When Val Hilliker was 18-years-old, she was working in a library and re-shelving books when she found a book purporting to be able to teach a person to be a ventriloquist. The book peaked her interest, and she checked it out.
Eighteen years later, it’s only suitable that Hilliker entertained a packed atrium at the Stettler Library as one of the world’s few full-time ventriloquists, her and her puppets bringing plenty of laughter from both children and adults.
“My family wasn’t on board with this at all,” she said with a laugh. “They thought I was crazy. And maybe I am – you have to be a little crazy to do this.”
As time went on, and her ventriloquist act began to support her financially, her family came on board. One of the first puppets Hilliker ended up making was one of her grandmother.
“She just loved it,” she said. “She would ask me to bring the puppets with me.”
“Granny” isn’t a puppet that comes out for children’s shows usually, as the character that lives within the puppet is a bit too crotchety for young ears. But sometimes, she’ll nap through an act, randomly yelling out things at the kids.
“All of the puppets have their own personalities,” Hilliker said. “They have backstories, lives, that have been created. When I’m doing a show, I just act out who they are.”
That her act brings so much joy to others is one of the reasons why she loves her work, she said. The other is that it is, quite simply, a lot of fun.
One of her puppets is a frog that wears a duck suit, and that frog, Lily, was part of her Stettler act.
“She teaches people that it’s what’s inside that counts,” she said. “The children see a duck but learn she’s really a frog, and thus learn that the outside appearance might not really reflect what’s inside.”
Over the years, Hilliker has had to adapt her act. Children are a lot more engaged than they were, less likely to just sit and observe.
“They’re so smart, and there’s so much going on around them,” she said of the kids. “You get about five minutes and then you need to do something else or you lose them. They absorb so much, so quickly.”
Hilliker makes some of her puppets herself – like the first iteration of Granny – but also buys her puppets or has them custom-made.
Some of those puppets are quite obviously puppets, stuck on her hand in full view, while others are “invisible arm” puppets, which use slight-of-hand and posture to make it look like the puppet is not attached to Hilliker at all.
As one of only a handful of full-time ventriloquists in the world – Hilliker said she’s aware of maybe five others who make a living solely from the art – the opportunities have been boundless. She was in Fiji last year, working on an act there with children and teaching other entertainers. She’ll be returning to work on a television show.
The experience has taught her that different cultures have different ways of viewing the world. For example, her Lily the Frog-in-a-duck-suit act doesn’t work.
“’What’s in the inside that counts’ isn’t a saying there, so they just don’t understand the message,” Hilliker said. She’s been working on understanding cultural messages for the area to develop acts that will resonate with her audience there.
While some entertainers do ventriloquism as part of their act, it’s usually supported by other acts, like comedy or magician arts or even a clown act. With Hilliker, it’s just her puppets.
It’s been that way for 18 years, since she picked up a book in a library, and while it wasn’t easy to learn and it required a lot of practice, that book shaped Hilliker’s life – and she loves it.