He can be a devil, but since Chuck helped David Strassman win a Herald Angel, he's always forgiven. Alexander Linklater sees the future of ventriloquism
EVER since Pinnochio first wobbled on his hinges, or Hans Christian Andersen gave emotions to a tin soldier, children have fantasised about toys coming to life. When he was 12 years old that dream came true for David Strassman. His puppet, Chuck, began talking back to him.
The difference for Strassman, however, was that adults began believing in his imaginary friend also. And, furthermore, they were willing to pay him for the privilege of sharing the fantasy. His psychosis - or craft, if you prefer - had an old tradition behind it, of course; Strassman became a professional ventriloquist.
But there was something about his long-term partnership with Chuck which went further than an ability to put the ``b's'' into ``gottle of gear''. What pushed Strassman's show beyond the pale of standard ventriloquism wasn't just an astonishing talent for voice-projection or rapid-fire badinage between man and puppet: in this case the puppet had lived with his master for too long to remain content being a mere toy.
Chuck had acquired dark longings of his own; his desire to be a real boy became greedier even than Pinnochio's; he is that part of a child's dream which is also a nightmare. Strassman's alter-ego wants to be heard. Alone.
At the Edinburgh Festival this year British audiences got their first taste of this demonically autonomous presence. Towards the end of the show Strassman and Chuck start arguing, and things get seriously heated. Finally Strassman can take no more and storms off stage leaving his puppet flopped down on a stool, looking forlornly inanimate.
But by this point in the proceedings the audience has become too entranced by Chuck's cruelly sardonic personality to let him die. Unconscious of the absurdity, people begin shouting, ``Move your arms, Chuck'', or, ``Speak!'' And all of a sudden the eyes open, gleaming red. Then an arm raises itself up. ``Betcha thought I needed that sucker, huh?'' he crows, bringing himself upright. The voice comes straight out of Chuck's mouth.
With Strassman scheduled to make the leap from cabaret star to small screen next month, followed next year by a British tour, we must prepare to meet the goblin inside the puppet.
Technically Strassman is the world's most innovative ventriloquist. Animating Chuck from offstage by remote control, and projecting his voice through the sound system to complete the illusion is no simple matter. Doing the same thing for up to nine different puppets, moreover, gives his show an elevated - if oddball - quality of magic. As well as with Chuck he performs with Ted E Bear, Kevin the Alien, Little Ricky (an 18-month-old baby), Beaky the Beaver and several singing dinosaurs. Understandably, Strassman is cagey when it comes to divulging his secrets.
``I'm a computer scientist and an electrical engineer as well as being an artist,'' he explains. ``It's animatronics. I'm controlling robotics wireless, which is different from the methods they use in most movies, or in Disneyland. There's no reason the audience should be able to guess how I do it.''
Like his sinister comic artistry, Strassman's technology is highly individual. His skills were acquired, not at college or on a film set, but by trial and error while on the road (he spends an average of nine months in every year touring). An e
Recognition for these talents, however, has come only gradually to this 38-year-old Californian. This year's Festival - the first time he has been to Edinburgh - was the only occasion in which he had won an award: The Herald's own Angel, which he received, incongruously enough, in the august theatrical company of director Peter Stein and choreographer, Pina Bausch. And yet for Strassman it's a question of redirecting people to the scorned arts of traditional ventriloquism, and its lost dramatic potential, by fusing it with the best of stand-up: ``The last 12 years I've played the comedy circuit, and I'm one of very few ventriloquists who headline comedy clubs in the States. ''
But it hasn't been easy, particularly in America where the idea of what is basically a variety act barely gets a look-in in the conservative world of television comedy: ``America, when it comes to the media, is very afraid to do something new and they think they know it all. My manager would say, `Well I've got this new act and he's a ventrilo......' and the answer was `No' before the word was even out.''
It is in Australia and, it now seems, in Britain that Strassman is truly making his mark. Having never appeared here before he was quickly tipped as a potential Perrier Award winner. It is said that only an erroneous perception of his star status in the States prevented him proceeding further in the contest, but the attention was enough to interest the BBC, who have signed him up for a whole slew of scheduled and putative appearances.
But it's no surprise to him that Antipodean and European success have come more easily than it has on home turf. It is on these two opposite ends of the globe that he feels the darker side of comedy and variety performance, and their subversive aspects, are more readily appreciated.
Already British audiences are going for Chuck in a big way. It's tempting to bring up the subject of schizophrenia, and ask whether either of them is affected by it or not. But Strassman is careful not to get too freaky. ``Chuck just does what we all wish we could do, which is challenge authority in whatever form it is - whether it's a mob, a group, a parent - he has that ability because he's not real.''
But, as he continues to explain how he is not really Chuck, Strassman makes an amusing slip of the Jung: ``You know he's real but he isn't ..... I mean, you know he's not real but you think he is.''
It's exactly this veneration - macabre and hilarious though it may be - that Strassman gives to his puppets which is bringing ventriloquism back to life again: ``My approach to this art form is from a totally different perspective to other ventriloquists. They seem to use it as a display of novelty - `I can talk fast, sing fast' - and it's much more surface. Because I have a theatrical background, and a background in improvisation - and because I'm twisted - I enjoy exploring all the depths of my characters.''
n.David Strassman makes his British TV debut on the bill of the Royal Variety Performance on November 10. A Stand Up Show special featuring him will be shown on BBC1 on November 30.