A performance by British ventriloquist Nina Conti will close a comedy program at a Mahalaxmi venue in conjunction with a London theatre. We met the funny woman with the monkey
The Ventriloquist with Monkey. Photo courtesy/Getty Images
About 20 years ago, British ventriloquist and comedienne Nina Conti performed minor surgery on a muppet monkey, a quiet resident of her closet. Pushed by her “radical” director, mentor and friend Ken Campbell, Conti was still trying to find her voice, without moving her lips. One night, while practicing with a host of “awful” puppets, she remembered the beady-eyed monkey. “I wondered if his mouth would move. I pulled the padding off his head, pushed my hand up to his mouth, and it moved a tiny millimeter,” she explains animatedly, illustrating the movement of the muppet’s lips with her fingers. When he looked at her, she said to herself: “Ah, he knows me and he has a lot to say!”
The Monkey, of course, was never silent, sparing no one with his acerbic humor. This weekend, the ventriloquist takes the monkey out of the bag, along with his arsenal of masks, during a show organized by the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture. This is part of their collaboration with London’s Soho Theater to bring the latter’s vibrant comedy culture to Mumbai. As a good joke, Anuradha Parikh, founder and artistic director of G5A, remarks that the timing is right. While comedy has taken off in India, it’s rare to find a support system that encourages consistency. “Every time we talked at the Soho Theater about working together, we talked about comedy. Comedy allows us to talk about things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. After introducing film, theatre, movement and music, it seemed right to open up the space for comedy and having conversations that matter. Later, we hope to develop a comedy lab,” she shares. Highlighting how Conti and the monkey encourage the idea of listen, she adds: “If we all listened a little more, it would create a better world.”
Hear what we did for Conti, who is on his first visit to India.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
You’ve been in showbiz your whole life. Tell us briefly how you went from actor to ventriloquist and comedian.
My father [Tom Conti] and mother [Kara Wilson] were both successful actors. I used to visit my father on film sets; so, I knew I wanted to do something in that area but I didn’t want to get lost in his footsteps. I had an uncomfortable start. I also performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and should have liked it, but I felt impatient. I looked so beautiful in my dress and everything, but my soul was screaming. And then I met Ken. It was his mission to champion unsung heroes who were genuine and ruffle people who weren’t. I hated the ventriloquist; he was always a guy who made corny jokes with a horrifying puppet. I didn’t want to do this, but Ken encouraged me and said, ‘If you’re a clown who doesn’t want to wear the nose yourself, this is perfect for you.’
Conti with one of his masks. Photo courtesy/Instagram
The monkey has been your companion for 20 years. What is your relationship with him? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to try stand-up without him?
Growing up in the 90s as a woman in the UK was fine, not great. But it had to be a certain way. You wanted to look happy with everything and be wise. If you’re told that all the time growing up, that other voice starts growing secretly, like a shadow. And if you have a puppet, that shadow creeps in and suddenly can be the voice of all those thoughts. So, for me, it was like phew, the freedom – the liberation to express all those uncensored thoughts, in a way that felt safe. It was also exciting not to be in a monologue, because I don’t always know what I think of everything. With the
Monkey, this could be more of a conversation.
I haven’t tried stand-up without him. To me, that would still look like subtraction. I guess before I was just worried about being judged, but now I don’t mind seeing what it would be like to be on my own.
What can we expect from your show?
It’s nice to come here with the Soho Theater because it’s an exciting place that constantly encourages new voices. At the show, there will be the Monkey and the masks, but we’ll see what happens when we do. [laughs]. Do you know the hot or cold game? It’s my policy. People like a thing, I go to it. Thus, the public creates the spectacle; I’m just there to listen, animate and tell what’s in the room.
Conti’s Advice for Amateur Ventriloquists
>> Gauge what the puppet has to say; don’t come with your ideas.
>> Don’t try to understand what the world wants to hear.
>> There’s something about puppetry and performing in the moment without an honest, exciting plan.
On: May 28 and 29; 8 p.m.
At: G5A Warehouse, Laxmi Mills Estate, Shakti Mills Lane, Mahalaxmi West
Connect to: g5afoundation.org
Cost: Rs 500