I tried my hand at the next gig thing
The hottest tickets at the Edinburgh Fringe are, oddly, for ventriloquists' shows. Jonathan Brown has a go
Saturday 07 August 2010
I'm sitting in the front room of John Kimmons' home in Sheffield.
A wooden coffee stirrer is lodged between my teeth as I mumble through the alphabet attempting to gain some semblance of lip control and master the tricky labials (B, F, M, P, V and W) that have spawned a million "gottle o' geer gags".
My right hand is sweating profusely, jammed as it is up the latex posterior of a green-faced, goggle-eyed purple monster of unspecified provenance – one of whose hands is secured to my left nipple by a magnet. It is not a relaxing feeling.
Welcome to modern ventriloquism. Twenty years after Orville and his curly-haired partner Keith Harris were toppled from their television perch in a flurry of green feathers, and a few months after the little-noted death of the once-celebrated Ray Alan, a new wave of practitioners of this ancient and strangely unsettling form of entertainment is experiencing one of the most unlikely showbusiness resurgences in recent years.
At this year's Edinburgh Fringe there will be no fewer than three ventriloquists selling out some of the best venues, and a nationwide tour, a film and at least two television shows are expected to follow. The two leading British talents are Nina Conti and Paul Zerdin. They will be joined this summer by David Strassman, whose stadium gigs are more like rock concerts than comedy shows, and the 2007 winner of America's Got Talent, Terry Fator, who has his own show in Las Vegas.
John Kimmons is one of the country's leading professionals. Having appeared on Britain's Got Talent, he has a busy schedule of theatre and cruise appearances and lectures on the subtle mysteries of the "vent". He has agreed to help me learn what it takes to master the art. A former magician and children's entertainer, he has found a growing market for his talents and those of his chief sidekick Charlie Clifton – named in homage to Andy Kaufman's creation Tony Clifton.
His route to the top has not been easy. At his first gig 15 years ago he admits: "I was gripped with embarrassment and felt completely stupid. Like a lot of things in life, what had seemed fun in the privacy of my own bedroom felt completely ridiculous in front of a group of strangers." It is a feeling I am getting myself even before an understanding audience of one.
Ventriloquism is an illusion, I am told. The first trick is to bring the puppet to life – giving it weight and movement and stopping it twisting into unnatural positions. From here you can start building your character, giving them movements or gestures, and some tics to augment the personality of the rubber doll on the end of your fist. The most important skill is acting. A top vent must be able to play two roles simultaneously, learning to interact with the puppet and adopt the right expression when listening. When trying to talk without moving your lips it is easy to look startled or merely blank – giving that tell-tale slightly creepy look.
Only when these disciplines are mastered can you work on the ventriloquism itself. To this end, explains John, it is necessary to remember what he describes as the "ventriloquism triangle" – clarity, volume and lip control. More of one means less of the other, so the louder you get the more your lips move, or conversely the less visible your mouth movements the less clear the sound that comes out. It is starting to feel a little bit like riding a bike, patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. Now all I have to do is be funny. "As long as the character is believable the audience will forgive your poor lip control. But they won't forgive you if you don't make them laugh," he adds ominously.
Rada-trained Nina Conti, 35, daughter of the actor Tom Conti, surprised herself as much as her struggling fellow thespians when she swapped the Bard for a stuffed monkey. Her show Talk to the Hand features a cast of four and an improvised routine in which the dolls pit their wits against the audience.
"I am so glad I did it," she says. "Paul Zerdin and myself are in demand. Things are better. When I started there was always a bit of shifting and wariness from the audience when I took out my puppet. There is something about ventriloquism that if you have seen it and it has not been good, or you've seen it in a horror film, it leaves a heavy stigma."
Conti, who has a film out next year chronicling her recent tour of the US and is developing a chat show format with one of her characters, says the acts are now more sophisticated. As well as Monk the monkey, her cast of characters includes a passive-aggressive owl of dubious sexuality; a matriarchal granny; and Lydia – a character in search of a character. While Conti – or at least Monk – has a reputation for pulling no punches, she has cut back on swearing so her young son can see his mum at work. "It will still be there but it won't be the meat of my act," she said.
Ventriloquism has its origins in Ancient Greece. In the middle of the 20th century Britain had 400 ventriloquists plying their trade. Television made stars of Keith Harris and Ray Alan but by the turn of the millennium the number of professional ventriloquists in Britain had fallen to 15.
Despite this, Paul Zerdin, 36, has been in the public eye since 1996 when he won ITV's Big Big Talent Show. Inspired by the Muppets, he has been "venting" for 20 years, performing for high-rollers in Las Vegas and troops in Afghanistan. A headliner at London's Comedy Store, he will perform his Sponge Fest Revisited for 11 nights at Edinburgh before going on tour and hopefully, making an ITV pilot.
"You can be the greatest ventriloquist but without the comedy you are nothing," Zerdin says. He recalls having met Harris, now forging a second career with an "adult" show, Duck Off, but remembers he, "wasn't very nice to me". He says: "People now have to be a bit edgy, the language is more colourful. You can talk to a woman or a bloke in the front row where they are talking back to the puppet. It is really about pointing out that what you are doing is ridiculous and taking the piss out of it."
Other Fringe Attractions
*The Beautiful Burnout
Already being touted as this year's Black Watch, Bryony Lavery's new play immerses the audience in the highly physical world of a Glasgow boxing gym.
*Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words
He's only 19 years old but the American comedian is already a YouTube sensation thanks to his politically incorrect, satirical songs. Now he makes his eagerly-awaited Fringe debut to rows of swooning teenagers and curious adults.
Tickets are selling fast for this interactive theatre piece. Adventurous audience members are led around the streets of Edinburgh with only an iPod for a guide as the performance unfolds all around them.
*Doc Brown: Unfamous
Fast becoming the word-of-mouth must-see of this year, Zadie Smith's little brother makes a fine Fringe debut with stand-up and comedy hip-hop.
*The Invisible Dot Club
A journey to a secret location is always a good bet for a sell out. The Invisible Dot, home to last year's Comedy Award Winners Tim Key and Jonny Sweet, takes up residence in a mystery maritime location for one night only
*Stewart Lee: Vegetable Stew
Even without the very public war he's been waging with the Edinburgh Comedy Award panel over the last few weeks, Stewart Lee's stand-up is always a Fringe highlight. See his television material first.
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