David Strassman's currently touring Australia (and he returns regularly – check his itinerary) so I got a chance to chat to him. Here's our conversation.
“I would say 95% of my show is traditional ‘hand-up-the-bum’ ventriloquism, because that’s what people really want to see,” offers David Strassman, the ventriloquist who pioneered – and excels at – the use of animatronics in his stage shows – although he labels it ‘puppetronics’. “You can watch robots in Myer’s Christmas Window, and then it’s boring. Most people have seen Walking with Dinosaurs and The Making of Jurassic Park. They know it’s robotics.”
We’re talking as Strassman undertakes another Australian tour, which will again utilise animatronics to take his work yet another step forward. It was amazing, that very first time the antagonism between the puppeteer and his oldest puppet, Chuck Wood, led to David’s departure from the stage… leaving the inanimate Chuck, stranded, voiceless, alone… the audience not knowing what to do or think… until… Chuck Wood… CAME TO LIFE! That was nothing short of brilliant (and, as with all good live entertainment, no amount of retelling does it justice!)
But – and this is an important point – if the puppet is moving automatically, then there’s no reason to assume the voice isn’t also pre-programmed. And if the puppet moves and talks without a puppeteer, then, let’s face it, it’s no longer a puppet. So, groundbreaking the work may be, perhaps animatronics – whisper it – is not actual ventriloquism.
Does that even matter when, as with Strassman’s work, it’s still so entertaining? “I use animatronics theatrically,” he says. “Minimally. And again, 95% of my show is the traditional ‘hand-up-the-bum’ live ventriloquism where I’m doing the voices and operating the puppets.”
David Strassman’s been sticking his hands up puppets’ bums since his school days. Surprisingly, though, his first love was magic, which he “dabbled” in, along with theater, from very early on. When the opportunity came, in Year 8, to take an elective class in ventriloquism, David signed up for it, for “the easy grade” more than anything else. A good move: as part of the course, the teacher showed them “how to advertise for kids’ parties in the local papers”, so Strassman became a kids’ entertainer with the magic he already had and the stuff he was learning at school. “When the money started coming in, my interest in ventriloquism really picked up!”
And it developed further later on, when he was studying acting at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. “Being poor, I started busking on the streets with Chuck. I started making a lot of really, really good money, so again, finances piqued my interest.”
Both art forms have a lot in common. “They’re both the art of illusion,” David concedes, but magic is the “less dynamic” of the two. “A magician pretty much stands there and says, ‘here’s a coin, now it’s gone’. With ventriloquism, I’m able to delve into personality, conflict, neuroses, politics, sociology, at the same time creating the illusion that I’m having a conversation with something that is obviously not alive. Yet I make it look like it is a living, sentient being.”
In those terms – creating the illusion of life in an inanimate object – animatronics is the natural successor to the stuff Strassman’s been doing so well for so long. But even that traditional version, being able to convey that illusion of life in what – let’s face it – is a glorified hunk of wood, is a special talent. It comes from those “many years of puppeteering” rather than the years of training as a professional actor.
“My interest in acting and the schools and courses that I took gave me amazing insight into the world of theatre,” Strassman explains. “Not only did I learn stagecraft but I learnt about musicals, dance, Shakespeare, theatre of the absurd...” Thus, David’s “not just a guy who stands in front of a microphone and a curtain”, rather he makes full use of his set with lights, music and special effects. “I’m able to give not just a comedy show but a big production performance.”
To this end, Strassman is aided by friend, collaborator and comic Steve Altman, whom David describes as "a stand-up, musician, composer, singer, artist… an amazing Renaissance man!" Altman wrote “the majority” of Strassman’s last show, Ted’s Fairwell, as well as one currently making its way around Australia, Careful What You Wish For. It is a true collaboration:
“When someone writes for me, I go back and put in my comedy and change it to my vernacular; but Stave has done amazing work for me, giving me fanstastic new vistas for my characters’ personalities to blossom and grow.”
Hardcore Aussie fans of stand-up may be familiar with Steve Altman, who toured here in the late 90s. His material involved keyboard samples that he’d incorporate in his stand-up routines. It's no surprise they know each other and work together –their respective job descriptions cover such a broad remit.
“Any true artist never feels his work is complete,” Strassman insists. “It’s the inability to feel satisfied that keeps us true artists always writing new material, seeking new vistas and forging new ground.” It’s good, as an artist, to have a show that fulfills those needs. Even better when, as an artist, you can guarantee s a new show like Careful What You Wish For that has “a new look, new material and a laugh every ten seconds.” And again, it’s the “seeking” of “new vistas” that led to Strassman’s animatronics paradigm shift.
According to Strassman, it's brought him full circle. Back in the day, when he’d first experimented with robotics, he’d use them in Chuck. “I would ‘have an argument’ with Chuck, he’d sack me and I’d leave the stage. Out of view, I would operate him with a radio-controlled transmitter and a microphone. And I found that I had to play a little tape of music so that I could go back on stage while he’s not being operated.”
When computerisation meant a multitude of movements could be programmed, Strassman was able to create impressive finales “where all the puppets or one puppet or ten puppets were moving by themselves”, but he’d program their talking and singing as well as their movements.
For Careful What You Wish For, Strassman is now able to operate Chuck live – “do his voice, create his movements” – with a hand-held, wireless ‘waldo’ device. “I have a scene in the middle of this show where Chuck sits five feet away on a couch, but I’m operating him live: my voice, his robotics, with my right hand. But there are no wires, and it’s live!” If you think that'll be a bit disturbing to watch, David guarantees it’s downright unsettling!
Given only a handful of ventriloquists rise to international prominence, it's easy to bundle them together as a subset of those ‘prop comics’ who entertain with puppets – as if this is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Nobody seems to mind as much about the multitude of stand-ups who do the same thing as each other and coexist more-or-less happily. But given this skewed attitude – when it should really just be about whether or not you’re being entertained – is there a need for entertainers who share this common ground to deliberately locate and exploit points of difference?
Not for Strassman; most of his peers – or, rather, most other ventriloquists, since not many are his peers – “don't do much for the art form” as far as he's concerned. “They’re the ones with silly gags, singing doggy songs; they keep ventriloquism where it’s always been, right down there with the mimes and jugglers!” (Apologies to cutting-edge mimes and jugglers who aren’t ‘down there’ with lesser ventriloquists.)
The peer David insists is different, whom he finds inspiring, is Nina Conti. “She’s innovative and she uses theatre in her show, and I’m very excited and enlightened by her arrival on the scene,” he says. Like Strassman, her “acting and theatre” background sets her apart from the pack of “age-old ‘end of the pier’ act”. As far as he’s concerned, Conti is the heir apparent: “When I retire – whenever that will be – she will hopefully carry the torch.”
Animated from go to whoa
Chuck Wood coming to life after Strassman left the stage was unexpected. The move to animatronics was amazing. Where to next? The most obvious change to his mode of performance is the one that greets you from the very start of the show: instead of cloth backdrops and sets, the stage is dressed with “the most amazing animations and projections”.
But the finale is especially impressive. In the past, assembled voices for the big finish were recorded and pre-programmed. After the last show, Strassman’s tour manager made an observation: “It’s just not the same as when you’re talking live with the puppets. I wish there was a way that you could do their voices live.” Strassman’s response: “That’s impossible!” And then, over the last three months, he went and figured out a way to do it. Now it’s part of the show.
Strassman’s system has the puppets’ mouths all on the same frequency, on a robotic relay that ‘turns’ each one ‘on’ when its their turn to talk, and off again, when it’s their turn not to talk. In other words, it’s a way in which he gets to do all their voices live in the big finale. “I have to have an amazing, impeccable sense of timing. I have to basically know when each is on while I’m doing other voices.”
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of concentration. “Lucky for me, I’ve been doing this for forty-something years and a lot of what I do that appears miracullous, is pretty much autonomous. It does take concentration, but like anybody who’s done their job for 10,000 hours or more can pretty much do the hard parts in their sleep.” Interesting. As someone who’s done 10,000 hours, you wonder if he has indeed started doing the parts in his sleep. Have they invaded his subconscious? Does he ever find himself dreaming ‘in character’?
“I never have. Ever since the beginning I made sure I separated my showbiz life from my personal life. I think I did it consciously in the beginning because of those movies like Magic and Twilight Zone. I didn’t want to start becoming a person with multiple personalities.”
I think it’d be pretty cool – at least from the outside looking in – but Strassman disagrees, citing US act Otto & George. Otto is “the most profane, foul-mouthed, worst ventriloquist on the planet” and David’s certain “some strange sort of sickness” has led to there being “some strange gossamer partition between him and the puppet”.
Saying the unsayable
At least in Strassman’s case, it’s the puppets that are foul-mouthed and sick. But they get away with it. Especially Grandpa Fred. “It’s because he’s elderly and we have to respect him regardless of what he says,” according to David. “Chuck gets to say it because he’s a naughty boy; he fulfills the fantasy of all of us wanting to challenge authority. But Chuck has limits because you know it’s me saying it. With Grandpa I can almost completely vanish out of the picture and people think it’s Grandpa staying this inappropriate material.”
Even though David has trouble picking a ‘favourite’ among his puppets, he does have a least favourite. Almost. It’s Kevin the Alien (the one who looks a bit like ‘The Crazy Frog’), because he’s hardest to operate. “I’m holding up an entire puppet with my right arm as I’m also operating him live,” Strassman explains. The amount of strength required means David sometimes gets cramps before Kevin’s segment’s ended. The next technological leap will have to be a way to make Kevin the Alien lighter.
Meanwhile, Chuck Wood and Teddy E. Bear are forging ahead with their own technological progress: they both have apps on the Android market. Both allow you to ask the characters questions, which they answer with video responses. Both characters also have Twitter and Facebook pages.
For a bunch of inanimate objects, these characters enjoy very full lives. It’s a good thing David Strassman is able to keep them separate from his own. Strassman concurs. “That’s what keeps me sane.”