By Ardan James
Ardan James, The Animated Illusionist, has opened for the likes of Ray Romano and Michael W. Smith. His comedy act has taken him to 12 countries and has given him opportunity to perform on TV shows like Star Trek Voyager! In The Secrets of Performance Ministry, Mr. James and Bauer, a puppet who thinks he’s real, share a bit about how their ministry-based perfomances work, and how you can use your talents and skills in a similar way.
“Howdy! I’m Bauer, Mr. James’ bear. I’d write this myself but I have no thumbs so AJ is mictating for me.”
“Dictate.” Excuse me Bauer, it’s “dictate.”
“Yup! Okay, so he’s writing what I’m saying. Now, you all are reading articles about ministries that are ‘out of the norm.’ Well, let me tell you about our … uh … mine … uh …”
Well, Bauer, you are a puppet. (Psst: Bauer is a puppet that thinks he’s real. I won’t tell him otherwise, if you won’t.)
“I heard that, back-seat dictator.”
Bauer, maybe I should take over from here.
“Okay, but I’ll miss talking to you, reader.”
Thank you Bauer. Hello, reader, I’m A J, the Animated Illusionist. Let’s talk …
“That would be ‘read’.”
Thank you, Bauer. Now, with a snap of my fingers … PRESTO!
“Look! Now everything I say is in black … er, dark black!”
Thank would be “bold.”
“I’m not being bold, I’m just noticing that everything I say in printed darker now. See!”
Yes, that’s because it’s my turn to address the reader, Bauer.
Thank you, Bauer. My intent in this article is to describe what I do: the aspects of ministry in which I am involved, how it works, and a few of the things I have learned over the years. At the end of this article, you will be introduced to some keys to creating your own “out of the norm” material, along with some helps to avoid common risks that rob time and success.
A capitalistic marketplace that thrives on excitement, conflict, and shock value has invaded our youth. It doesn’t surprise me that ministries today are looking for that “out of the norm” difference to help catch the hearts and eyes of today’s youth. I believe that the world’s hunger for excitement is but a fast-food replacement for the hunger to know God. It is likely that young people, all bungee-jumped, jet skied, and ecstasy drugged out, will look inward for their next answer.
Not now, Bauer. My ministry’s task is to appeal to those Jr. and Sr. High youth who do not normally go to church, but who would go if enticed by something that sounds interesting and exciting.
How My Ministry Works
As the Animated Illusionist, I use a combination of physical comedy, illusions, and ventriloquism, along with music and audience participation to show God’s love. Although I have shared the stage with the likes of Ray Romano, Howie Mandell, and Gary Shandling, it is the churches, youth groups, and other Christian organizations that really use my gifts to draw people to an outreach event. I accomplish this by presenting what looks like an illusionist show but ends up being more like a comedic talent show put on by the audience itself. I’ll describe more of the show later. The daily routine of my “out of the norm” ministry consists of booking, sending contracts, writing, producing and developing new material, and rehearsing based on the target audience. Travel, set up, performance, take down, travel and the rest are also a big part of the routine.
I started at the age of eight as a ventriloquist and found that neither the dummy nor I was verbally funny. After that, in my pre-teen years, mime was popular. From The Shields and Yarnell show to the Dick Van Dyke Variety Show, mimes seemed ubiquitous. Following college, I worked at a magic shop. Today, my show consists of what I believe to be the cumulative best of each of these arts. I cue my audience members by talking to them in ventriloquism, then I have them do the illusion. My role is that of an orchestral conductor, someone who merely guides participants to the gifts they naturally posses. For example, instead pulling streams of paper from my mouth, I pull a 25-foot paper streamer from an audience member’s mouth.
“Tell ’em what you say.”
What is that, Bauer?
“Tell ’em what you say to the person on stage.”
Oh. I secretly tell the audience member helping me on stage that good things will come out of his or her mouth. But I’ll get to why I do this later.
One of the things I’ve learned during my time as the Animated Illusionist is to “pack small, play big.” The 25-foot paper streamer I use in my act is an example of that. When wrapped up, the streamer is very small, about 1 inch by 2 inches. But it unfolds to be 25-feet long. Secretly getting it into the mouth of the audience member without he or she (or the audience) noticing is part of the illusion aspect of the program. Because of travel considerations, I have to pack small, but because my audiences number 200 to 5,000, I have to play big. Thus, the definition of “pack small, play big” is just as it sounds, easily seen from a distance, good for a big laugh. Your on-stage reactions to the audience should always play big.
Another important thing I have learned is the importance of familiarity. For example, when I break dance as an old man, I don’t do it to a Pat Boone song. I try to use music more familiar to the audience for whom I am performing. Concerning yourself with the things that are familiar to your audience conveys love, and this is vitally important to ministry-based entertaining.
Actually, that is the single most important thing I’ve learned as a performer: show love to your audience, especially when you are trying to help them see the love of Christ. When I write a piece, I try to connect with the audience’s thoughts, dreams and concerns. Jesus worked this way. When he told stories and parables to his crowds, he used examples they could relate to. He was thinking about them, not about performing a cool trick, telling a cool story, or raking in a hefty sum of money. This is why I tell the audience member helping me with the paper streamer illusion that good things will come out of his or her mouth. It’s not just a gimmick; it’s a way to show that person love.
What I’ve Learned
Recently, a local camp director who has hired me many times asked me to advise a man whom she thought had great performance ministry potential. He was good. He had love. But while his act only needed a little polish, he needed to be told the “show business truth.” He was ready to quit his $60,000 a year job and go out on the road, leaving wife and family behind, for what he thought could be a $300,000 a year ministry. Had he done so, he would have made a big mistake. The people who sold him the plate spinners, puppets, and sound system told him the bit about the high paychecks. While a large yearly income is possible in the world of entertainment, it isn’t always likely. There are some entertainers who earn great sums of money, such as David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, and Lance Burton.
“And Yogi Bear.”
Yes, Bauer, I suppose. But the truth in entertainment is that it appears to be a lot more glamorous than it really is. There are few jobs out there willing or able to pay more than $250 per event. For most schools and camps, $250 is the top end. If you want to compete in the $1000 or more entertainment market, you have to be of television quality and a household name. Furthermore, there are taxes and expenses involved in entertainment. You’ll hold on to around half of what you earn after small business taxes and other business costs. Then, even if you are a good business person or skilled marketer and book a schedule of $300+ shows, keep this in mind: if you haven’t created a solid show, your entertainment career will die fast. You have to be entertaining enough that people will want to stop what they are doing to get out of their homes and see you. If you are just starting, it is a good idea to keep the job you currently have and slowly develop a stable entertainment career through the tests of time, training, and practice. I currently do headline shows on the Las Vegas strip, but I’ve built my career by word-of-mouth one show at a time for many years. In those years I have gotten better, and I have learned that I can’t do anything else. God has designed me for this: my face, my height, my experiences, my point of view. It has taken me years to figure out some of my show ideas and additional years to add polish to those ideas.
If you decide that you want to be an entertainer and you are still interested in ministry, allow me to give you some tips to help lower your risk of failing. My own career would have had a better start if I had adhered to these steps:
1. Always make sure your audience can see you. I’ve performed in venues where only the first two rows could see me. Everyone else saw the back of the head in front of him or her. This is a real showstopper. Now I simply refuse to perform in such settings.
2. Make sure your audience can hear you, especially if you are a vocal act.
3. You must earn the audience’s trust in the first 30 seconds. If your first 30 seconds goes wrong or goes flat, you won’t get the audience’s trust or attention back, no matter how good you are. Start your show with your very best item and end with your second best.
Creating Your Own Material
Now you know the terms and the risks of being an “out of the norm” performer. The next step you need to take is writing your OWN material. Here are some key steps to writing material for an act:
1. Always begin with prayer.
2. Think about your target audience, and work on ways to show them love.
3. Keep within the boundaries of familiarity. If you are a comedic act, use funny and familiar material that ends with exquisite timing and delivery.
4. Make “pack small, play big” a consideration.
Within these parameters, start thinking of things you used to do as a kid or teen that were out of the norm. For example: Did you squirt milk out of your nose? Would your audience get a kick out of that? Now think how you could use that to make a point. Think of the most loving and creative way to squirt milk out of your nose.
“Now you’re losing me.”
Hi, Bauer. What is it that you don’t understand?
When did I lose you?
“Um, back at the keys.”
Ah, yes, we are discussing the key elements to writing your own material.
First is prayer. Second is to know that the most loving thing you can do is to focus on your target audience. Remember that you are performing for them, not for yourself. Third is to keep things familiar and the fourth key is to pack small but have your ideas play big.
“I don’t get it. Where’s the milk?”
That was just a way to start, Bauer. When developing your own material, you start with a skit, skill, or talent that you personally have. You don’t start with other entertainers’ material unless they’ve sold it to you. Rather, think of fun, original things you can do of your own accord.
“Okay, so what does that have to do with milk?”
After you identify a talent or skill, work it and re-work it. Play around with it. Try to tweak it with an angle that works with today’s audiences. Combine it with a popular song or hip new style of clothing or … well, you get the idea.
Just relax, Bauer. It takes time and practice to experiment with new ideas.
After you formulate your new skit, skill, or talent and have made it familiar, try to add a twist to it, such as a surprise ending.
“Squirt chocolate milk from your nose! Or Milk Duds, or a Milky Way bar, or …”
Thank you, Bauer. I think you’re getting the idea.
“I love you.”
I love you too, Bauer
“Now I’m hungry.”
How about a milk shake?
“That was JUST what I was thinking! How’dya know that? Oh yeah … you’re the Animated Illusionist! Can you make me some thumbs?”
We’ll see, Bauer. But for now, reader, best of luck on developing your own ministry-based entertainment act. It’s definitely a lot of work, but it’s also definitely worth it.
“Yup! Have fun!”
(Bauer is a ventriloquist bear product made by Steve Axtell and used by Ardan James)
© 2004 Ardan James. To be used only by permission of the author. All rights reserved.