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Concentration needed for ventriloquism
A lot of people might think it's odd if a 60-year-old man starts playing with dolls and talking to himself. But that pastime has resulted in a whole new career for Gary Green.
A retired police officer, Green teaches at North Island College and was on contract with the Justice Institute of BC for three years where he taught Aboriginal Justice, Diversity Skills for Law Enforcement and Business Communications in the Law Enforcement Studies Diploma program.
Ventriloquism and puppets are the medium he uses to get his point across.
"Many people think of ventriloquists as stand-up comedians," he says. "But I consider myself a storyteller. And every story has a message."
Green moved to the Comox Valley in 2010 and is one of two ventriloquists on Vancouver Island. He shares his home office with a cast of characters that includes an Indo-Canadian, Aboriginal elder, policeman and heavily lipsticked street worker. They're dressed in tiny jean jackets, rubber boots and other apparel Green finds in the children's clothing section of thrift shops. His wife, Lynn, alters or embellishes the outfits as needed.
Holding a three to four pound puppet that's as tall as a two or three year old, moving its mouth at the right time and turning its head so it looks like its carrying on a conversation is an art form all on its own. Then there's learning how to talk without moving your lips and cultivating a distinct voice for the puppet.
"One of the biggest challenges is using two voices to carry on a conversation," says Green. "It takes a lot of concentration to have a split personality like that. You have to remember to shift voices and move your lips when using one but not the other."
Some letters such as b, p and v require a great deal of skill to say without any lip movement.
"There is no school for ventriloquism," Green notes. "I read a book, watched YouTube videos and sat in front of a mirror practising every day for a year until I felt fairly comfortable. The lip stuff is hard."
Ventriloquism is an auditory illusion that makes it seem like a voice is coming from an inanimate object. The Latin origin of the word means "to speak from the stomach." Early "belly speakers" were ancient priests and priestesses who used ventriloquism to convince lay people they were hearing the voices of the gods. During the vaudeville era, ventriloquism became popular as a form of entertainment eventually evolving into comedy routines.
Green grew up watching ventriloquists like Shari Lewis on the Ed Sullivan Show.
"They always fascinated me," he said. "When I retired I decided to try it."
He now has 20 hard and soft toddler sized puppets and a "whole pile of hand puppets." Favourites are Scully the alcoholic and Simon, an aboriginal elder. "The voices for those two just clicked," Green says.
"The secret of being a good ventriloquist isn't in the voice," explains Green. "It's making the puppet come alive. Right from the moment you take one out of the suitcase it has to be real, to convey emotion. It's the pauses and nuances that take years to master. You have to convince people to suspend belief, that's a difficult skill to develop."
Green writes his own material, drawing on his family background and 28-year career as a Victoria police officer where he retired as sergeant in charge of the Forensic Identification Section. "I've seen a lot," he admits. "Deaths and murders stay with you; I live with ghosts and have flashbacks."
Green usually starts a story with some humour to get everyone laughing and then moves into the message. One is based on his rescue dog, Reba. "It's a story about finding your hidden abilities and the courage it takes to take risks, like coming out of your crate," Green says. The Justice Institute recognized his unique teaching method with the Instructor of the Year Award in 2010.
Green practises every day in front of a mirror in his office or while walking the dog or driving. "No one ever notices," he says, "because my lips don't move."
A puppet often joins him on the couch so they can discuss TV programs. And he sometimes practises his "far voice" at malls by making sounds seem to come from a garbage can or as if a toy in the window is talking to a child.
For the last three years Green has attended the Annual ConVENTion in Kentucky where ventriloquists from all over the world gather for workshops and entertainment. This year Green obtained one of the eight places in the adjudicated open mic to do a five minute routine. "It took a lot of courage to 'step outside my crate' and perform in front of 600 ventriloquists," he says. "But you have to stretch in order to learn."
Plans for the future include developing a children's program to teach the values of respect and decision making, and to expand his presence as a banquet speaker.
To find our more or contact Green, visit www.ventriloquiststoryteller.com.
Paula Wild is a published author and regular contributor to the Comox Valley Record's arts and entertainment section.