The way I work:
Nina Conti

The comedian and ventriloquist on taking the plunge to go off script – and living hand to mouth. Interview: Stuart Holmes

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I had thought acting was my true aspiration but it didn’t really suit me. I enjoyed the dressing room fun and the pub after the show more than my own work as an actress. I think acting is a true craft, and people who are excellent at it put a lot of work into it, but I arrived with a very dilettante attitude.

I think the art form of ventriloquism appealed to me so much because it solved a problem from my childhood. I remember feeling quiet and wishing I wasn’t. I was shy and scared of getting things wrong, so it’s no surprise that I found a liberating mouthpiece with Monkey that wasn’t me – I didn’t get into trouble or have to worry about accountability.

You can have had a bad day but you can’t bring it on stage, even if you think you will

When it came to choosing my first puppet there was just something about Monkey’s face that appealed to me. I don’t find him particularly cute or angry – he’s wonderfully blank so you can project all emotions onto him. I like that he’s not a ventriloquist’s mannequin. I like that he fits into a handbag and onto my hand perfectly. It’s not actually even that he’s a monkey – he could be any animal. It’s just the look in his eyes and the personality which comes through in his face. Every time I’ve asked for a bespoke puppet I’ve ended up with something that I can’t talk to, so Monkey was a happy accident – all of the puppets that have ever worked for me have been happy accidents. I am the worst person to choose what I want. I much prefer chance to play its part.

I recently found an old Super 8 video which my cousin had transposed onto VHS. It had sat on a shelf for years at my parents’ house. I started watching really old footage of my childhood which I hadn’t seen before. Suddenly, I saw myself coming out of the house as a child and did a double take – I couldn’t believe that I had a monkey puppet on my hand! I didn’t remember having a toy like that as a child. It really did feel like someone had unwoven the fabric of time and reinserted him there. It was astonishing and put hairs on the back of my neck.

Ken Campbell was the bowstring of the arrow that catapulted me into ventriloquism, but he wasn’t alongside me all the time. He basically said “Try this, Nina”, so I did, and it suddenly felt like I was holding the right pen. I started to discover a dialogue very quickly. I had never thought I could write because completing a monologue always felt like self-promotion to me and I was uneasy with that. I also had difficulty in making my statement because I was forever unsure, whereas I think that you have to be malleable. I’ve always shied away from having strong opinions, but there was a duality within the writing process that really appealed to me. I didn’t have to make my bed and lie in it.

When I appeared in Let Me Out by Ken in 2001, my act was very fresh out of the box, but there were brief moments whilst I was rehearsing, or promoting my show, where I was going off script slightly and thought: “I’m ready to take this and start running with it myself.” I can remember going on Nicholas Parsons’ talk show during the Edinburgh Festival that year without a script. I just took Monkey, started performing, and it worked well.

The self-awareness within my early act was probably self-consciousness and trying to look cool whilst doing an art form that is perceived to not be cool. I now think that this self-awareness has grown into something more genuine as I’ve gained knowledge about myself and other people but, back then, I would just insult myself before anyone else could.

When I worked with Christopher Guest we improvised, but what he does didn’t seem like improv comedy. He just gets people to talk through a scene, and the people he works with aren’t necessarily known for their improv, so it really opened that door with great ease. You think: “Oh, is that all it is? It’s just talking and I can do that.” You’re not expected to riff an incredible stream of consciousness. It was just chatting, which made it seem really easy, so even though I do a long show every night with no script now, I don’t think of it as improv.

I did a show called Talk To The Hand, which was my first involving members of the audience. I used to fear asking too much of people and be really nervous. I felt this huge weight of responsibility, but I don’t feel that at all now – it feels easy, but it’s been a very gradual process. I think it’s really bad if I have an idea that I try to enforce on someone. It’s never as funny as being empty-headed and narrating in the moment. Hopefully I’m feeling completely like the person on stage and channelling what they would say. If there’s anything in my head about where things are going next then alarm bells start to ring. You don’t want to hear that voice as it gets in the way.

I find performing comedy therapeutic because you can have had a really bad day, or have received some bad news, but you can’t bring it on stage, even if you think you will. You can’t continue to feel hot in a cold swimming pool. There’s just something that happens whilst performing – be it the adrenaline rush or the immediacy – that wipes everything clean.

My family life is very elastic and I’m lucky in that way. It’s quite easy to blend my work with my home life – ideas can happen anywhere. I manage to drop off and pick up my two children most days at the school. My youngest child is young enough that I can just take him to work if I need to. He’s actually keen to be on stage and wants to do a show. I would love to do a show with him but that feels like bad parenting! I can feel disapproval from all corners, but he wants to, and I want to, so why can’t we?

I just want my children to find their way and I think my job is to not get in the way of that. If you really follow what you find fun, I like to think that can end up being the thing that makes you money. I don’t know if that’s the case – it’s quite an optimistic outlook – but I hope there’s some truth in it. I feel very lucky about that all the time.

Nina Conti plays on the Pavilion Stage at Lytham Festival on 1 August (lythamfestival.com). This precedes a national tour, including Buxton on 21 October, Blackburn on 22 October, Salford on 23 October, York on 24 October, Stoke on Trent on 5 November and Newcastle on 19 November (ninaconti.net)

Photo: Idil Sukan

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