Adventures of a Semi-Wild Animal Tamer

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Vent Haven Convention - Day Two (Thursday)

Sun, Aug 11th, 2019 at 10:26 PM

Thursday began early at 9 AM with a lecture on "The Professional Touch". Unfortunately, I'm not an early bird, so I got in about half-way through while a recording of an early Paul Winchell performance was being played. The recording was interesting due to it showing the difference in comedy in the 1940s and today, but I'm afraid I didn't get much else out of the session.

The second lecture of the day was about marketing yourself, presented by Nancy Berk, who does celebrity podcasts and has written a popular book on getting your kids through college without breaking the bank or your sanity. I was amused that she wasn't very gung-ho about Facebook, mainly because she'd recently changed the name of her podcast, but Facebook wouldn't let her change the name of her existing Facebook group. Thus, she'd been forced to start a whole new group, which isn't a very optimal way to maintain a connection with your fans and followers. Now she's a bit more enthusiastic about the value of just running your own website, since you can change your own website any way you want whenever you wish. (I'm a senior web developer in my non-puppetry life, so I'm a big proponent of personal websites over social media sites.)

Beyond that, some of her biggest take-aways were the value of building your own media kit to help others promote you once they've booked you, or even just to make it easier for someone who's met you to pitch you to someone else they know. A website (and/or a social media account) is a good start, but a real press kit with attractive and informational fliers, press release blurbs, headshots, etc. can take you even further. Beyond that were the usual messages of network with anyone and everyone you can, and also to be carefully and politely persistent with contacts that might want to book you (just not pushy).

After lunch came the junior and senior open mike events. Each offered a limited set of eight participants the chance to perform for a real audience plus three experts who gave constructive criticism to the performer. These were not true competitions, though they asked the audience to vote for two favorites in each group, offering a small cash prize to the top two. The junior competition was all children, and for children, they were all remarkably good (a few did better than some of the adult performers I saw during the convention). There was one I thought could have the makings of the next big America's Got Talent contestant: an Italian teenage boy who had just that month become an American citizen. He had a great act with a shy female character who eventually sings a bit of Italian opera with him, and both his singing voice and his character's singing voice were very impressive, making me think of Darci Lynne Farmer.

I still haven't figured out the qualification for the senior open mike. I had assumed it would be senior citizens, but it was actually a mixture of adults of all ages. Performers included a lady with a large and beautiful sassy female bird on one arm and an adorable little yellow snail on the other hand. While the bird was impressive in her own right, the experts giving advice (and the audience based on their reactions) really loved the snail for its amazing simplicity and its adorably cute slightly gravelly childlike voice that was reminiscent to me of Lamp Chop or perhaps something Leslie Carerra-Rudolph might do (performer of Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street and Bubbles on Splash and Bubbles). Also memorable for other reasons was a gentleman who had an interesting donkey character and a great voice for him, but was probably the worst of the performers in terms of lip control (i.e. keeping ones lips from moving), plus he lost his place a couple of times, though he muddled his way through with some deprecating comments about him from his donkey to fill the gaps. That improv earned him some good laughs, even if they weren't the laughs he was going for originally.

Following the open mikes came a unique experience from what I was told. Jeff Dunham has been a regular at Vent Haven for many, many years, but for some reason was not able to come to the festival this year. However, he offered to do a live streamed presentation from his home for an hour, showing us his toy and dummy collection room and some of his more interesting older dummies from his collection - specifically his favorite MacElroy dummies. He also took questions from audience members, albeit some of the questions were a little odd, but he did his best to give answers to them all. Later in the hour, he took us out to his garage workshop and showed us the 3-D scanner and printer he uses to make his own puppets. With this technology, he can sculpt a head in clay, scan it into the computer, size it as he wants, then print it out in hard plastic, ready to be painted and fit with mechanics. He also showed us the latest character he made this way: a conjoined twins character of an uptight conservative in a suit and a fun-loving liberal hippie. Dunham is able to control both heads with his right hand, but wouldn't reveal how it works.

After dinner came the Thursday evening shows, which were a notch up on the Wednesday evening shows. They began with Mark Hellerstein doing a routine with an old Professor of Magic who never quite finishes his escape-from-a-trunk magic act, followed by a wonderfully engaging take on Frankenstein, where Hellerstein plays the mad doctor who wants to transfer a genius brain from a talking skull (a puppet figure mounted to a travel case) to a young boy (a traditional style dummy). His voices, character actions, and effects fit perfectly together, to be topped only by the perfectly timed switching of the boy's head for a "Frankenstein's Monster" head to visually confirm to us that the brain transfer was a success.

Next up was Diana Rockwell with a brilliant performance involving a doughnut who had become self-conscious about her looks and gotten jelly injections! This led to a number of doughnut related jokes bordering occasionally on the upper edge of PG-13, but garnering lots of laughs. The second half of her act involved a heart-to-heart discussion with her "heart" character, who was getting too raunchy to work on her children's shows, so she tried replacing him with an apple (Applejack), but the apple has picked up too many bad habits already from the heart, so Rockwell ends up discarding him and returning to her heart character. The set ended with Rockwell showing off her beatboxing skills with a quick number using her heart character.

Between acts, M.C. Dan Christopher did a series of magic tricks for us, and then Ian Varella took the stage, showing off his amazing ability to imitate high pitched sounds such as air escaping from a balloon, metal detector beeps and blips, car backup beeps, etc. He then segued into a more traditional performance with his old man character, Gramps, who was still heavily into chasing women in spite of his advanced age.

After the big show, there was one more panel session, this one on continuing education for ventriloquists. Four experts discussed the best ways to keep yourself learning more as time goes by, so that you can keep improving your skill and your acts. This was followed by the first general open mike sessions (general open mikes don't give the performers any feedback - just the chance to have six minutes in front of an audience). I wanted to be able to get up for the 9 AM workshop the next day, so I had to forgo these sessions. In hindsight, I kind of wish I'd stayed up for the open mic session and skipped the morning workshops, but hindsight is 20-20. (The workshops weren't bad - more on that in the next post - just not very useful for me at my stage of my part-time puppetry career.)

Mood: cheerful