Rachel Slater is a young comic unafraid to stand out from the crowd. Her unique blend of surreal stand up and poetry with just a hint of clown has delighted audiences and judges alike, earning her a place in Chortle’s Student Comedy Awards semi-final in 2012, and Funny Women finals 2013. Currently dividing her time between studying clown at L’ecole Phillipe Gaulier, and performing around Liverpool, we caught up with Rachel to chat language barriers, Ken Dodd, and why toddlers are the harshest critics…
How would you describe your act?
Character based surreal awkwardness.
How did you get into stand up?
I started through a young persons comedy course called Stand Out, run by The Comedy Trust, who were able to provide an audience appropriate to my age group and the material I was producing at the time. I followed my friend – who I’m now planning a show in Edinburgh with. And then after doing a couple of gigs with people who are just friends and family of people on the course, they helped me find some other open spots. Which weren’t as friendly an audience, but it still went okay – or at least it didn’t put me off!
I got into clowning through boredom – I was trapped in a philosophy degree and I was searching for any kind of performance.
Does real life inform your comedy?
Definitely. The first set that I did was about my high school life. It had to be, it was the only thing I had at the time. And I was awkward. People used to get moved next to me at school. I realized the potential of a joke in there, and I still use it. I think that awkward person I was in high school was exaggerated into my awkward persona that I play now.
At the moment I’m studying clown, and obviously the skills that I’m learning feed into it, but also my failings here are giving me material, as well as ideas of different ways of doing things. It’s not the material as much as the way you present the material.
How does clowning relate to straight stand up?
I think some people, when they think clown, they think children’s entertainer, who makes balloon animals and scares them. Modern clown is all about entertaining large numbers of people, but in a very interesting and beautiful way. There’s a lot more work that goes into it, into an imaginative routine, beat by beat. It’s moving into theatres more and more, the costume being lost. Things are clown without the audience realising, – they expect every clown to have a red nose – and there are people who do that, but clown is now more than that.
A lot of clown is about listening to the audience, responding. I use my whole body more now, not to the extent that I’m a physical comedian now, because I’m not, but I use it to add to the character and material. Clowns have to be accepting and very open. A clown has to be loved by their audience even if they’re saying something awful.
Who are your comedy influences?
In terms of the material I want to do, I really like Simon Amstell’s awkwardness and vulnerability on stage. I like how Eddie Izzard is surreal but he also has bits that are really recognizable. A lot of surreal people lose the majority of the mainstream, but Eddie Izzard has the power to take people with him. There’s a difference between who influences you and who your favourite comedian is.
The person who influenced me was Ken Dodd, because I went to talk to him after his gig, and he said to me – it’s not worth cheapening yourself to get the laughs. A cheap joke, a crude joke, might get the laughs at first, but in the long run it’ll be the really good material.
A lot of comedy shows I couldn’t get into when I started, I was 17 and a lot of them you have to be over 18, so it meant I didn’t have a preformed idea of what I had to do. It meant I was doing quite different stuff from the other people on the course – but sometimes it was less successful because I didn’t have the knowledge of “this is how you do it”.
You divide your time between France and the UK. Have you done any gigs in France?
I’ve done one gig in France. It was difficult because there was a language barrier, but it was okay because my act isn’t really about understanding everything, it’s about understanding the character. Not being able to speak French is always going to be a barrier to performing in France – unless your Eddie Izzard! I can only just tell the dog to sit. Before you can do stand up, you need to be at least able to talk to the dog.
I often do gigs for under 18s because that’s how I started. We were doing a gig at a festival, which they advertised as “Kids Comedy”, and we arrived expecting a 13 – 17 year old audience. The average age must have been about 4, and several of them were under 2. I was heckled by a 4 year old about continuity of all things. At the start I talk about not having any friends, and the next bit is normally about a driving instructor, but I changed the word to “friend” because I didn’t know if 4 year olds would know what a driving instructor was! I thought the joke would still work – but I never got the chance to tell it because by the time I’d said “My friend drives…” a 4 year old stopped me and said “You said you didn’t have any friends!”. And the whole audience joined in.
I did a gig in St George’s Hall, which was pretty cool, but I don’t have an interesting best gig story. All my gigs have been distinctly average!
You can follow Rachel’s clowning adventures on twitter @RachelASlater.
Rachel is currently working towards an Edinburgh show alongside cabaret act Minnie Melons, and will be performing as part of the PBH’s Free Fringe throughout August.