Dear friends, I have been remiss in not mentioning one of my all-time favorite performers who is a crossover talent–the scintillating Nina Conti. Ventriloquist, comedian, actor, and sometimes-singer (check out the clip at the end of the post). Now some of you may groan and picture some cheesy–or worse, creepy, Vaudeville-esque wooden dummy with a sad sweaty guy trying not to move his lips. Throw that shit away promptly. Nina is smart, creative, and dare I say lyrical in her interpretation and use of ventriloquism as a comedic art form.
Somehow she slipped under my radar for a while, but lucky for me she’s back again, front and center. I recently watched a documentary of hers that came out in 2012 entitled, Her Master’s Voice (not to be confused with the erotic novel of the same title, and you can throw that away too). It follows Nina on her pilgrimage to the Vent Haven 2009 convention which is held annually in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Words are almost not enough to paint the scene to which the viewers are privy. There are more puppets and puppeteers/ventriloquists than I could have possibly imagined existed. If you are a young person interested in puppetry and/or ventriloquism, nag your parents into visiting. Even if you can’t go to the convention, you can always be inspired and amazed by the collection of “retired” puppets at the Vent Haven Museum (which is open May – September by appointment only).
I don’t want to say too much about the film’s narrative except that it is a very strange and moving story with some wonderful bright moments of intense humor and it features some really fantastic bifurcation or “voice throwing.” We also get a very personal window into Nina Conti’s creative inspiration; including information to pique your interest to learn more about the incomparable and sometimes incomprehensible work of Ken Campbell. What’s also a super-treat is we can watch her interacting with a much wider variety of puppets than seem to be typically featured in her act.
At the end of the day though, I would like to point out that Nina once and for all proves ventriloquism and puppetry can be as relevant, vibrant, and entertaining as any theater art form. Her website http://www.ninaconti.co.uk, a.k.a. “Monk’s Treehouse” is a bit broken and barren, but there are Youtube clips galore where you can enjoy Nina and the antics of her snarky, foul-mouthed simian hand-puppet. Pure genius.
P.S. One of my favorites is her short “One Free Hand.”