Ventriloquy – it took me awhile to realize this is the right word to describe it – is the art of speaking without moving your lips. It seems like something of a lost art, forgotten when vaudeville disappeared with the arrival of movies, or after the traveling circus left town, or the death of Edgar Bergen. The talking-dummy-and-ventriloquist act today, when it rarely appears in modern culture, seems to be little more than a lowbrow party entertainment or horror movie cliché, not part of the unique brand of biting satire that defines Rick Mitchell’s career.
“It’s easy to dismiss the early days of vaudeville as low, vulgar entertainment,” Mitchell says. But at the time, every ventriloquy routine was driven by raw energy; each performance was designed with a wide array of jokes in a hunt for laughs. “It’s very brutal, as one might guess,” he adds. “Most clubs weigh how good you are by the number of laughs per minute, and if you want a regular gig, the key is the reaction you get – so sometimes you’re forced to throw in a few cheap laughs, be it vulgar or racial humor.” The use of a dummy, he found years ago, distinguished his comedy act, too.
At the drop of a hat, Mitchell can change tone and personality without missing a beat. “The great thing was that I was always able to make up characters, which I loved doing. In the late ’80s I had a Reagan doll, and sometimes doing cruise ship entertainments that was pretty popular with the crowds, though sometimes you do have to know your audience. I’ve been in trouble and asked to close my act for making fun of the President onstage. I just recently made a Sarah Palin doll that I’d like to use for routines but I’m not sure how that would go. I still do the occasional cruise ship show and stand-up. I’ve always loved the spontaneity of the act, how sometimes you get heckled and then it takes a different direction that you didn’t expect. The other great thing about having a dummy is usually hecklers don’t expect to get upstaged that way.”
He goes on: “What seemed to draw me to vaudeville, I guess, was an attraction to the energy of it. All of those things like the ventriloquist acts, dancers, acrobats, even the slapstick humor.” He prefers to eschew the notion that there’s a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow art. “You’ve got all kinds of theater, even great theater, the works of Samuel Beckett. If you’ve seen Waiting For Godot, there’s a certain element of vaudeville there; two guys doing hat tricks – but the drama adds another element: the realization sometimes that that’s all there is.”
And like Beckett, Mitchell knows that “real life isn’t without absurd elements — elements that ring deeper than what they appear to be, very deep rooted in culture and a sense of who we are. There’s literally performance everywhere – even in our everyday lives. We are all actors in some way or other seeking applause — at our jobs, on a date, whatever. We always have an audience and we’re somehow or other always on stage. It’s all performance art. What I think always attracted me to puppets, and also the cruder forms of animation, is the imperfection in the ways that they talk and move. They’re resisting the idea of being brought to life.”
Mitchell originally came to Los Angeles with friends to pursue more opportunities in comedy, particularly in films. His puppets were featured in the 1999 Bill Murray film Cradle Will Rock, which also touches on a recurring theme of his work: the politics of theater, and more specifically, the ways in which plays are written and created. He is currently planning a new play about Eugene O’Neill struggling as a poor writer. “I guess there’s also a certain nostalgia I have for the 1910s. It was still a brand new century and you had people like O’Neill, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, and Eugene Debs first leaving their mark on society, and ideas by people like Freud, art by Picasso, all these groundbreaking theories floating around.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Mitchell is also a huge fan of Bertolt Brecht. He’s intrigued by the “whole idea that theater is purely constructed, and this idea that art cannot be contained. In some of my plays you actually see the stagehands putting things together, or I’ll make a point of showing actors changing into costumes onstage — into different characters. Sometimes it almost gets out of hand. I’ve had a few actors and producers who hate it. A lot of my comedy, and I guess most comedy, comes out of playing on audience expectations, and you’ll see a lot of that.” In his play Ventriloquist Sex, for example, Mitchell’s dummy says things that he most likely can’t say. “The dummy makes jokes that usually get censored out – or I’ll tell him he has to lighten the mood when he talks – topics like depression, death, things that don’t meld with your typical audience.
“Consequently,” he adds, “the world is a stage of sorts where all things can happen and nothing is left unsafe, free of criticism or satire. War, particularly the situation in Afghanistan as it’s happening now, with no end in sight, usually gets treated by the movies and on stage in a very realistic way — and there’s not a whole lot you can do with realism, especially onstage. So I resorted to shadow puppets for my play about the war, Shadow Anthropology, based on a Turkish tradition of bawdy puppet shows.”
What happens in the play?
“There’s the overzealous American soldiers using insurgents to instill virtues like love and freedom, and there’s the Afghani warlords committing acts of murder to win over vestal virgins — one scene where the bride fornicates with her dying but still lecherous uncle to save her family. The story I really wanted to tell showed imperfection on both sides, this clash of ideologies. Turning it into a bawdy puppet show further suggests the absurdity of war and blind fanaticism through comedy – letting you experience it with an emotion besides tragedy – making the audience laugh while really driving home how absurd these two things can be.”