The man who really pulls the strings
Chester Missing, South Africa’s most famously contentious, politically astute puppet, will be going on the road in The Chester Missing Roadshow, but there’s more happening behind the scenes than the besuited puppet would like to admit, writes Theresa Smith
When dealing with a ventriloquist show, director Heinreich Reisenhofer has learnt to direct the puppet and the ventriloquist as separate entities.
“When we’re working on conceiving the show, essentially Conrad (Koch) and I work together. But when we’re working on the floor I have to speak to Chester – which is a bit difficult when you’re in a restaurant and you’re talking through the show,” he said.
“It’s like there’s three people at the table, but I’ve gotten over it.
“It’s bizarre being with somebody who is more than one person at the same time and you have to talk to each of them,” Reisenhofer explained about working on the new show with comedian Conrad Koch.
Chester Missing’s appearances on Loyiso Gola’s Late Nite News on e.tv and the ZA News Network has netted him his own following, so it comes as a surprise to some when they realise there is a real person with his arm up the puppet’s backside.
Reisenhofer, however, is more astounded by how highly refined the discipline of ventriloquism is.
“I don’t think people realise how much of a discipline it is to talk with your mouth closed. All the placement of consonants and vowels are different to the way we speak. So there’s a whole technical arrangement in the preparation, and I think what makes Conrad such a unique ventriloquist is his ability to improvise.
“He’ll change in response to an audience and that’s why he’s one of the best comedians in the country. He’s incredibly sharp with those comebacks.
“He doesn’t always have control of the comebacks, so sometimes his comebacks get him into trouble. That’s why Chester is amazing, Chester is the foot he can put in it and get away with it.
“It’s the metaphor of what ventriloquism is, this persona that gets the person into trouble,” said the Capetonian director.
The fact that it is the puppet getting all in your face does help to defuse the situation. Most of the time.
Reisenhofer thinks the reason politicians let their guard down around Chester and engage with him is that they relax because they don’t think of the puppet as wanting something from them.
“The irony is, even if Chester gets heated up, they still talk to Chester. They buy into it completely.
“There’s something disarming about a puppet, maybe because it’s a small person, maybe because it’s a funny person,” Reisenhofer explained.
The director thinks people may also just want to show their fun side.
“It’s like letting the fool play with you, the fool in the court. It’s different if someone is engaging you through sarcasm, or criticising you… so, there’s a playfulness to it.”
This new theatre show is called The Chester Missing Roadshow because “Chester has taken over. He’s taken over Conrad’s life, he’s taken over our lives.”
Koch has been doing a lot of corporate work with Chester, and the most recent theatre show they did together – Puppet Asylum – was ambitious in that they tried hard to be different with a scripted narrative and a set.
The Roadshow is a return to the basic concept of a ventriloquist going on the road with his puppets, interacting with the puppets (and the audience), and in this case elaborating on Chester’s story.
“Who Chester is has become such a high-profile conversation and Conrad has also developed a huge amount of confidence in what he’s saying, so it’s just to bring out that,” said Reisenhofer.
“It really is a living conversation. There are thousands of people who talk to Chester on Twitter, including politicians. I think the opportunity with the show is to bring that conversation to the audience.”
Part of the conversation will also revolve around race dynamics.
“Very politicised people in Joburg started firing on Conrad when they discovered that there was a white guy behind the puppet.
“It’s bizarre, nobody wanted to think about it because in tv land Chester is a puppet, it’s puppetry. In the theatre world, it’s ventriloquism. It’s two very different things.
“There are lot of people whose first association is Chester alone. That could also be why a lot of the politicians don’t see Conrad, because they don’t see him on television.
“He will definitely talk about it, because it’s the bone of contention between Chester and Conrad.”
• The Chester Missing Roadshow is on at the Baxter’s Golden Arrow Theatre from Thursday to February 23. R130 at Computicket. The show has a PG13 age restriction.