NO sooner has removing masks become the norm than Nina Conti wants you to put them back on, all in the cause of her pioneering new dating game.
After a four-year hiatus since her In Your Face travels, the London ventriloquist-comedian will be embarking on The Dating Show tour on October 31, visiting the Grand Opera House, York, on November 12 with 14 robust masks made by a fellow ventriloquist in the Philippines.
“She’ll be like Cilla Black with masks. Derailed. Not so much a Blind Date as a re-voiced one,” promises the show spiel.
“Before this Armageddon hit, I was developing a dating show where I would connive for audience members to fall in love wearing masks,” says Nina. “Post-Covid, I can’t think of anything more fitting. I think we all need to get in a room together and laugh our heads off, and if the subject can be love, so much the better.”
There you have it: a comedy show for 2021 with elaborate latex masks, Nina’s cheeky monkey sidekick Monkey, a return to human connection and the possibility of romance in the air.
As it happens, the matchmaking format of The Dating Show has emerged through happenstance from In Your Face’s earlier use of masks. “When I did masks before with an audience, I often ended up with love matches,” Nina recalls.
“The audience members often took it there with their body language. They could be a bit friendly and a bit flirty, and I remember thinking, ‘I have to stop things going like this or people will think I’m a sex maniac! What’s the matter with me!?’
“But then I thought that maybe it’s not me forcing it because it’s simply happening every time, so why resist? And why not do something called The Dating Show?”
After Nina experimented with the new show in trial runs pre-pandemic at London’s Soho Theatre, lockdown has allowed her to settle on the best way forward. “To avoid it becoming this hetero-normative thing, you want to get everyone involved,” she has decided.
“In the Soho shows, I opened with Monkey interviewing a bunch of people in the audience, and whoever elicited the most warmth was the person I went with. I’m not after eccentrics, just likeability. Hopefully those we get up could be any kind of person and not just the Cilla Black demographic.”
What happens next? “I just get a feel for it from the banter, to put two people together up there on stage, put masks on them, then have a low-key chat about their past relationships and what they’re looking for next.
“Let’s see who bonds and where it goes. It might even be two straight men trying to work it out. As long as it’s funny, great. I just want it to be funny.”
CharlesHutchPress spoke to Nina on September 27, two weeks ahead of her starting her test run for the autumn tour. “All my shows are unscripted, so really what I’m searching for is to put the scaffolding and structure in place.
“What I’ll definitely do is return to the audience with Monkey after each stage encounter and one person might stay on stage for the next encounter,” she says.
“It’s just a comedy show! It’s kind of nonsense, getting people on stage and asking them to ‘sing a musical number to each other’, or they might ‘go skiing’ or ‘go up in a hot air balloon’! Each vignette will be something crazy.
“They won’t have a grand script or anything. I put masks on them, covering them from below their eyes to their jaw line, then I speak for them, turning them into puppets, where I respond to their body language in the moment.”
Nina, 47, loves interacting with audience members on stage. “I find people very loveable when they’re up there. It’s a mixture of celebration and their own bafflement. They feel safe because I don’t ask awkward questions and it’s liberating for them with the mask on because they don’t feel like themselves,” she says.
“Maybe someone’s shyness is the real self but sometimes the mask frees them up. Most people wear a mask of some kind anyway: I know I do, being different in different contexts, but Monkey is great for me because he says things where I don’t need to antagonise!”
There’s the rub! Monkey is free to be the quick-thinking agent provocateur in the partnership between ventriloquist and dummy: the one with the smart mouth. “Yes, absolutely! The dummy is the ‘bright one’ in the ventriloquist act!” says Nina, who was approached originally by her old mentor, Ken Campbell, to try out the ventriloquist’s art, one that pretty much had been consigned to the suitcase in comedy’s attic.
“I’m lucky to have found it, because I never thought that ventriloquism was a skill worth having,” she admits. “I would never have gone to a ventriloquism show, and when it was suggested to me by Ken I was so uninterested in it. I thought he was mad!
“I don’t know if I’ve enhanced it for nostalgia, but there was a definite lightbulb moment. I had been practising with those awful mannequins, and it was so end-of-the-pier and saucy: I didn’t like it. But then I remembered this monkey puppet that I stole off a mate, but I didn’t know if his mouth could operate. He was more like Sooty; your hand isn’t meant to go in his head.
“But like all things that end up fitting and going well, most creativity doesn’t work like you expect Once I had taken the squeak and some stuffing out, I found that his mouth could work!
“I’d done a bit of ventriloquism already, but thought it was bit spooky, but when I put my hand into his face, as soon as he started to talk, I thought, ‘Woah! Everything you’re saying is coming from a wider place than my own head’.
“He has such gravitas.” Monkey, gravitas, Nina? Really?! “He wouldn’t agree! He’d say, ‘Get over it, you’re delusional’, but then he’d say, ‘Who’s to say who’s being delusional here?’. I say things that surprise me through him, and I try to keep myself out of it when I’m speaking as him, thinking, ‘I’ll have to get out of this situation later, but for now we’ll just let Monkey say what he says’.”
Where does Nina keep Monkey when not performing? “He’s sort of kept about the house. I travel lightly with him in my handbag, and I just toss him to one side when I need to put something in there. Like something you’re familiar with, you stop treating him with reverence, but I would never do that on stage,” she says.
In fact, Nina has more than one Monkey. “It’s like The Matrix, growing those embryos! I’ve got loads, and I tend to use them for a period of time. Maybe six Monkeys in 20 years. Each new one, I have to scrub his face because I need him to look a bit worn. I’ve just started a new Monkey in the last few months, using hair putty to dampen him to age him!” she reveals.
For the record, Nina is not seeking to be the new Cilla with The Dating Show . “I’m not really match-making,” she says. “Anything that then happens off-stage afterwards is beyond my control!”
Nina Conti, The Dating Show, Grand Opera House, York, November 12, 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york