Rachel Parris is an award-winning musical comedian, actor and improviser. As a comedian, she has won critical acclaim for her solo shows which have run at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Soho Theatre London and on national tours, and has been awarded Best Musical Comedy Show (Whats On London), Best Jokes of the Fringe (Telegraph), nominated for Best Show 2016 (Funny Women) and recommended as a Pick of the Fringe by the Guardian. Rachel Parris is also an experienced improviser, and is a founding member of the award-winning improv comedy smash hit Austentatious, an Edinburgh Fringe sell-out show, UK Tour sell-out, with a residency in London’s West End and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Rachel Parris has made several appearances on BBC Radio 4 and BBC 6 Music, most recently in The Now Show, and on TV, she appeared in the highly anticipated IT Crowd Special on Channel 4, which was nominated in the Bafta Awards. Rachel Parris presented the Game of Thrones fanshow, Thronecast, on Sky Atlantic and she has appeared in BBC2’s Murder In Successville, Russell Howard’s Good News, satirical sketch show Revolting and is currently on BBC2’s topical comedy show The Mash Report. Please enjoy my interview with Rachel Parris.
How do you describe your occupation?
When people ask I just say “actor” as a catch-all, but really I do a mix of acting, standup, musical comedy, improv and writing.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
Well, it really varies a lot, which is the best and most tiring thing about the job! If it’s a touring day (at the moment, that’s four days a week with the Austentatious UK tour), I’ll do admin in the morning and then be on transport by lunchtime to a theatre or comedy club around the country, then we sleep overnight and travel to the next place etc. If I’m in a play it could be 10-6 in the rehearsal room, of if doing TV, like Plebs last month, it was up at 5.30am and filming on set until 8pm most days. I also play for children’s choir so last week it was a day trip to the Royal Albert Hall with 50 kids, and yesterday I spent all day in a recording studio making a new album for my comedy songs. Other days are just for writing, and I’ll go into town and sit in a café and try to write jokes, songs or scenes for a sitcom! I’m performing most nights but the days vary a lot! I usually have porridge for breakfast, as a desperate grab at routine.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which was recommended to me by a friend. I’m not immediately hooked but I’m enjoying it so far, I like a dystopian novel but this is more tech/sci-fi so I’m going slowly. I don’t know if it’s classed as YA but it’s clever – uses allegory and quite subtle allusions to historical events, and folk tales, without drawing too much attention to them. I loved the Hunger Games books and they were smart in this way too – lots of metaphors and references to draw on if you choose to.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. I loved this book so much – The Faraway Tree, the ever-changing different worlds at the top, the Slippery Slip, fairies and brownies and Moonface! I always loved fantasy and fairytales and as different as they are, it was probably a precursor to me loving Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, and recently, The KingKiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss (would highly recommend if you like fantasy!)
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
I’m a page folder unless it’s someone else’s or very precious. I’m also a Kindle user now, sometimes.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 21 – what would they be and why?
Some books that I did read at that age were perfect for me, for a young woman. At school, we studied The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, so we had an early introduction to those themes – threat of the patriarchy, of nationalised religion and the surprisingly precarious position women are still in. It was a really strong choice to make us read that when we were young. I’ve re-read it three times and it’s terrifying that it feels if anything more prescient now than when I first read it 15 years ago.
However, if I could give my 16 year old self a book, it would be just a very good fiction novel I could get lost in because at 16 I was working way too hard and thinking about exams and school and I was reading loads that I HAD to read so I needed escapism – I’d give myself something like The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton or The Thornbirds by Colleen McCulough (I’ve always been a romantic!) As for books that maybe would have shaped me, or advised or informed me, How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran would have been a great help at 21.
When did you fall in love with making people laugh?
I don’t know that I did. I know I fell in love with performing when I was quite young – I did school plays and little performances on the piano and things, right from when I was 6, and I remember looking forward to it and loving being on stage, even then.
I do comedy a lot and when I’m doing a 20 minute comedy set, yes it’s just about making people laugh which I really like, but the reason I do improv and acting and why my solo comedy shows always have a truthful story in them is that what I really love, when I perform, is making people feel different emotions – yes humour, joy, but also sometimes anger, sadness, passion… depends what I’m doing. Often it’s laughter but I like people to feel the variety, the up and down. That’s what I actually love.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
OK… Jane Austen, obvs – I think she’d be great company – funny and sarcastic and chatty. Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Khaled Hosseini and…Byron. Let the games begin!
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
It was After Me Comes The Flood by Sarah Perry and I bought it because I loved her The Essex Serpent so much. I love her writing, it’sdream-like and intoxicating and she draws you right in. With both books, I felt a bit drunk reading the first few chapters, she disorientates you but you absolutely can’t put it down. Accidentally lost a night of sleep finishing off this last one.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
A quiet time alone. A lot of my life is very busy and loud and moving around and sociable and all about interaction. I need the quietness of sitting alone with a book. It turns the volume down on everything else. I also love being taken into a different world, whether that’s an actual fantastical universe or just, say, downtown Manhattan in the 80’s, I like to escape. That might be why I hardly ever read non-fiction – for me, the fiction is the whole point.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
It’s between The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. They are both books where the central premise comes at you very slowly and then when you suddenly realise what you’re reading you’re like WHAT NOW. And then follows a brilliant story. They are both about finding a family where you least expect it.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
The obvious answer is a Jane Austen novel – Persuasion is my favourite. I have often thought I would have fitted in quite well playing the piano and singing and talking abut poetry and things in Regency era drawing rooms, although I’d be a bit too uppity for Anne Eliot, she would probably think me very mouthy. I’d also love to be in the world of one of those ancient old-money American universities that is described in books like The Secret History by Donna Tartt and If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, where it describes young people just left more or less alone in remote, ancient old buildings, to study and build their own society in beautiful surroundings. In those settings, people do always seem to get killed though, so I’d try not to do that.
Who would you say your three biggest comedic influences are?
Victoria Wood, Tim Minchin and Amy Poehler. They’ve all done things that are funny AF but also moving, beautiful, smart, though-provoking and joyful. I saw Tim Minchin live, singing White Wine in the Sun in 2006 and I laughed and I cried and I thought “ that’s what I want to do”.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I first read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte when I was 12 and I loved it straight away. I think I loved the high drama and the tortured romance, and as a pretty quiet, academic, plain young girl, I identified so much with Jane and her resilience, her quick wit and her strength. To see the strength of a woman in the face of poverty, disgrace, manipulation (and essentially gaslighting!) I think it inspired me, certainly. It made me want to tell stories of my own. It was the first classic I read I think and it set me on that early path of loving classic literature, which probably lead to doing Austentatious, somewhere down the line. I am obviously a fan of Jane Austen’s books and her writing suits our improv very well, but at heart, I’ve always been a Bronte girl – the darkness and the passion. I feel like I’m always looking for it.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring comedian?
My advice is, if you want to be a standup comedian – get gigging. Get out there. Get on stage. You can perfect your jokes and take courses and stuff for years but you won’t actually find out whether you can make strangers laugh, until you start gigging. You also won’t know whether you like it or not until you do – and if you don’t – there’s plenty other ways to be a comedian these days – you can film sketches, you can write, you can podcast, you can improvise, there’s so much out there. But you need to get out there.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Basically all crime thrillers. I’m a huge huge fan but they often get left off because they’re not as high-brow, but I’ve read some corkers (and just too many, it’s an addiction). I love Karin Slaughter, Jack Kerley, Lee Child, Patricia Cornwell, Jack Curtis, Val McDermid, Jonathan Kellerman, but standout ones are The Lost by Claire McGowan (the first in the totally brilliant Paula Maguire series), The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (they’ve caught on and are now making it on TV) and the Alex Cross novels by James Patterson that really explore the divide between rich and poor and black and white communities in Washington DC as well as being damn good stories.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
Right have you heard of S by JJ Abrams? My friend bought this for me a year or so ago and I know it will take over my life when I read it. It’s also a big tome with inlays and attachments so you can’t just take it on the tube. It is an incredible thing – there’s the book itself, a sort of modern folk tale but it has handwritten comments in the margins form two people who have been reading and studying it and who leave each other little notes, letters and newspaper clippings that are enclosed in the pages of the book. It’s going to be epic I know it!