INTERVIEW: Footlights Harry Porter Prize winner, Rachel Tookey
“I like sketches better than standup; you have to work harder”
Rachel Tookey is a fourth-year Law student at Clare College. Her play, Judge Judy’s Buzz World, won the Footlights’ 2016 Harry Porter Prize, and is being performed at the ADC from 11-14 May.
Tookey’s win is the result of a prolific four years in Cambridge: she started out performing stand-up at age sixteen, but quickly concluded that “I hated performing, but I loved writing the jokes. I like wordplay – I like thinking about what words can do. It’s a natural outlet.” Since then, she’s written for, directed or produced over 20 shows.
Student writers who don’t perform their own work are usually behind the scenes in Cambridge theatre, more hidden away than the larger-than-life Footlights and other talented comics splashed across the ADC and Corpus programmes. But for Tookey, writing sketches has its own charm. “You can have a simple idea that’s amusing in standup, but wouldn’t stand up to a sketch. The best standups can flesh out an idea and talk about it for an hour, they can build a world upon it. You can just make an observation about the world that’s relatable and it can be funny. But I like the concept of sketches better – they’re tighter, you have to work harder to make the audience laugh; and when you do, it gives more to the audience – it’s like taking them on a journey.”
As it turns out, Tookey’s Judge Judy bears no relation to the famous American court judge. At least, I don’t seem to remember Judy switching that gavel for a whip, and I think there’d be some copyright issues somewhere in the mix. But both Judge Judys form the centre of their respective shows. “The comedy comes from Judy – the crazy adventures she goes on were easily the most fun part of the play to create, and the story and her character are built up through them.” Tookey’s Judy is a Middle American renegade, borne out of a diverse range of feelings around Middle America; the general Trump unrest, the reshaping of the American dream in America’s fresh-faced superhero comics and gritty Pulp Fictions. The location is a fruitful one for her: “The whole Twin Peaks deal.”
If this all sounds a little serious, that’s because it is – Judge Judy is a comedy play, but it’s not purely comedic: “it’s about half comedy, half drama.” Drama was the order of the day once she found out she’d won, as well – shortlisted writers for the Harry Porter Prize have a few nerve-wracking weeks while the Footlights send the shortlisted plays to a former Footlight (usually working as a comedian) to pick the winner; after that, the winner has a five-week window until their play is up in lights at the ADC.
“I wanted to enter the Harry Porter Prize as soon as I got to Cambridge,” Tookey adds. “A difficulty with comedy writing is that there’s only so far you can get into the scene if you don’t perform your own work.” She points out that there’s a gulf in Cambridge student writing between having a scene in HATCH and your own ADC lateshow, a gulf that she wants to work on during her time as the Marlowe Society’s writing rep.
I’m not a student playwright; I am, however, a student reviewer, and it’s a difficult balance to get right – reviewers have an uneasy relationship with Cambridge dramatists, and the fear of being too partial or too harsh is felt on both sides of the curtain.
It’s a necessary relationship, but Tookey muses that it causes its own problems: “It can stifle the creative process. People have to be so concerned about putting on a polished show, and that can take priority over being experimental and trying something new out, being ambitious with tech or using space differently. This is student theatre; there should be more space for innovation.”
The diversity in Cambridge theatre is fantastic, and we need to make sure the reviewer system is moulded to foster rather than hinder experimentation. The energy this university has can create some amazing things – all manner of text, film and performance, including the occasional comedy-drama play based around a crime-fighting, misleadingly-named Middle American vigilante.
Judge Judy’s Buzz World starts tonight (11 May) at the ADC at 11pm.