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Nina Conti: Ventriloquist Extraordinaire

26 April 2013 Rachel Ridge

Nina Conti is a woman on a mission. Armed with a wise old monkey, a straight talking Scottish Granny and a host of other crazy characters, she is hilariously resuscitating the lost art of Ventriloquism wherever she goes. Whether it’s the World Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky, which sets the scene of her new BAFTA nominated film, Her Masters Voice, or her new run at the Soho Theatre this month, Conti shakes the boundaries of ventriloquism and brings it firmly into the future! We caught up with her to unravel her relationship with this endangered art form!

London Calling: Your new film Her Masters Voice has won the SXGLOBAL Audience award in South by Southwest (SXSW) awards in Austin, Texas; it has also recently been nominated for a Bafta. How are you feeling about the great reception?

Nina Conti: Yeah I’m thrilled, I’m really happy. It was a very personal film and so when people like it that makes me feel good! So yeah I was delighted about the BAFTA nomination.

LC: The film took you to a world ventriloquist convention where you met loads of ventriloquists. What was that like?

NC: It was a great place to go to, I recommend anyone, ventriloquists or not to go there. It’s a bunch of friendly people where anything goes and it’s bonkers! It’s kind of like another planet, another solar system where there are other creatures alive as well. So yeah, it was good fun, really good fun.

LC: Ventriloquism has in the past been seen as a dying art; are you trying to singlehandedly bringing it back to the mainstream?

NC: No I don’t think singlehandedly, I think that there are some other really good ventriloquists and I certainly met some when I went to Kentucky. But yes it has been suffering and there’s still a sort of stigma attached to it, probably. So yeah I will do my best to make people see it in a different light I suppose.

LC: Was learning the art of ventriloquism hard to crack and what does it entail exactly?

NC: There are several phases of it. The first one is not moving your mouth, obviously, but then you realise once you’ve got that mastered that’s the least troublesome thing. It’s more to do with making your characters interesting, come alive and say funny things. And it’s also about disassociating your face from what they’re saying, you might not be moving your mouth but your eyes and your face are very much trying to say what the puppets saying, all that does take a while to master!

LC: How do you suppress laughter or certain emotions when you’re doing the characters? Can this be quite difficult?

NC: Yeah if the monkey for example was giving someone a talking down you don’t want to see me frowning, that’s horrible. So yeah that’s quite difficult, It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.  

LC: How did you meet Ken Campbell, and how did he become your mentor?

NC: I first saw his shows at the National Theatre and thought they were terrific. He was directing a play called The Warp, which was a 24-hour play. Tt sounded like a crazy kind of shift to get on so I did, and that’s how I met him. He was directing that and I was acting in it. The ventriloquism came about eight years after I met him.

LC: Was it quite hard addressing your close relationship with Ken in the film?

NC: No it was the story I wanted to tell. The film, in a way, is a kind of thank you letter to him so I did it for him. He was a great lover of story himself, I think he would have enjoyed to know it was told

LC: You’ve taken on some of his old puppets. Do you feel there is something quite poignant and special about breathing new life into his puppets?

NC: Yeah I do find them quite strange objects, that they carry an energy from the person who owned them before. Obviously they don’t, but you can’t help but associate them and their lost voice with that person. It’s so strange.

LC: What are your favourite puppets of Ken’s?

NC: My favourites are certainly the granny. I like the owl quite a lot and there are a couple of others I haven’t quite found voices for that didn’t make it into the film. Monkey and granny are my real favourites.

LC: I read when making the film you went on a course for frontline journalists that taught you how to send back video from a war zone. What was it like being the only ventriloquist in the room?!

NC: Yeah, I was surrounded by war photographers, proper heavy people. They were all going off to war zones and stuff to tell really important stories of injustice and I was off to a ventriloquist conventions ha-ha, it’s quite funny! They were an inspiring bunch to be amongst and the teacher was terrific!

LC: Do you see them the characters as extensions of yourself, an interesting way of expressing and exploring hidden emotions and sides of yourself?

NC: Yes I think so, opening your own brain off into dialogues rather than just doing monologue, I find that quite interesting. I seem to travel further when I’m doing that than I do when I’m just thinking in my own voice.

LC: As well as being a great form of comedy, would you say there is quite a surreal and emotional dimension to the art?

NC: Well certainly in the film because I brought it into every aspect of life. Normally on a day-to-day basis I do it on stage. It was really fun to explore what its like when you do it on your own in a hotel room, far from home in the middle of the night, yeah its interesting. The puppets all know my secrets, because they’re all dealing with the same data, it’s funny! I’m my own worst interview because I know exactly what to ask; I know where all the gritty stuff is.

LC: What is it about monkey that makes his your most used?

NC: It’s his likeable face and the voice that matches his face that just makes him seem like a very believable character. He’s kind of stoical and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. It’s his boxy little face with his small frown. He’s also got kind of a kind mouth and for some reason I imbue that with great intelligence, I expect him to be able to say something rather profound. He doesn’t let me down and I enjoy him as a character for his wisdom ha-ha.

LC: You’re also an actress and have acted quite a lot. What is it about ventriloquism that gripped you?

NC: It’s a very good way for me to express myself and I’m glad I found it. It’s just right for who I am I suppose because I’m quite self conscious but I’ve also got a pretty busy head, so its nice to offload some of that onto another character. You don’t have to be fully responsible for what you say, so it’s greatly liberating. If you’ve got a monkey whose saying all these things that are in your head, that doesn’t mean you believe in them or think they should be said, but it does release some of the pressure off. It opens the window or something, it vents literally.

LC: Your dad is the actor Tom Conti; do you feel you learnt a lot growing up in a creative household?

NC: Definitely yes, his approach to acting is all about being very naturalistic and real and I respect that. I believe that’s true of acting so I try to make that the case with my own acts. I don’t want it to seem simply acted, because it such an odd thing I’m doing anyway I like it to seem as normal and natural as possible. I think it makes it more credible. So his influence is there and my mum, she’s a great laugher, so you know that’s always helpful.

LC: What do you have coming up that we can look forward to?

NC: I am doing a run at Soho Theatre soon and then I’m going to go on tour in the autumn. I’m also making another film, another documentary, which is about studying to be a clown doctor in children’s hospitals and we won’t finish filming that until way into next year.

 

The BAFTA Television Awards will take place on Sunday 12 May. Nina Conti: Dolly Mixtures is at London's Soho Theatre from 6 May and on tour in UK in the autumn (details announced soon.)

 

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