Through the tiny, raggedy monkey puppet permanently attached to her arm, stand-up comedian and ventriloquist Nina Conti is able to forget social etiquette and manners and allow her real cynicism to shine through. Not that she’s not polite—the English performer is perfectly lovely—but the snarky asides and running commentary she provides in Monk the monkey’s snide drawl give an insight to what, perhaps, she might be able to vocalize as herself if she were less shy.
Nina’s hesitant personality is never revealed in her hilarious and successful comedy shows, but in “Her Master’s Voice”, the SXSW documentary she wrote and directed, it is declared the motivating force behind her career. Nina began practicing ventriloquism in her mid 20s at the insistence of her mentor, British theater legend Ken Campbell. The film opens with Nina questioning the future of her art and coming to the difficult decision to stop performing.
And then she finds out Ken has died, leaving to her all of his dolls, puppets, kits, and memorabilia relating to the craft he bestowed upon her years before. Among the puppets—Ken’s trademark bulldog character, a sad old owl, a sweet Granny character and a larger-than-life-size replica of Ken himself—Nina also discovers information about the annual ventriloquist’s convention in Kentucky and the neighboring Vent Haven, a resting place for the dolls of deceased performers.
In the course of an hour, we watch as Nina travels to the United States and battles with her art, meets her kindred spirits, lays Ken’s bulldog to rest and pays tribute to all that he taught her. We were lucky enough to speak to Nina after seeing the film, which plays at Hot Docs next week.
Portable: I’ve seen you and Monkey perform many times in the Melbourne Comedy Festival galas, and it was such a treat to hear you do a greater range of voices with the puppets Ken left for you. How long did you have to spend creating the personalities and affectations of each new puppet’s voice? Was it difficult to “get to know” these new characters after spending to long with Monkey?
Nina Conti: I really only spent a few days trying them out before going to Kentucky — it was really liberating to try some others after exclusive years with monkey. But what a crazy inheritance — they had such an odd presence, arriving silent from Ken’s house, all with faces. The granny that Ken had used as Gertrude Stein I turned into my own granny and that came together very happily. (I had a replica made and still use her in performance) Ken’s puppet presented the biggest challenge — hence the title. that puppet seemed to bring home the loss of Ken most because it made such a poor substitution with the voice I could give it.
P: In the film you mention that often you hear groaning from audiences when they see someone get on stage with a puppet. In this sense—that not everyone does or understands the art—is ventriloquism cool in its antiquity and specificity? What was it about the art that drew you in and kept you for so long?
Nina Conti: Ken threw me into the art, I had no prior exposure to it — never watched it as a child — and so I really had the feeling of “no one is doing this — I may be the only woman in the world here.” Of course I now know that I’m not the only woman, there are another three or four.
I love the art. Done well it is so fun to see something inanimate come to life. To see something that can’t talk, talk. It’s a childhood fantasy. I love when the vent seems to enjoy it too — Dan Horn’s my personal favourite for this reason.
P: Many of the film’s most tender moments between you and Monkey take place in your dank hotel room. They reminded me a lot of the hotel confessions David Brent did on “The Office”—expressing vulnerability when you’re a little drunk and have a camera to capture it. What was it about that space that felt safe? Does Monkey continue in his role as therapist when the camera’s turned off?
Nina Conti: I suppose because no one was watching. And I was the director and producer so I has total control of what would be used. I was keen, with the ghost of Ken’s bidding in my mind, to explore the art fully and see how real a conversation with yourself can become. Monkey’s role as a therapist beyond the camera I’m sure would be enormously useful if I had the time to give it — but my real children prevent me from indulging in long conversations with him. They like him for themselves. I fully recommend talking to yourself in this way — it seems to stray thoughts in extra directions.
P: It seemed that, before the reveal of Ken’s death, the film was going in a different direction—the one of you giving up ventriloquism for good. What do you think you’d be doing now if he were still alive and you didn’t fulfill his obligations for you?
Nina Conti: Good question! What a horrible thought — I might have taken up psychoanalysis and could be really screwing people up right now. I was looking into it seriously. But it’s not an easy thought that something good came from his death because I’d rather he were here. I made the film for him and I wish he could see it.
P: You came across many characters and a few kindred spirits at the convention. How often do you meet other ventriloquists? How did it feel to be around so many people who share something so specific?
Nina Conti: I loved it! I thought it was just me in my room. They are like my crazy accross the pond family and I so enjoy spending time with them and having fiddly specific conversations about puppet upkeep, where to buyarm rods etc. It’s de rigeur to mock ventriloquism — but in Kentucky it’s celebrated and that’s a welcome refreshment. I’m going back this summer.