Rachel Parris on Imps, Austen and Eggheads
An established live act and a breakthrough star on TV, we catch up with Rachel Parris as her tour arrives in Edinburgh and Glasgow
No-one ever asks Rachel Parris about Eggheads.
"Thank you!" she says. "At last someone asks me about this."
With her success in improv, music and solo comedy shows, Parris' reputation has since soared beyond live comedy, presenting The Mash Report and in the past few weeks, she's picked up the breakthrough talent award at the Edinburgh TV Festival. But before any of this, she'd already enjoyed a claim to fame when her first improv troupe entered the BBC's uncompromisingly clever quiz show.
"They did a quiz to see who had the best general knowledge and I made the team! I do have pretty good general knowledge and love a pub quiz. I took TV and entertainment and I went to tie-breaker and lost my round but overall the team won, we beat those Eggheaded overlords! Yey!"
Parris studied Music at Oxford University but had graduated before her induction to comedy. "I was living in Oxford, not really knowing what to do with my life. I'd finished my degree two years earlier, I was working in a shop and doing some waitressing and hanging around with some very very funny people who, I found out, were in this group called The Oxford Imps. When they held auditions, one of them (Hannah!) basically put my name down without asking me, as a shove up the arse, and I went along and got in."
She adds: "I was scared but as soon as I started doing stuff in the auditions I realised I found it fun, and, less difficult, and less scary than most other things. It felt natural. I was in the group with some of the funniest people I've ever met – including my Austentatious peeps Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Andrew Hunter Murray and Joseph Morpurgo."
Improv became the foundation to Parris' comedy career and much more besides: "It gave me the idea that I could be funny onstage, that being funny was a particular thing I could, and perhaps should, do. If I had never done improv, I would never have done musical comedy, presenting, or standup. It gave me confidence. It gave me performing experience. It also taught me a lot about being a woman on stage and how little that should matter. The Imps was directed by women, produced by women and from then til now, the improv community I am part of is overrun with obscenely talented, confident women playing every role under the sun, doing every kind of improv, and I continue to be inspired by them. I'd like to name them – the queens of improv that I know – but there are genuinely too many."
Parris was one of the co-founders of Austentatious. In the show, the players act out a story suggested by the audience and frame it within the Georgian world of Jane Austen's novels. It's been phenomenally successful to say the least. Arriving in Edinburgh in 2012 it's a true breakout hit, with a residency in London and regular tours.
One detail that may have helped position the show correctly is the attention paid to its visual aspect.
"Yes, we do consider it carefully: costume, set, photo style, aesthetic. Having started it all by ourselves, we've all got opinions on every aspect of it but the one thing we always all agreed on from the start is not wanting to look too kerazy and kooky. We wanted something that stood out and looked just pretty cool. The photo Idil Sukan took for our first Edinburgh absolutely nailed that."
As each of the players have become successful solo artists, surely it has become harder to keep Austentatious going?
"Yes, a bit I guess. I mean, many of the cast had either begun a solo career first or around the same time as Austentatious started, so we have always had to balance those things. We are individually busier but equally, we still love it, so we prioritise it. Also, we have more help than when we started!
She adds: "It was just six of us, running a pub gig, digging costumes from charity shops and all putting in change for the float. Now we have producers and tour bookers and all that, but it remains very much ours... we want to protect it and work hard for it."
Parris' own solo career, before The Mash Report, perhaps attracted the most attention when her show Best Laid Plans explored a period of low mood in her life.
"I think it did the very first time I tried that material. The first time I said on stage that I wrote to the Samaritans was a gamble. It was an early preview and I thought it would just be a small throwaway paragraph in a show mostly about something else. But, it became clear that it was the most interesting thing. I remember being emotional saying it out loud that first time. But once it becomes part of a show it changes. It's still true but it is something crafted, it is script, it is narrative, and so, after that, it's not therapy – it's your job."
Her latest show now arrives at The Stand and Òran Mór as it tours the UK and includes a mix of her best material. "It is called It's Fun To Pretend and it is a stand-up and musical comedy show about having confidence in yourself, in spite of everything! It's about imposter syndrome, as well as relationships, kids, Boris Johnson, line dancing and cats. It. is. relatable."
Finally, on the topic that everyone asks her about... After Piers Morgan's butt-hurt response to Parris presenting his image licking Trump's rump, has she found viral fame a two-edged sword?
"Ha! I don't feel famous! Not yet! But, to answer the question, no, because that implies 50/50 and it's not, it's mostly lovely. It has down sides, sure – trolling, nasty comments, and people getting the wrong impression of you... but mostly it is very nice because I've been given more opportunities to do what I love doing, and that's absolutely brilliant."