I have this wish to be obscured. All the time. And obstructed and unseen. So I have made a ventriloquist horror comedy show. Let me (try to) explain.
The veil between the self and the spectator can be extremely flimsy.
I walk into a toy shop. I am seven years old. The shop is in the lower Tything of Worcester, England. I have always lived in Worcester, England. Life is both idyllic and drab and I hate school and I hate birthday parties and I hate being asked, "Whatt do you think?" The shop opened months ago. ‘Tell Me A Story’ reads the hand-painted wooden signage beneath an iron model teddy bear. Shelf upon shelf of plushy hand-puppets, stacked high to the ceiling. Clowns, firefighters, doctors, magicians. Every voiceless character you could dream up.
It’s a Saturday and I walk into the shop with my mum and forty pounds of saved-up pocket-money. I know exactly what I want.
"The witch please."
It seems to me ventriloquism is not, as most definitions would suggest, the process of putting words into another's mouth. Rather, ventriloquism is something other, putting new words - words liberated from the conditioning of a fleshy body - into your own mouth. Like a verbal, commandeering apparition. Like being possessed. Linda Blair, eat your heart out.
Ventriloquism is obviously an act of concealment and of misdirection. The bond, then, between this clichéd artform and mediumship should not be hard to spot. But it took 15 (lonely) years of (going insane for lols) talking to a witch puppet for the alliance to fully reveal itself. There are obvious ties, since ventriloquism’s birth lies in the dark arts - Ancient Greek priests claiming to speak to gods or devils, folk believing ‘Engastrimyths’ (which translates to ‘belly speakers’) who had demons belching words through their hosts’ orifices (yes please).
During England’s reformation, a mystic ventriloquial nun, Elizabeth Barton, was hanged for witchcraft,when she prophesied that King Henry VIII should cancel his marriage to Anne Boylen - I can only dream of being that punk. Less obvious is the connection that my solo show, Voices Of Evil, begins to scratch at the surface of (with a little gnarled red claw). This is the idea that ventriloquism, like Victorianspiritualism, involves some element of liberty in self-expression - often expression of the sexual self - through an act of disguise.
In the late eighteen-hundreds, séance events grew such a reputation for sexual deviancy that some believed them to actually be a (really creepy) front for orgies - I can only dream people suggest the same of my show.
In both cases, the veil between the self and the spectator can be extremely flimsy. And often is. In some ways, the flimsier the better. The collective belief of the gathered in the poxiest of illusions - be it voice-throwing or necromancy - opens the door to the unguarded self of the performer. Florence Cook - my favourite recorded medium and one eminent influence for Voices Of Evil - claimed the ability to summon a full body spirit, named Katie ‘Naughty Gurl’ King. I might have added the ‘naughty gurl’ Then, mediumship was seen as a 'typically female' practice and most mediums were teenage girls. It was believed, to be a successful vessel for spiritual energy, a medium had to be 'passive'. As a teenager, Cook famously materialised this ghost through the early eighteen-seventies.
Katie King sounds like the greatest ventriloquist dummy in history to me. Records say Cook would emerge from a cupboard under the guise of Katie, 'behaving inappropriately' - kissing men, placing their hands under her loose garments. So much did people love the spirit’s legend that when, during a séance in Hackney, a lawyer tried to prove that Cook and King were one by non-consensually seizing her hands and waist, the other participants wrestled her from his grasp. Though they had plainly, physically touched her, the assembled argued that Katie King - the definitely real, horny ghost - naturally would bear a likeness to Cook, since spirits take energy and matter from their mediums.
It’s ventriloquism. It echoes words I’ve heard countless times - “Of course it’s not you saying it.” A dummy is precisely that - dumb, in every sense. But credence endowed upon a dumb hoax gives full permission for 'deviancy' to the 'passive' - the ventriloquist. This Victorian perceived 'feminine passivity' is powerful when framed as the neutral, the framework. The ventriloquist takes the stance of ‘straight-man’ whilst their greatest pleasure is their dummy’s witticisms.
‘The witch please’, I said.
And I walked out with a verbal, commandeering apparition, wearing a pointy black hat, on my right hand. The shop only stayed open another month or so. Here today, gone tomorrow. As if it only existed so I would meet a strange little witch who gave me a voice.
I have this wish to be obscured, obstructed and unseen. But also seen. Really, really seen.
In the sixteenth century, amidst European witch trials, Christians proclaimed that ventriloquism literally was a 'practice spawned by hell itself'. Come to my solo show, Voices Of Evil, to see me prove them right.