Conrad Koch: Playing with puppets

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In the grand, spectacular mess that is South African politics, it is very difficult to accurately assess the state of the nation. You ask yourself: who is there to turn to in a time of such crisis? Why, you turn to the one who relates the most to politicians, in that they are, too, manipulated by those greater than them. To be frank, though, Chester Missing would take great offence at the suggestion that his so-called master, Conrad Koch, is greater than him.

After all, the puppet is a political analyst, who had his very own segment on Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola. He also authored Chester Missing’s Guide to the Elections ’14, a book which this writer highly recommends in any time of electoral uncertainty. Meanwhile, Koch has had his scraps of success, being nominated for two measly International Emmys.

I last saw Koch and Missing performing live back in 2012, and I was extremely excited to attend his show titled Puppet Guy at this year’s festival. The show has been performing for most of the year, but Koch’s Grahamstown performance sees the introduction of new material for debuting characters, as well as old favourites such as Hilary and Chester Missing himself.

What also struck me was the title Puppet Guy. It wasn’t a political pun. It was just what Koch has been from the very start: a puppeteer and ventriloquist.

Conrad Koch and Chester Missing. Photo: Samuel Spiller
Conrad Koch and Chester Missing. Photo: Samuel Spiller

That sentiment was confirmed later as I sat down with Koch, who explained his intentions with the show.

“I’m just trying to have more fun with myself and create a global act that can incorporate world politics,” he says, “but that’s a slow movement forward as I’m still finding a voice that works for that. I’ve turned down work in order to focus more on building a great ventriloquist act. I need to explore and build my genre.”

And for me, that is exactly the show turns out to be. It begins with two hands in a red spotlight, each sporting a pair of googly eyes that could not tear their romantic gazes away from each other (yes, this show commences with two hand puppets making out). Eventually, Koch appears out of the shadows, cracking a few jokes before taking the asshole that you probably came to see out of his suitcase.

To be honest, Chester Missing’s rants on South African politics was kept on the minimal side. Sure, he does a very good impersonation of “Aunty Helen” (Helen Zille), and “Bra Jacob” (Jacob Zuma) is mentioned here and there, but the bulk of his performance is spent giving Koch hell. For some audience members, this may be a serious turn-off, as political commentary is pretty much Chester’s day job now (so much so that he was once sued for the things he said). Nevertheless, it is great to see the continual development of a complete personality, one that does not only exist as a reactionary piece.

After the performance, Koch explains to me that there are shifts happening when it comes to his most recognisable puppet.

“I’m trying to create a more socio-political version of Chester,” he says. “Half of the show is about colonialism and white supremacy. For me, that’s politics, and it’s what Chester’s conversation begins with. So it’s about making politics accessible, because audiences are less politically aware.”

Following Chester is a great comedic showcase of the puppetry genre of puppetry and the debut of his new characters. No sooner has Koch recovered from Chester’s bullying, he is then subjected to even more punishment by one of his earliest creations, Hillary the Ostrich, now sporting a completely different body than to when I last saw her (I’m guessing that too much plastic surgery finally did her in). DJ Hoodie – who is literally a hoodie – does his best to combine old and new elements of music while also commenting on South Africa’s first family. And then Koch’s attention turns to the audience – dear sweet audience, how fun it is to watch you become the playthings of this puppet master.

At the show’s end of it, one must remember the amount of work that goes into it and the characters, and also the uniqueness of the comedy that Koch offers the audience.

“The problem with ventriloquism is that it’s very high maintenance,” he explains. “It takes an enormous amount of time to pin down the narrative and dynamic of the puppet. Previously, my ventriloquism was merely a medium to talk about political things. Now, I want to be an A-grade ventriloquist and do the political things.”

Despite losing top billing to Chester Missing (a fact of which he’s actually quite accepting), Conrad Koch is, without a doubt, both of those things, and Puppet Guy definitely speaks to that.

Catch Conrad Koch and Chester Missing in Puppet Guy from 5 – 8 July at various times at St. Andrew’s Hall.

By Samuel Spiller

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