Clown performer Francesca Martello writes for us after taking part in the Edinburgh Fringe #CircusVoices residency to develop new critical languages for the circus sector, run by The Circus Diaries with support from the Roundhouse, the Network of Independent Critics, and Crying Out Loud…
The excitement was big.
I have seen Nina Conti on television many times, and was looking forward to see her perform live; working such a huge crowd.
I’m lucky enough to find a seat in the fourth row, just in front. As I sit, though, a thought crosses my mind; is there a specific reason nobody’s sitting here? Am I risking being picked out to get on stage?
The lady next to me chuckles and tells me to be careful if I don’t want to be picked. The atmosphere is bubbling with excitement… Like when you are 14 at your first parties, standing by the wall waiting to be asked to dance: you’re not really sure if you want to be asked to dance, but just the thought makes you happily anxious. This seems to be the sensation of the first 5-6 rows at a Nina Conti show.
The answer is obviously yes, I am at risk, but eventually the gentleman next to me gets the “pleasure/ torture” to step on stage. What a release… and what a shame!
For those of you who don’t know Nina’s work, I’ll try to give a brief explanation of her craft. This comedian explores the old technique of ventriloquism that, basically, works thanks to our survival mechanism of always wanting to make sense; finding the familiar, the reconisable in the world.
The name comes from the Latin, meaning to speak from the stomach: venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The noises produced by the stomach were thought to be the voices of the unliving, who took up residence in the stomach of the ventriloquist. The ventriloquist would then interpret the sounds, and they were thought to be able to speak to the dead, as well as foretell the future.
In the Middle ages, as with most inexplicable things, the technique was thought to be similar to witchcraft. The shift from ventriloquism as manifestation of spiritual forces toward ventriloquism as entertainment happened in the eighteenth century at the travelling funfairs and market towns. Ventriloquism became more of a performance art.
Scientifically speaking, the craft is a part of a series of studies in multi-sensory integration – the study of how information from the senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, self-motion and taste, may be interpreted through the nervous system.
A coherent representation of objects that combines the senses’ input enables us to have meaningful perceptual experiences. Indeed, multi-sensory integration is central to adaptive behaviour because it allows us to perceive a world of coherent perceptual entities. But at the same time it still has a bit of mystic sensation to it; Nina is the complete creator and manipulator of the world that surrounds her.
Ventriloquism describes the situation in which perceptions normally based on hearing cues are shifted towards visual ones, and Nina’s technique is brilliant. At the same time, her humanity as well, since she is not working just with her monkey puppet companion, but with living people from the audience.
Through specially designed and made half-masks that cover the bottom part of the volunteer face, Nina Conti manages to transform people, randomly picked, into collaborative puppets. The effect is hysterical.
And she is a great host, always attentive to the volunteers and ready to find the comic side of situations. Her timing is excellent and she seems to have such fun that you often forget what she is really doing – she is another one of us (just with a bit more control). Down to earth, she is like the funny, fit auntie that some of us might have had.
Nina Conti uses the technique that was once used to speak to the Gods to speak to the people. Brilliant!
In Your Face. Performed by Nina Conti. Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, EH8 9TJ. 20:00. Until 29 August. SOLD OUT http://www.ninaconti.net