Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ventriloquism at Rikers Island

One of the more unusual performance experiences in my career occurred during the recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot. I was asked by Chabad - the outreaching Hasidic sect - to  perform a ventriloquist show during the annual Sukkot celebration that Chabad brings to Jewish inmates at the famed prison on Rikers Island, NY. This was a return engagement, actually, as they had asked me to do this same gig two years ago. I knew what to expect at this, my second Rikers Island performance...or I thought I did...

Two years ago, having never been inside a prison, I was a bit nervous in anticipation of my prison debut. After security checks that lasted more than an hour, I finally was allowed to enter a gym together with about a dozen Chabad members who proceeded to set up for the party. A small band, also brought in by Chabad, set up and began blaring Hasidic rock. A small group of about a dozen inmates gradually entered the gym and took seats at round tables spaced widely apart on the gym floor. The Hasidim yanked inmates from their seats and onto the dance floor (Hasidic rules do not allow mixed gender dancing, and encourage same-gender dancing). Most of the inmates accepted the dance invitations, but a few of them steadfastly refused.

A few more prisoners eventually filtered in to the gym. Food and drinks were shared. Finally it was my turn to perform. The Hasidim loved my show. But as far as the inmates were concerned, despite being a captive audience, they were also a "dead" audience. They pretty much ignored my show, except for one middle aged man who paid rapt attention to the entire show. He had pulled up a chair close to me as soon as I had begun the show, and seemed to watch intently till the end. He was no more responsive than the other inmates (he didn't laugh once) but he seemed fascinated by my ventriloquist techniques.

While packing up after the show, I asked the Head Hasid if he knew what the inmates were in for. He said, "Most of them are here for white collar crimes...what you'd expect from Jewish criminals. But a few of them are here for other crimes."

I said, "Like what?"
He said, "For example, did you notice that guy sitting close up to you throughout the show?"
"How could I miss him. What is he in for?"

Despite my awareness that one shouldn't judge people by their appearances, I couldn't help feeling surprised. That man looked very ordinary and nondescript. More like an accountant than a murderer.

"Do you know the details?"
"Multiple murders. He's a hit man for the Russian mob."

I wondered whether that explained his intense fascination with my show. Had he been hired to whack me and/or my dummy? Was he sizing us up? Waiting for an opportunity when the guards might wander off during the show? Or had he been thinking about ventriloquism as a possible technique to incorporate into his profession, if he ever gets out of prison? Perhaps he could throw his voice to throw his victims off guard before striking?

I left the prison as quickly as I could, after dealing with another hour of security checks.

A few weeks ago, my second Rikers Island experience was different. First off, the security was much tighter this time. It took a good two hours to get through security checks entering, and another two hours leaving. Second, the Hasidim had learned from my first show. This time, they arranged for a large contingent of non-Jewish inmates to be invited to see my show, so that I had a much larger audience than the first time. And for some reason, this time the audience response was terrific. Both the Jewish and non-Jewish inmates laughed often and heartily. True, I had also learned from my previous experience, and had honed my act a bit to make it more prison-friendly. But that wouldn't entirely account for the difference in reception. One never knows.

I had wondered whether my hit man fan would be there. I don't think he was. Rikers is basically a holding prison for people who are awaiting trial or re-trial or sentencing, so there is a lot of turnover. My hit man fan is likely in an upstate prison. Or maybe he beat the rap and is back in Brooklyn, whacking people. Wherever he is, I hope he started a fan club for me. I've never been good at marketing myself, so I'll take all the grass-roots support I can get.

Visit my recently updated website:

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Secret to Funding an Indie Film

You've written a brilliant feature film screenplay. People who read it invariably give you very enthusiastic feedback containing words like "brilliant", "clever", "ground breaking", "exciting", "suspenseful", "touching" and "hilarious". You need a measly $55,000 in order to shoot this film on your carefully calculated shoestring budget.

There is a surefire secret strategy to obtain this micro budget for your terrific indie movie. I'm sure there is.

I just don't know what it is.

I thought that Kickstarter might be the answer. My project is live as I type this post; our deadline is June 30, 2013 to reach our funding goal of $55,000. If we reach it, we shoot the movie. If not, those who pledged donations will not pay us a penny, and the movie will not be made. Again... I've been down this road many times with several of my screenplays. Just when investors seem to be lined up and ready to sign checks, the deals and/or investors themselves never fail to vanish.

Before posting my movie project on Kickstarter I was aware that narrative films rarely get funded on Kickstarter. Most of the successfully funded films on Kickstarter are documentaries, because the filmmakers can then appeal directly to the appropriate swaths of people who feel passionately about the topic, i.e. "save the rainforest", "cure X disease", etc. I've been getting loads of encouraging emails and messages from friends and fans since my project launched on May 22, saying that the movie sounds great, they look forward to seeing it, they wish me all the best, etc. But very few of these people have sprung for a donation toward our budget...despite that fact that I'm offering lots of rewards for various levels of donation, i.e. signed DVD's and posters, t-shirts, Skype chats with my dummies and me, private ventriloquist lessons, invitations to watch us shoot the movie and to attend a cast party, a chance to appear in the movie, etc. Heck, for just a $10 donation a backer would get access to an online screening of the film before it is released to the general public. But even that doesn't seem to have any appeal to the vast majority of people who have been telling me that they would love to see the film.

I think I know why: since my movie is not a documentary, the only way that I could have attracted enough donations to reach our budget would be if I had a "star" attached to the movie. That's just the way it is with the psychology of movie-goers. Unfortunately, Tom Hanks and Leo DiCaprio were not available for this project. Nor were Meryl Streep or Emma Stone. I must face the brutal fact that I am not a "star".

There's one good thing that is coming out of the looming failure of my Kickstarter campaign: I feel inspired now to dust off my novelized version of this screenplay, While the Village Sleeps, which I nearly got published a couple of years ago. That's a topic for a different blog post. But I've decided to self publish this novel soon as an e-book.

So all is not lost. You, dear blog reader, will soon be able to read While the Village Sleeps...if not see it.

Here's the Kickstarter project...

Friday, May 24, 2013

The other Jonathan Geffner

There is another Jonathan Geffner who lives in the same county as I do. We have communicated via Facebook occasionally over several years but have never met. He is one of the first contributors to my fund raising campaign on for my "dummy noir" movie. I am grateful for his support, but would expect nothing less from a man with such a cool name. 

By the way, if you haven't pledged a donation yet to our project, why the heck not? The deadline is June 30th, 2013, so get off your tokhes and do it already...

Anyway, I'm thinking of writing a short film entitled Jonathan Geffner, about two Jonathan Geffners who simultaneously get amnesia, then simultaneously awake to believe that they each are the other one. I'll hire the other Jonathan Geffner to play one of the Jonathan Geffners and I'll play the other. 

Since we are both musicians we can do the music together. I can't wait to see the credit roll...

Jonathan Geffner a film by Jonathan Geffner

Characters Jonathan Geffner played by Jonathan Geffner and Jonathan Geffner played by Jonathan Geffner

music by Jonathan Geffner and Jonathan Geffner

Any resemblance of the two Jonathan Geffners in this film to any other Jonathan Geffners living or dead is purely coincidental.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

New feature film project launched on Kickstarter!

Our Kickstarter project - While the Village Sleeps - has launched! Please visit our project now and help make this movie. Our deadline to fund the movie is June 30, 2013. Please share the link widely. Thanks for your support...

Monday, May 20, 2013

We are launching an exciting Kickstarter project in a few days: our feature film, While the Village Sleeps. Here is a link to a Preview of the project. You can be a part of movie making history! Check back with us soon and become a backer at any level. You will get all kinds of cool rewards as you help to bring to life an exciting new genre of film making: Dummy Noir!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ventriloquism is Dead

At least my kind is. Or so they say. "They" being all the tv and movie execs with whom I've talked over the years about various projects featuring me and my puppets. They see ventriloquism as an obsolete art. Passe, anachronistic, old. Quaint but kaput. I've received that kind of feedback consistently over the many years that I've pitched various ventriloquism-centered tv series and movie screenplays to producers and execs. Despite receiving much lovely praise about my ventriloquist skills and about the quality of the scripts and pilot episodes that I've written, the unending string of rejections that I've received always seem to contain either direct or veiled reference to that negative view of my art form.

I don't buy it. I believe there is a huge potential market for the projects that I've written and proposed. I know this from the enthusiasm of my audiences at my live shows; from the feedback that I've gotten from my self-produced educational video series, Puppet Power and Puppet Pride; from the feedback that I've gotten from my self-produced short film, Oxford Park; and from the feedback that I've gotten from my occasional guest appearances on tv shows. It would just require a different mind-set on the part of the people who hold the power to make these things happen.

But mind-sets are difficult to change. Especially when there is no precedent in recent years for the kind of projects that I want to do. I see it as a positive that my projects would stand out as different from most others now in the mass media. But the people who hold the purse-strings see it as a negative - as a gamble not worth taking.

The recent phenomenal success of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham would seem to negate all this. But his meteoric rise to fame has been in spite of this reality. His very non-traditional business strategy brilliantly bypassed the roadblocks to ventriloquial fame and fortune. The great ventriloquists of the past - Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis - rose to fame mainly via kids and family entertainment venues. I modeled myself after those ventriloquists, and early in my career decided to focus on kids and family venues. Winchell in particular was my hero. His spot-on technique combined with his whimsical, charming, high-energy comedy routines - suitable for all ages - constituted, for me, the ultimate ventriloquist persona and act.

Dunham paid his dues for many years in the adult comedy club circuit. Dummies (puppets) being used as props to tell "adult" jokes has turned out to be the only path to large-scale success for the modern ventriloquist. Dunham leads the pack, but other "adult" ventriloquists have also become very successful in recent years, including Terry Fator (winner of an America's Got Talent contest), Ronn Lucas and David Strassman.

I don't regret my career path. The comedy club circuit would have meant many years on the road for me, and my temperament was not well-suited for life on the road. Especially after my first of two daughters came along nearly fifteen years ago, there was no way that I could have chosen to spend most of my time away from home. As it turned out, I was married to a woman who was away from home most of the time, and so I was virtually a single dad way before our separation. As a result, I got to be with my girls, watch them grow up, experience all of the childhood milestones with them, and am now (I hope it is safe to say) close to both of them. What price tag can one put on that?

Not to say that I don't envy Dunham's career. I certainly do. But he deserves his success. He is very talented, made smart marketing choices and he paid his dues.

I became aware of my inferior career path of "kids venues" as opposed to "adult venues" many years ago, and thought that I had hit upon a way around that. I came up with the concept of a ventriloquist detective who uses his vocal skills as well as his wooden partner to help solve cases. And so, Trillo & Suede were born. Well, Trillo was born, Suede was carved. And I aimed the scripts that I wrote to adult audiences.

But I soon found myself up against other roadblocks. The ones facing any screenwriter who creates a concept that is too "different" from the tried and true formulas that have already worked. With the encouragement of Ian Lewis, president of Farnham Films, UK, I wrote several Trillo & Suede feature film screenplays over several years - each of them inspired by an apparent funding source in one of several different countries. But the funding sources each disappeared sometime before a deal was reached.

Ian and I did manage to self-produce a short film that I wrote: Oxford Park. We shot it in England in two days and it had quite an impressive run on the international film festival circuit. But it failed to attract funding sources for any of my "real" scripts, the feature film ones. Ian and I are still trying to come up with a way to shoot one of these movies. We figure that we could shoot one of them on a shoestring budget of USD 150,000. But in this recession, neither Ian nor I can afford to invest our own money.

Last year I finished writing a Trillo & Suede novel, While the Village Sleeps. It was tentatively accepted by a publishing company, then they decided against it. That was my one shot at publishing it the traditional way. Without an agent, there are very few publishing houses that will look at manuscripts from unpublished authors. And agents are less and less inclined to look at anything written by unpublished authors. But one cannot become a published author until one is published, right? Catch-22. I'll self-publish it one of these days.

Meanwhile, I still bring this "dead" art form to vibrant life frequently at schools, libraries, camps, private organizations, etc. And the Trillo & Suede characters will live theoretically forever in Oxford Park, and in a Making Of documentary, and in a little intro video to the T&S characters.

I even bring dummies to life in other languages, on occasion. Mainly Yiddish and Hebrew. I'm fluent in the former, somewhat fluent in the latter. Lately I've become quite popular in Hasidic circles. Not bad for a non-religious, Yiddish-speaking ventriloquist. Go figure.

So, the next time someone tells me that ventriloquism is dead - or that my kind of ventriloquism is dead - I'll reply with a toast...


Sign of Hope for Middle East Peace

A recent phenomenon throughout the Arab world gives hope for peace. Localized, Islamized versions of classic and current Broadway musicals are becoming all the rage in many Arab countries. This heralds a refreshing counterweight to the more conservative wing of Islam. And the fact that Broadway musicals have always been largely a Jewish enterprise - the product of (more often than not) Jewish writers, composers, lyricists, directors, producers, etc. - portends well for a softening of Arab attitudes toward Jews generally. Here, then, is a list of the more popular Moslem Musicals today...

Fiddler on the Mosque
Annie Get Your Hookah
Chitty Chitty Baba Ganoush
Bye Bye Burka
A Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way To The Intifada
Kiss Me, Koran
Meet Me in Mecca
My Fair Fatwa
La Cage Aux Fanatics
The Best Little Prayer House in Tunisia
Barefoot in the Mosque
Dreamgirls (76 Virgins)
Avenue Al Qaeda
Damn Yankees
How to Succeed in Business without Being Jewish

Now if only the Jews would reciprocate by producing some Jewish versions of classic Moslem works of art...