also made a surprising announcement during his lecture by launching the Vent Haven Museum Capital Campaign. The museum is going to raise $1.3 million dollars over the next year in order to build a new facility at 33 West Maple Ave. Jeff unveiled the tentative plans and introduced the first big fundraiser, the Adopt a Dummy Program. For $50, conventioneers could select a picture of a dummy to “adopt” over the next year. They would receive a picture of their dummy, a button proclaiming “I Adopted a Dummy,” and a mug. They would also get their picture taken to be posted on social media this next year, and they signed a card to rest in the dummy’s lap. The program was a HUGE success, and over 200 dummies were adopted. Lisa Sweasy, Annie Roberts, and the entire Campaign Cabinet were thrilled at the response. On the Saturday tours of the museum, people had fun finding their adopted dummies and seeing their names with their cards.
Vent Haven Museum was open two different times during the convention again this year. On Wednesday morning, prior to Registration, anyone with a car or able to bum a ride was welcome to tour. Several people commented they wanted to come both times because there is so much to see at the museum. Saturday vents caught shuttle busses over in the cool morning, which was relaxing after a busy week of learning. The Jimmy Nelson Building featured a Special Exhibit of Jim Teter’s presidents. All nine of his presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush were on display. Another recent acquisition that vents were eager to see was Paul Stadelman’s figure Windy Higgins, which his son Ron Stadelman formally donated at the convention. Many vents learned from Paul Stadelman’s books like Ventriloquism of Today. Other vents came to find their own 8×10 pictures on the color wall in the Josephine Berger Building or to get a picture with the Dean of Ventriloquists Jimmy Nelson who was holding court on the patio.
Junior Vent University is held each Friday to give young vents a chance to work individually with a couple pro vent teachers and hang out with each other. It’s like ventriloquist camp. Lynn Trefzger and Gary Owen led the group of 18 juniors working on skills like the basics, manipulation, stage technique, and comedy timing. Each junior received a JVU t-shirt at the end of the morning. Bill Clark of Ironton, OH, donated a dummy to be given away at convention to a deserving young ventriloquist. Lynn Trefzger and Gary Owen chose Christian Marks who participated in Junior Vent University.
The Airport Marriott got a makeover this year (with some of the construction still going on when conventioneers were arriving). The fountain in the lobby was removed. Vents rejoiced at not have to strain their voices to be heard all week while they chatted in the atrium. Plus the rooms had been renovated to include mini fridges this year.
The shows included new faces as well. Lady vents Lori Bruner and Yoly Pacheco made their Vent Haven debuts on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Dan Christopher and Lee Cornell also were performing on an evening show for the first time. Vinnie Ewart in his police uniform busted Lee Cornell for trying to steal material on the Big Wednesday Show. Jim Barber was an excellent emcee on the Super Thursday Show doing funny short bits between acts, first as Austin Powers, next with Chico, and finally as President Trump.
The Saturday All Star Show saw Kenny Byrd return to the stage after a long time away from the convention. He surprised the audience by taking Rudy out in the crowd to get kisses as rewards for his great singing. Rudy, of course, hit on the lovely Betty Nelson in the front row. Margaret Davis was back again this year with Pastor Henry Crankston and Aunt Mildred. Dan Horn, a convention favorite, delighted the audience with Miles whose mom was a Bull terrier and dad was a Doberman Schnauzer which makes Miles a bull dozer with a long name. The show closed with a cameo appearance by Darci Lynne Farmer who received the Golden Buzzer on America’s Got Talent last month. Darci brought out her little old lady Edna Doorknocker that she met in the dealers’ room at the convention last year. She also did a bit with two audience volunteers singing Frank Sinatra and ended with Petunia singing Summertime.
Once again Mark Wade and his entire staff put on a magnificent convention. Vent left feeling energized and inspired to continue this great art form. The dates for next year’s convention are July 18-21, 2018. Come back and show off your improvements at VHC 18!
A BIG thank you to David Crone for his assistance and to Bob Baker for sharing his insights!