BWW Interview: Ventriloquist Nina Conti Talks IN YOUR FACE
Ventriloquist Nina Conti got her break when Ken Campbell specially devised Let Me Out!!! for her in 2001. She's since won numerous awards, headlined shows, and appeared in Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration. She's now on a major UK tour with improvised show In Your Face, which sees audience members donning masks and becoming live semi-puppets. The show comes to New Wimbledon Theatre on 3 October.
How did the masks idea evolve?
Either I love improvising this show with people, or I'm deeply lonely and like working with latex! I've been doing a bit of it in my shows for a while, and it was really igniting in fun directions, so I felt there was more here. I've been secretly working on it for three or four years, and felt I was now in a good position to do it.
Finding the material, based on skeletal facts of people in the audience, is a really interesting stretch for me, rather than just repeating the same stuff nightly. It's more chaotic, more comedic, on a bigger scale, and probably more has more mainstream appeal than anything I've done before.
Do you pick volunteers carefully?
Not really - it's works on anyone. It's about getting into the mindset of the person, whoever they are, and once the mouth is on them you read their expressions and body language, and go along with whatever that tells you.
Have you had any strange responses?
There have been so many crazy, memorable nights. It's always changing direction - nothing ever ends up in the position you expect. It's a collaboration between me and that person. If I make a wife say to a husband "I love you so much" and then she gives him the finger, that's hilarious.
I try not to just do the least likely thing they'd say - it's more fun getting into the subtext of what they're actually thinking. Like if you get up a couple, or a brother and sister, or son and mum, there's often one more reluctant than the other! That's a great dynamic. People are fascinating - even if they're physically locked, their minds are never still. So it's not just me trying to spin yarns out of nowhere.
How long have you been improvising?
Since about 2011. I started riffing and it built incrementally more and more. Now I do it all the time and I don't really think of it as improv - it's just doing the show.
What's the experience like having new castmates with each show?
It's so enriching for me - I'm so grateful. Often the people I've had up will come up and say hello afterwards, and I don't recognise them! I've spent so long with the masked character.
Do you try to create an arc in the show, or just respond moment to moment?
Ao I remember things earlier and reconnect. If there's a need or desire that went unanswered, whether it's someone who lost a job or couldn't find a parking space, it's lovely to reincorporate those and give it an arc. But often there are so many different elements, you just wind up celebrating them all in a big climax at the end.
Are you quite kind with your volunteers?
The interesting thing for me is making their characters fun and lovable. I don't want anyone to be unhappy on stage - I'm in full mother mode, reassuring them that it's not for them to carry the show, it's up to me to make it work. They're under no obligation - they just have to feel safe.
The audience response is really interesting. There's a bit where I get into a bag, so I'm not on stage anymore - it's just the puppet sticking out. Often, at that point, the audience starts to talk to each and shout out questions to the monkey, and I'm in the bag thinking "This is so exciting - it's off and running on its own." It's so unusual that they're all making each other laugh in a room that size. And when the masks come off, they just roar - there's so much love for the people who've gone up there.
Would you like to do more with masks in future, or bring the puppets back?
The monkey is in the show, and if I have an idea for a new puppet character, I'll do one. But I'd love to try a whole mask show with just one person - I'd have to work that out, and make sure the mask is really comfortable! I'm curious to explore that. Or maybe do something scripted and theatre-based, like on a psychiatrist's couch with the monkey.
Do you think of yourself more as a ventriloquist, a comedian...?
I suppose an artist - some kind of artist! A theatre person. I would love to get away from the tyranny of things having to be funny all the time. You can go to interesting places if you give yourself a reprieve from counting laughs per minute, so maybe that's something to explore. Though there's something about the masks that's just funny from the off - it's so bonkers, these semi-real people, who are kind of clueless.
Is it easy to balance the meta humour?
It really comes naturally. That's your get-out clause. If you've said something that's too big an ask, you've got to acknowledge it - if the audience isn't buying it, you can't just plough on. Expose the inner workings, why you tried it, why it didn't work, and then everyone relaxes.
But ventriloquism has always been more subversive than people give it credit for - self-reflexive jokes about people not being real or losing their mind. I think there wasn't room for it on mainstream TV or kids' TV, but it's always been there.
Is ventriloquism something you have to keep practising?
I hope not, because I don't! If I had to go back practising my 'b's, I'd go out of my mind. The whole starting premise of not moving my mouth feels so long ago, I might even do it - I'm too busy doing accents and stopping that woman from running away! But to me it's always been about the script. I just wanted that monkey to be funny and say cool stuff - the act won't be at its best if the audience is just looking at your mouth.
Is it liberating getting to speak through puppets - and say anything?
It's really thrilling. You realise how many dormant thoughts you've had - it all comes out. Conversations you've had with friends during the week all feed in. A lot of the stuff I say on stage I wouldn't say in normal life. That monkey is a step beyond anything I'd say. It's not my job to worry about filtering it. I can apologise for him, but there's no accountability for a nylon glove. No one actually said it - it was just what this character, this monkey, might say, not what I think.
He says terrible things to the nicest people. He might meet a banker and compliment his shoes, and then some more charity worker gets it in the neck - it's completely arbitrary. It's almost finding the boundaries of what's the worst thing you can say.
Finally, what can people expect at In Your Face?
It'll be a one-off that they share with people on that night, which gives it a nice family, bespoke feeling. I can't guarantee anything - it could go anywhere! Definitely expect a lot of laughs. I hear more laugher than at any of my previous shows, which makes it totally addictive. There are so many elements to enjoy beyond anything I'm doing. It just creates this wonderful, funny place.
Picture credit: Idil Sukan/Draw HQ