As you keep in mind that each performer "plays with dolls," and so maintains a certain distance from social interactions, you might also keep in mind that they are, at every moment, performing.
"I just fell in love with the people," smiles Kimberly Yeager. "And everybody's like me. They talk to themselves and love to play with dolls!" Kim Yeager smiles frequently in Dumbstruck, a documentary about ventriloquists. She smiles as part of her act, with a dummy named Bertha, she smiles because she's a veteran performer, a former Junior Miss Majorette Ohio and Miss Ohio contestant, as well as a Motivational Speaker. And she smiles because she is determined.
Kimberly has worked full time as a performer for some seven years now, she says, as an Edu-Tainer for Creative Safety with the Officer Phil Company. She likes performing for children, she says, but the schedule is demanding: she 482 shows in one year alone. She appears before a group of children, a large yellow duck on her arm, bringing a "safety message." Kimberly smiles again, even as she worries that she needs to move on, beyond Ohio. "I would love to move on to do cruises," she says, "Lay on a ship and do nothing and sip nada coladas and do shows. I think it would like it a lot."
Kimberly's mother is less enthusiastic about her career path, and wants her daughter to find something more stable "I don’t mean 'settle down' like she's wild or something," Jane explains. Rather, she wants to see Kimberly married with children, to "have kids instead of..." and here Jane, perched on a sofa beside her daughter, scrunches her face and twists her arms in the air to emulate two of Kimberly's "puppet children."
Jane's concern surfaces variously in Dumbstruck. The film offers up five stories, each a comment on the others, and all crosscut so they seem to make a narrative sense (when one performer talks about cruise ships, another can pick up on that thread). The organization can be awkward, yet the stories become oddly compelling, not because they're familiar (which they are, showing individual pluck and heartbreak and families' disapproval), but because they seem so utterly sincere. Emphasis on "seem." As you keep in mind that each performer "plays with dolls," and so maintains a certain distance from social interactions, you might also keep in mind that they are, at every moment, performing. The documentary camera provides another opportunity.
In his interviews with ventriloquists and their friends and family, filmmaker Mark Goffman finds all kinds of complications. "I feel like I'm different in everything that I do," says 13-year-old Dylan Burdette. He likes to practice with his dolls in the basement of his family's home in Kentucky, he says, and "not be bothered by anybody." He knows that his father, Barry, would prefer that he do "other kinds of sports," including motocross, which Barry knows something about. Dad is proud that his son is "probably the smartest kid in class," but he worries about the ventriloquism. He can't explain, he says, why Dylan's current primary doll is Reggie, a black pimp. He has his own style, notes Dylan, and flirts with girls. "I don't quite understand why Dylan picked a black figure to use," Barry shrugs, "but that's his choice." Dylan says, "It actually does feel like I'm talking to another person. I can't explain it, it just does."
While it might be tempting to put the pieces of this brief portrait together in a particular way, Dumbstruck doesn't. Instead, it observes its performers, on stages and off. Both Dylan and Kimberly hope to make successful careers out of their passions, imagining they might follow in the footsteps of other ventriloquists, like Dan Horn, who does cruise ship shows. He's paid well enough to support a wife and two children, and he loves his work, but, he says, "If there is a downside, it does keep you away from your home and family a lot."
To keep in contact with his fellow performers, Dan shows up annually at the Vent Haven Convention, held annually in Fort Mitchell, KY. Here ventriloquists at all stages meet, share stories, and work on their routines. That is, they work on comic timing and jokes. At the Vent Haven Museum, curator Lisa Sweasy insists, "You have to be funny to be good. If you're technically perfect at it, you might get very polite applause, and very appreciative applause. But I don’t know that people would come back to see you time and time again unless you're very, very funny."
How this might be measured can never be absolutely known, of course, but the ventriloquists' major success story is Terry Fator, from Mesquite, Texas, who won the second season of America's Got Talent and has since gone on to headline at the Mirage Hotel in Vegas -- a five-year contract for $100 million. As he displays unusual skills -- he can sing, as himself and as his male and female puppets, and he can be "very, very funny" -- Terry appears here something like the epitome of ventriloquism and the impossible dream. When he stops by the Vent Haven Convention, he's swarmed by fans and wannabes, as well as people who seem genuinely moved by his very existence. Surrounded by writers and assistants and gilt furniture in the Vegas scenes, he describes his life as having won a lottery -- one he worked hard to win, he asserts, but still, a one in a million chance. "I'm 42 years old and I've lived a completely normal existence up till now," he smiles (as for Kimberly, it's part of the job). "All of a sudden I'm staying in this suite."
In Dumbstruck, Terry Fator is an exception that shows the rule: most ventriloquists find it hard to make a living. Wilma Swartz has been rejected by her family (no one says precisely why, though the backstory seems infinitely more complex than condemnation of her puppets), and at one point in the film nearly loses her home. Turning to her "real family," the ventriloquists' community, she finds support and cash donations via PayPal, so she's able to keep the house in snowy Bensalem, PA.
In another film, this sort of story might seem too heartwarming. But here, the ending doesn't look precisely happy, but instead, unreached and imperfect. Playing with dolls can be rewarding and a bit enchanting, as these ventriloquists insist. It can also be a lot like life, with people.