Nina Conti has performed in New York City before, “way back years ago” in Greenwich Village, then about five years ago at the 59E59 Theatres. But when Conti returns next week for a limited run, she’ll be making her proper debut off Broadway.
“This is probably my biggest deal I’ve done out there so far,” Conti told me over the phone from the UK. “It’s a better, stronger show. I think I’m in a better place.”
Her ventriloquist show not only includes her longtime sidekick, Monkey, but also interactive segments with live audience members whom she gets to wear handcrafted masks. Ventriloquism as an art form has become more popular in the mainstream over recent years – Jeff Dunham has become a global act selling out arenas, while two other ventriloquists (Terry Fator and Paul Zerdin) have emerged victorious on America’s Got Talent.
“That’s amazing!” Conti told me.
“I don’t think it’ll change much,” she added. “In the arts world or the media world, when people talk about ventriloquism, there’s a shtick about it. It’s so naff.”
Wait. What’s naff?
“What we mean by that, it’s the thing you’d see on a cruise ship.”
Oh. I suppose Americans would substitute the word hack to describe that.
But ventriloquism feels much more comfortable to Conti than any alternatives. “When I first started doing it, I felt like I suddenly was holding the right pen,” she told me.
And before that? “I was an actress, but I had this notion that I needed scripts written for me by writers. And then I started ventriloquism and thinking I was in a dialogue-in-a-monologue suited me real better. When you can be on both sides of the argument.”
What really sets Conti’s show apart from any ventriloquism you’re used to seeing is her lack of a script.
“The whole thing is improvised,” she said. “I start talking to the audience with Monkey, casting for the show, and then the whole show is based on the people I end up bringing up onstage.”
That can be anywhere from six to eight audience volunteers per show.
“I don’t think anyone will think of it as ventriloquism at all, really,” Conti said. “It’s a high-wire act in improvisation. It’s training for me, it’s training for me in my uncensored mind, and I get into terrible trouble for the things I say, and I usually leave hoping no one is going to ask me to defend what I said that night.”