COMEDIENNE, ACTRESS, and ventriloquist Nina Conti was born and raised in the Hampstead area of London surrounded by intellectuals, actors, and artists.
Her father is noted film and television actor Tom Conti, best known for his role as Costas the Greek in Shirley Valentine and as Emily’s tight-fisted father in Friends. Nina’s mother Kara Wilson is also an accomplished actress, writer, and artist who made appearances in feature films Jane Eyre and Heavenly Pursuits and TV series Grange Hill.
In her early 20s Nina was awarded an honours degree in philosophy from the University of East Anglia in Norwich and was also a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and London. Around this time she met experimental theatre guru Ken Campbell and he was to have a profound effect on the young actress.
After working on a few productions together, Campbell taught Conti the art of ventriloquism. It was then that the permanently depressed monkey character Monk came into being. Together Nina and Monk took the comedy world by storm.
Conti and her primate puppet friend won the Amused Moose Talent Quest in London and BBC New Comedy Award at Edinburgh in 2002. They also wowed the crowds at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival and the Kilkenny Cat Laughs Festival. Last year their acclaimed show won the prestigious Barry Comedy Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
Nina and Monk play two shows at this year’s Galway Comedy Festival. On Friday October 23 at 9pm they appear at Kelly’s alongside Maureen Langan and guest MC Andrew Stanley. On Saturday 24 at 8pm they will be in The Black Box Theatre alongside Colin Murphy, Sarah Kendall, and MC Eddie Brill.
Finding the way to Monk
Tom Conti had hopes of his daughter being an award-winning concert pianist and his wife wanted anything but another actor in the house. Nina though had much more lofty ambitions for herself.
“I may have imagined it, but I do remember that it was my ambition to run away with the circus at one point when I was a child,” Nina tells me. “I did a cabaret show in Dublin as part of the Bulmers Comedy Festival recently called The Crack and there was me and monkey and a magician and a hula-hoop girl and a ballet dancer. It was such tremendous fun and it felt like in some way I’d achieved my childhood ambition.”
Given her family background it would been the most natural thing in the world to become an actress. However, it was not all plain sailing as at one time Nina considered a life away from the limelight.
“I was studying philosophy in UA and I was pondering over whether I should go into acting or whether I should do something more dignified and academic,” Nina recalls. “Of course there was art and music and going to visit Dad on nice film locations when I was growing up and it always seemed like a lot of fun.
“But there was also quite a strong academic side to my father’s family and I sort of had that work ethic in school. I had done a couple of acting jobs and none of them were all that exciting to me. Then I saw Ken Campbell perform and I thought that he was so cutting edge and so ‘on the ball’.
“I pretty much followed him around for about a year and became sort of a groupie! I didn’t so much drift into ventriloquism but rather Ken catapulted me on to this different path. I shot in a direction that was so unexpected and that was much more delightful than the one I had planned out for myself.”
2002 was a breakthrough year for Nina Conti as her puppet friends (in particular Monk ) became the toast of the stand-up comedy scene. Given her father’s many memorable comedic performances through the years it is not surprising Nina eventually found her own funny side.
“It was a very exciting time because everything happened within the first six months of having done my first stand-up gig,” she says. “I didn’t have all that much material ready - I only had like 10 minutes - but everything seemed to happen really quickly for me. Dad’s comedy is in my blood and that was a huge part of my inspiration. I don’t even have to think about it because it’s just so organically there.”
Monk has become the star of the show with Nina happy to play the role of his affable sidekick. However, from her perspective his foul-mouthed diatribes and manic depressive persona means they won’t be booked to play any kids’ birthday parties any time soon.
“I saw something we did on film recently and remember thinking that he really needs to lighten up,” she says. “In recent times I’ve tried to not have him swear so much because I want my sons to see my shows. I’ve been slightly rephrasing things and finding out that they’re much funnier that way. I do have this Scottish granny character who could really give him a run for his money in the dour stakes. She can be as rude or truthful as Monk but I think with a little more bite. Monkey better watch his back when she’s around because she really is something else!”
Over the past few years the combination of comedy and ventriloquism has become very much in vogue as acts such as Conti and Monk, David Strassman and Chuck Wood, Dan Horn and Orson, and Jeff Dunham and Achmed the Dead Terrorist regularly sell out theatres across the globe.
Last year the art lost one of its greatest practitioners when Conti’s mentor Ken Campbell passed away.
“When Ken died last year he left me his puppets in his will,” Nina says .“I heard about this place in Kentucky called Vent Haven that’s a resting place for puppets after their owners die. I took Ken’s puppets there and it was a sort of pilgrimage road trip into this eerie and wonderful place. There’s a sort of a story behind each puppet that outlives their masters. It was a unique bereavement experience and an incredible place to visit.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall, Kelly’s, and Zhivago Shop Street. See also www.galwaycomedyfestival.com