Ventriloquist David Strassman: Press Releases
Ventriloquism isn't as old fashioned as you would expect when David Strassman is around. He talks to Deborah Tucknott about his new tour.
Ventriloquist conjures up an image of a man in black bow tie sitting on stage in a cabaret club with a creepy looking puppet on his knee. He will probably demonstrate his art by drinking a glass of water as the puppet speaks, or show how his companion can sing. Cast aside that twee perception when David Strassman comes to town, because he has brought ventriloquism into the 21st century.
Strassman is bringing his show to Croyden, and Epsom as part of his first tour of the UK for 10 years.
Together, Strassman and the puppets he has brought to life with robotics, take ventriloquism out of the cabaret club and create what Strassman describes as a "full-on stage production" with a full set, lighting and state effects.
"It's not just a guy standing on stage with a dummy," says American Strassman, who lives in Los Angeles. Strassman's puppet team includes the first of his dummies, foul-mouthed , insolent and sarcastic 12-year-old Chuck Wood; best friend and enemy to Chuck, the innocent and irresistible Ted E. Bare.; the grumpy and cankerous Grandpa Fred; Kevin the Rabbit from planet Rigel 3; Angel the alluring robot with her metallic eyelashes and Sid the Beaver.
And rather than the demonstration of Strassman's ventriloquism skills, it is those friends who are the real stars of the show. Strassman compares his work to that of English ventriloquist Nina Conti and her puppet, Monkey, saying: "She is the only other ventriloquist I respect."
"She does what I do, she puts character into the puppets. Other ventriloquists demonstrate how fast they can talk and drink a glass of water and sing songs. My puppets have objectives and conflicts in their lives. My material is not about what I am talking about; it is about what is going on in their lives."
Strassman's interest in his work began as a child when he was inspired by electronically moving models at Disneyland and with his junior school which offered ventriloquism as an optional subject.
His first dummy was Chuck who he bought from a mail order catalogue- the cheapest puppet on offer. But it wasn't his career ambition Strassman says. "I always wanted to be an astronaut " I never wanted to be a ventriloquist. I did it really for fun." It made him some money along the way as he basked in New York and ended up performing on the streets of West End London and Paris. But eventually he grew bored.
"Ten years into it I thought, "It's really stupid. I can't believe I'm a ventriloquist. I quit for a year. In that year I became a producer.
Then one drunken night he decided to put robotics in to Chuck with the help of a friend who worked at NASA.
Then the show quite literally came to life, Strassman can now leave the stage while the puppets perform on their own with the help of Puppetronics. Strassman's wireless controlled robotic system. It puts an element of fun into what is normally an outdated end-of-pier show, says Strassman.
That is what really propelled me forward and gave me the interest and incentive to make my show bigger and better. The robotics gave me the incentive to want to add the theatre to what normally a night club or comedy club type of show." He stated to bring in more characters and the full set and lighting which come with a full theatre show.
You've got to hand it to ventriloquists, armed with nothing but a puppet and a microphone, they can shoulder the burden of having several hundred people watching, trying to spot the joins few types of performers received such scrutiny. One man making a particularly good fist of it is David Strassman, who was the first ventriloquist for 25 years to have his own solo show in the West End of London.
His half a dozen or so characters are brought to life so brilliantly and convincingly and, crucially, with so much humor that he is probably the finest ventriloquist on the circuit. Meet Chuck Wood, the ill-manner, irascible puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy, or Ted E. Bare, the naive inquisitive young dog who tends to get bullied by Chuck. Or Kevin the Alien, who too often lets slip that his race will take over the planet. David comes to Fairfield Halls as part of his UK tour, and we caught a few words with David.
Are your characters based on anybody?
Nope. The sibling rivalry between Chuck and Teddy is loosely based on my brother and me growing up. Characters start out as a sketch or idea on paper, and then built with cloth or fiberglass or foam latex. For the personality and character traits, I'll start off with a basic routine and try tit out and once I see what the audience really responds to, I amplify those personality traits.
What differentiate you from traditional ventriloquism?
My twist on ventriloquism is based on the dysfunctional relationship I have with my puppets, and that drives the twisted comedy I'm known for. Having a background in theatre, I put in elements you'd find in a theatrical play.
My puppets are not demonstrations of ventriloquism but well thought-out-characters with hopes, dreams, foibles and neuroses.
What onstage event has tested you most?
I lost my voice for 24 hours when I had three shows in an evening. By the last show, I could only muster a croak. It all sounded the same. Away from the stage, you are interested in survival techniques and visiting extreme environments. How would Chuck Wood or Ted E. Bare cope out there? Chuck would probably get infested with parasites (wood worm) and Ted would end up being my hand warmer. He's real fury.
When were your survival skills stretched the most?
I as left on a tropical island in the Great Barrier Reef for a week to live off the land, even through I had provisions so it wasn't a dire situation. As the boat departed, I went to get a parting photo and slipped on a rock. I cut my hand very badly on the razor sharp mussels. I had to survive the full week one handed. Thank goodness it was not my puppet hand.
"My twist on ventriloquism is based on the dysfunctional relationship I have with my puppets."
There's more to ventriloquism than talking without moving your lips, discovers Time Arthur when he takes his daughter to meet world-renowned comic and ventriloquist David Strassman.
David Strassman, probably the world's greatest ventriloquist, doesn't like my puppet. I have had worse knocks in my life, but for some reason I feel a little sorry for my daughter's puppet, Charlotte.
It's weird, I admit, I didn't like shoving her into a plastic bag this morning to bring her here. It made me feel claustrophobic for her. You've anthromorphised it. Given it human feelings, he sighs.
I've obviously made a rookie's mistake. I have purposely kept my puppets at an arm's length all my life he says, without acknowledging the irony. I don't play with them at home. I've always referred to them as "puppets". Some ventriloquists call them "figures". Fuck that! They're just puppets. We are chatting in his rehearsal room the day before his UK tour begins. The floor is strewn with marionettes like the lifeless corpses on the battlefields of Flanders, body parts twisted at unnatural angles. As we talk he does some quick running repairs to the back of the head of his most famous character, Chuck Wood, a classic old-school-style ventriloquist doll. He lifts up its little wig and pulls a huge chunk of skull away to uncover a head stuffed with wires and animatronics wizardry. Over the ears, his shows have grown increasingly more technologically sophisticated, as have his on stage companions.
When we created Kevin the Alien, I wanted him to have no seams. I wanted to exploit the same special effects they use in movies. Kevin's made of a foam latex outer skin and under that there's the core and the robotics. It's just like the "Walking with Dinosaurs" stuff. Remember I was doing that back in the 80's, he says with justifiable pride. I wanted something you couldn't tell was a puppet.
So when did he start venting? "When I was about 14 in '72 or '73. A teacher at my high school was a ventriloquist and he convinced the school system to let him teach ventriloquism. I signed up and excelled in the class, he explains. I was sent away for a mail order Chuck from a catalogue, put some adverts in local papers and started making money doing kids' birthdays. My mates had to shovel snow, rake leaves and cut lawns for $5 a day and there I was getting thirty-five bucks and all the cake I could eat. Can he teach me some of the basic techniques?
Okay, first you have to find your 'ventriloquial voice'. I look confused. It's at the back of your throat. You have to constrict your vocal cords. You can't talk in your full voice, it just won't work. You need to make the voice emanate from further down, and then you can articulate with your tongue.' I make a strange noise that sounds like I'm gargling eels. I end it impressively with a coughing fit.
Try to talk like Kermit. Say "ee" and then constrict it and push from the diaphragm. Relax your mouth, with your teeth slightly apart. I don't feel relaxed. You don't need your lips for the vowels or for the non-plosive letters like C, D, G and H. They won't move when you use those. The trickiest letters are the plosives like F, M, P and V. "br" is the hardest; I try to avoid it at all costs. For instances, I'm fucked with Gordon Brown". Just can't say it. "Tony Blair" was only a little bit easier.
Although I am only sitting a couple of feet away from him and looking straight at his mouth, there is no discernible mouth movement at all. It's extraordinary. I can just about make out his Adam's apple bobbing up and down, but apart from that his face is a perfect mask.
I ask him if he'd show me how to manipulate Charlotte properly. As I hand her over I see him recoil ever so slightly. It's weird putting someone else's puppet on. I should wash my hand first; do you have a rubber glove? He slowly pushes his hand into the back of her neck and begins to make her look around the room. "This puppet has no character. A puppet has to look alive when it has a hand in it; this one looks like a dead face."
He takes her off and hands her back to me. To show me the difference he picks up one of his most popular creations, Ted E. Bare. Instantly there are three of us in the room. Curiously, it checks me out. With the smallest of hand movements he brings this sad looking teddy to life, expressing a huge range of emotions just but angling the head this way or that. With his skills it's easy to see why he's been dubbed the world's greatest ventriloquist. It's not hard to maintain that title thought. My peers in the States are so candy sweet and whitewashed. They don't challenge anything. There's no sense of hidden evil. I like to walk that line in my show. It's funny and always sick and twisted. That's what I love."
American ventriloquist David Strassman is touring the UK throughout February with a show that finishes on March 2 at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London.
What is the act about?
I combine ventriloquism with puppetry and animatronics. I create situations, and my characters react to them. Think ventriloquism combined with theatre, not just some guy with his hand up the back of a doll's body. There's anger and surprise within the entertainment, as well as laughs and also some poignancy. My characters have hopes and aspirations.
You appeared on a Royal Variety Performance before Prince Charles. Was there anything said afterwards?
I was honestly expecting a "How do you do, very well" because there were other people far more familiar for HRH to talk to like Tom Jones. But he asked some perceptive questions. He was intrigued about how anyone got started in ventriloquism and how it all worked.
How did it all start?
I was taken to Disneyland as a child, and the independent movement of a lot of the characters, in shows like a Small World, really wowed me. I wondered, "How could I do that? Then and you can believe this or not, but it happens to be true " I went to a school where they had ventriloquism as an optional subject, and my teacher had his own dummy. Was that right place, right time or not?
Your dad was an eminent Chicago psychiatrist. Was he impressed with your performing ambitions?
Are you kidding? He warned me to go into medicine, something similar to his own profession. When I told him I wanted to go to acting school, he was horrified. What he did was rather clever, he called in a friend of his who was a drama professor, and he said to him, "Have a look at David performing and be honest with him, and with me. " I think that dad was obviously expecting his friend to say:" Tell the kid to go to med school." Instead, he told my dad, "He's got what it takes."
Your first visit to the UK was when?
About 30 years ago. I made a fair few quid, and I worked in places like Leicester Square and Marble Arch, but, more importantly, I fell in love with the Brits and their humor.
You're on record as saying you are not that enthused by many of today's ventriloquism acts.
True, but there are exceptions. I think a lot of Nina Conti, the ventriloquist and daughter of Tom Conti. She's something special, an original, and she gives me hope for the future. She creates interesting characters and situations.
What about the acts of yesteryear?
I know that others like Edgar Bergen (with sidekick Charlie McCarthy) and Peter Brough and Archie Andrews got a lot of flak because they did their acts on radio and when they went on television folk could see their lips moving. But what I offered in their defense was that they created durable characters that had lives and independence. That makes those guys rather special, to my mind.
Be insulted by a Puppet
David Strassman. Ventriloquists may suggest images of "gottle of geer" at the end of the pier, but think again. Strassman combines the twisted imagination of his surreal, crude puppet characters with animatronics to create a unique stand-up comedy show.