By Kate Copstick
DUE to phenomenal demand, award-winning ventriloquist Nina Conti is reviving her critically acclaimed tour In Your Face, which is in Brighton in November.
She’s from a 100% theatrical family so, I ask Nina Conti, was there ever any chance that she might get a real job? “My dad left school at 14 but my mum was a good girl and she went to university, so I think I got the ‘good girl’ vibe from her and I did go to university and studied philosophy but…” she sighs, “they all just seemed to be having such a laugh, the actors. It is a very seductive business.” And she, I suggest, was seeing it from the very top. “Mmm”, she pauses for thought. “And I suppose it is was not so much the working that was so attractive, it was more… the pub afterwards…”
The ventriloquism, amazingly enough, did not start till she was 27. So no little Nina playing in her room giving voices to all her dolls and teddies then? According to the world’s most charming Monkey Manipulator, “I was never very good at playing on my own. Which is a bit of a downer for an only child. I always co-opted Mum or Dad into my playing. So I think when I started the ventriloquism thing, it was really me working out how to play on my own. Twenty years on.” Which is an interesting take on the art and craft of the ventriloquist, if ever there was one.
“What I am doing now is really just that. Even with all the people on stage, I am basically talking to myself for two hours.” There is a short pause while she takes this thought in. “I think I have finally worked out how to have fun for myself.”
She has stormed appearances on Live at the Apollo, Russell Howard’s Good News and Sunday Night at the Palladium and performed across the world, enjoying a string of sell-out tours around the UK and beyond. So according to audience and critics alike, there are tens of thousands of other people having fun too. Although the famous and much loved Monk makes an appearance – he makes a great MC and has impeccable judgement when it comes to identifying the ones amongst you who will become stage stars for a night – he is no longer the lynchpin of the act. Instead, two hilarious and utterly unpredictable hours of what Nina modestly calls “the blind leading the blind” are spun from you the audience, a set of cartoonish face masks, Nina and her talent, laughter and applause.
Once you are amongst the chosen, and onstage with Nina, your mouth and everything that comes out of it are entirely in her hands. Audiences must feel very comfortable with her, I suggest, to allow this.
“I think they can tell I am grateful to have them up there with me,” she says, “and that I would never do anything mean or too outrageous when the mask is on. What comes out is not them and it is not me, it is just… all stupid. I think it is noble to be really stupid. None of the comedy that happens makes a point, or is full of clever observation… it just is.”
She draws, she says, on the time she spent as a Giggle Doctor for kids in hospitals across the south of England with the Theodora Children’s Trust. While training for that, Nina did every training course known to the aspirant clown. When people come up onstage and get on their masks, she says, they fall almost immediately under the ‘Big Spell’ created by laughter and applause. “When they look some way or do something and they feel or hear the audience respond to that, and know they are responsible for the laughter, they naturally learn from it, and they repeat the action. It is natural to be eager to please. This is really classic clown school training – learning through improvisation.”
And once her people find their own inner clown, with a little vocal help from Nina, they do the most extraordinary things. “People are altered by hearing a different kind of voice coming out of their mouths,” says Nina. ‘Altered’, she reveals, to the extent that one show involved two big old Liverpudlian blokes lapdancing for each other, and entire families volunteering together, creating a soap opera involving a pregnancy with the baby being delivered ‘live’ onstage.
Through the whole crazy thing, Nina says that her own inner monologue is saying “don’t get in the way, don’t get in the way ! Just voice it!” which is at once unassuming for a star in her own show, and showing as much trust in her participants as they place in her.
The Conti audience is about as varied as audiences get: young and old, boys and girls, even Stags and Hens on occasion. What she calls her “hungry hawk-eye” is always looking for body language and expressions that guide the voices she puts in their ‘mouths’.
By now, Nina reads body language like a little old lady reads a Bingo card. Just occasionally, when unleashing a audience’s inner entertainers, she has to consult what she calls her ‘moral compass’. “Sometimes you get a bloke up onstage who gets…” she pauses to consider her phrasing “all thrusty”. I think we all know what she is talking about. But, says Nina, “the audience will always tell you what is OK. You can feel it. And if they… get thrusty to absolute silence, then they do not do it again.” The whole experience is a wonderful symbiosis of performer and audience. And unique. “It is a bit rude sometimes” says Nina. “I do have that problem. I do love silly playground stuff.”
She herself loves performing the show. “If I have had a bad day… as soon as I am onstage, and the people are up there and the fun is happening… everything is just wonderful”. And the future? “I think this should be turned into a Jerry Springer type TV show” she says, not entirely seriously. However, the way it seems to bring out people inner crazy, I cannnot help feel it would be just what the Giggle Doctor ordered.
More seriously, she is considering a much higher tech version of this show. More structured. The seat of her pants is getting slightly frayed by flying by it for all this time. And she will have to find something because, as we part, and I ask about Monkey, she drops a bombsell. The small hairy one is, apparently, in discussions about a career without Nina.
So this could be your last chance to see them onstage together. Take your inner clown. You will both love it.