David Strassman's currently touring Australia (and he returns regularly â check his itinerary) so I got a chance to chat to him. Here's our conversation.
âI would say 95% of my show is traditional âhand-up-the-bumâ ventriloquism, because thatâs what people really want to see,â offers David Strassman, the ventriloquist who pioneered â and excels at â the use of animatronics in his stage shows â although he labels it âpuppetronicsâ. âYou can watch robots in Myerâs Christmas Window, and then itâs boring. Most people have seen Walking with Dinosaurs and The Making of Jurassic Park. They know itâs robotics.â
Weâre 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 Davidâs departure from the stageâ¦ leaving the inanimate Chuck, stranded, voiceless, aloneâ¦ the audience not knowing what to do or thinkâ¦ untilâ¦ Chuck Woodâ¦ CAME TO LIFE! That was nothing short of brilliant (and, as with all good live entertainment, no amount of retelling does it justice!)
But â and this is an important point â if the puppet is moving automatically, then thereâs no reason to assume the voice isnât also pre-programmed. And if the puppet moves and talks without a puppeteer, then, letâs face it, itâs no longer a puppet. So, groundbreaking the work may be, perhaps animatronics â whisper it â is not actual ventriloquism.
Does that even matter when, as with Strassmanâs work, itâs still so entertaining? âI use animatronics theatrically,â he says. âMinimally. And again, 95% of my show is the traditional âhand-up-the-bumâ live ventriloquism where Iâm doing the voices and operating the puppets.â
David Strassmanâs been sticking his hands up puppetsâ bums since his school days. Surprisingly, though, his first love was magic, which he âdabbledâ 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 âthe easy gradeâ more than anything else. A good move: as part of the course, the teacher showed them âhow to advertise for kidsâ parties in the local papersâ, so Strassman became a kidsâ entertainer with the magic he already had and the stuff he was learning at school. âWhen the money started coming in, my interest in ventriloquism really picked up!â
And it developed further later on, when he was studying acting at New Yorkâs American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. âBeing 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.â
Both art forms have a lot in common. âTheyâre both the art of illusion,â David concedes, but magic is the âless dynamicâ of the two. âA magician pretty much stands there and says, âhereâs a coin, now itâs goneâ. With ventriloquism, Iâm able to delve into personality, conflict, neuroses, politics, sociology, at the same time creating the illusion that Iâm having a conversation with something that is obviously not alive. Yet I make it look like it is a living, sentient being.â
In those terms â creating the illusion of life in an inanimate object â animatronics is the natural successor to the stuff Strassmanâs been doing so well for so long. But even that traditional version, being able to convey that illusion of life in what â letâs face it â is a glorified hunk of wood, is a special talent. It comes from those âmany years of puppeteeringâ rather than the years of training as a professional actor.
âMy interest in acting and the schools and courses that I took gave me amazing insight into the world of theatre,â Strassman explains. âNot only did I learn stagecraft but I learnt about musicals, dance, Shakespeare, theatre of the absurd...â Thus, Davidâs ânot just a guy who stands in front of a microphone and a curtainâ, rather he makes full use of his set with lights, music and special effects. âIâm able to give not just a comedy show but a big production performance.â
To this end, Strassman is aided by friend, collaborator and comic Steve Altman, whom David describes as "a stand-up, musician, composer, singer, artistâ¦ an amazing Renaissance man!" Altman wrote âthe majorityâ of Strassmanâs last show, Tedâs Fairwell, as well as one currently making its way around Australia, Careful What You Wish For. It is a true collaboration:
âWhen 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 charactersâ personalities to blossom and grow.â
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 heâd incorporate in his stand-up routines. It's no surprise they know each other and work together âtheir respective job descriptions cover such a broad remit.
âAny true artist never feels his work is complete,â Strassman insists. âItâs the inability to feel satisfied that keeps us true artists always writing new material, seeking new vistas and forging new ground.â Itâs 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 âa new look, new material and a laugh every ten seconds.â And again, itâs the âseekingâ of ânew vistasâ that led to Strassmanâs animatronics paradigm shift.
According to Strassman, it's brought him full circle. Back in the day, when heâd first experimented with robotics, heâd use them in Chuck. âI would âhave an argumentâ with Chuck, heâd sack me and Iâd 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 heâs not being operated.â
When computerisation meant a multitude of movements could be programmed, Strassman was able to create impressive finales âwhere all the puppets or one puppet or ten puppets were moving by themselvesâ, but heâd program their talking and singing as well as their movements.
For Careful What You Wish For, Strassman is now able to operate Chuck live â âdo his voice, create his movementsâ â with a hand-held, wireless âwaldoâ device. âI have a scene in the middle of this show where Chuck sits five feet away on a couch, but Iâm operating him live: my voice, his robotics, with my right hand. But there are no wires, and itâs live!â If you think that'll be a bit disturbing to watch, David guarantees itâs downright unsettling!
Given only a handful of ventriloquists rise to international prominence, it's easy to bundle them together as a subset of those âprop comicsâ who entertain with puppets â 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 â when it should really just be about whether or not youâre being entertained â 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 â or, rather, most other ventriloquists, since not many are his peers â âdon't do much for the art formâ as far as he's concerned. âTheyâre the ones with silly gags, singing doggy songs; they keep ventriloquism where itâs always been, right down there with the mimes and jugglers!â (Apologies to cutting-edge mimes and jugglers who arenât âdown thereâ with lesser ventriloquists.)
The peer David insists is different, whom he finds inspiring, is Nina Conti. âSheâs innovative and she uses theatre in her show, and Iâm very excited and enlightened by her arrival on the scene,â he says. Like Strassman, her âacting and theatreâ background sets her apart from the pack of âage-old âend of the pierâ actâ. As far as heâs concerned, Conti is the heir apparent: âWhen I retire â whenever that will be â she will hopefully carry the torch.â
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 âthe most amazing animations and projectionsâ.
But the finale is especially impressive. In the past, assembled voices for the big finish were recorded and pre-programmed. After the last show, Strassmanâs tour manager made an observation: âItâs just not the same as when youâre talking live with the puppets. I wish there was a way that you could do their voices live.â Strassmanâs response: âThatâs impossible!â And then, over the last three months, he went and figured out a way to do it. Now itâs part of the show.
Strassmanâs system has the puppetsâ mouths all on the same frequency, on a robotic relay that âturnsâ each one âonâ when its their turn to talk, and off again, when itâs their turn not to talk. In other words, itâs a way in which he gets to do all their voices live in the big finale. âI have to have an amazing, impeccable sense of timing. I have to basically know when each is on while Iâm doing other voices.â
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of concentration. âLucky for me, Iâve 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 whoâs done their job for 10,000 hours or more can pretty much do the hard parts in their sleep.â Interesting. As someone whoâs 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 âin characterâ?
âI 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 didnât want to start becoming a person with multiple personalities.â
I think itâd be pretty cool â at least from the outside looking in â but Strassman disagrees, citing US act Otto & George. Otto is âthe most profane, foul-mouthed, worst ventriloquist on the planetâ and Davidâs certain âsome strange sort of sicknessâ has led to there being âsome strange gossamer partition between him and the puppetâ.
Saying the unsayable
At least in Strassmanâs case, itâs the puppets that are foul-mouthed and sick. But they get away with it. Especially Grandpa Fred. âItâs because heâs elderly and we have to respect him regardless of what he says,â according to David. âChuck gets to say it because heâs a naughty boy; he fulfills the fantasy of all of us wanting to challenge authority. But Chuck has limits because you know itâs me saying it. With Grandpa I can almost completely vanish out of the picture and people think itâs Grandpa staying this inappropriate material.â
Even though David has trouble picking a âfavouriteâ among his puppets, he does have a least favourite. Almost. Itâs Kevin the Alien (the one who looks a bit like âThe Crazy Frogâ), because heâs hardest to operate. âIâm holding up an entire puppet with my right arm as Iâm also operating him live,â Strassman explains. The amount of strength required means David sometimes gets cramps before Kevinâs segmentâs 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. Itâs a good thing David Strassman is able to keep them separate from his own. Strassman concurs. âThatâs what keeps me sane.â