Hearing the voice of Nina Conti is normal. But when it is coming from your phone it is a little strange. You normally hear it when you can see Nina Conti, but are being lead, through suggestion and stage craft, to not think it is
coming from her mouth but instead that of one of her puppet friends or, more recently, unsuspecting audience members. But this isn’t that, this is a phone. I may be overthinking things because I am pleased and surprised to be talking to someone of whom I am a fan.
I have been a fan for many years, I’ll take care of my bias on Monday when I review Conti’s show ‘In Your Face’ but for now let’s be clear that she is cool, and this has a lot to do with the fact that her work is interesting, and constantly subverts the form of the tools and techniques she employs.
On stage Conti has moved far beyond eliciting laughs by not moving her lips. This is why Conti is a professional comedian with her own tour, not a person who brings a suitcase and water glass to parties; there is limited laughter in “Oh my god she is making her hand talk” (especially as an audience which continues to be amazed by that is probably one bad mood away from shouting“Witch!”) but there is a great deal of laughter in the double acts which Conti has created over many years and now the ones that she creates in moments.
And she really does have to create them in moments. Her most recent show is, almost entirely, improvised as she gets audience members to wear masks and makes them her very own
newventriloquist puppets – using their jobs or hobbies to create a story. Have you seen the face masks? Go Google the face masks. They are something rather unique.
So masks done, how does she pick her victim? She has to size up the person but tells me that she mostly does this, in effect, by instinct and experience, without a structured list of character creating tools in her head. She also tells me that she doesn’t want to use anyone for cheap laughs.
Conti describes her approach to the volunteers as ‘dictatorial but caring’.
‘Like a benevolent tyrant?’ I ask,
“No, I’m like a really caring mother who wants to exploit you” …..but for laughter.
And if you watch a clip or go to one of her shows, you will see she does show a genial touch and genuine care towards those who are brought on stage.
Now, usually one of the reasons audience participation works and has been used for so long, is that the audience laughs out of schadenfreude and relief that they are still safe in their dark seats, the volunteer isn’t supposed to be funny. They are usually just a vehicle, a readymade straight man for the performer to use to get those laughs. A stuffed suit.
A straw man. You get the idea. But because she provides all the voices, Conti can play with this trope and make herself the foil, she can make the volunteer the hero, the funny one. Because she can allow her participants, through her, to be the funnier of them, in exchange there is no need to embarrass the volunteer to get a laugh.
This is good because humiliating someone would not be very Nina Conti, who is charming, who you like, but who has, let’s not forget, just turned someone into a cyborg meat puppet for theentertainment of strangers. She is, in a word, interesting. In two, super interesting.
How interesting? Come back on Monday night when I’ll review her show and cover more of the subjects we spoke about in her interview including mystical objects and distracting children inautomobiles….what more can you want?