Owning it: Comedy performer L.E. Zarling finds happiness in improv

L.E. Zarling will perform her one-person improv show, Wisconsin Laugh Trip, at the IX Art Park on December 6. Publicity photo L.E. Zarling will perform her one-person improv show, Wisconsin Laugh Trip, at the IX Art Park on December 6. Publicity photo

It’s a Saturday morning in Richmond, and L.E. Zarling has ordered a chocolate croissant to go with her latte at Lamplighter Coffee. She looks at the pastry, covered in a heavy-handed sprinkle of powdered sugar. Then she looks at her black turtleneck sweater. “Fuck it,” she says before taking a bite. “I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this thing.”

This sort of just-go-with-it-and-own-it-while-you’re-at-it attitude is the way Milwaukee-born and Richmond-based comedy performer and instructor L.E. (Lilith Elektra) Zarling approaches most things in life. It’s certainly how she approaches comedy, which she brings to IX Art Park on Thursday, in the form of a two-hour improvisational workshop geared toward trans and non-binary people. After the workshop, Zarling will perform her one-person improv show, Wisconsin Laugh Trip.

Zarling started in comedy in 2003, when she was 33 years old. She realized that if she was the one with the mic, everyone in the room had to listen to her; and she wanted to be heard. A few years later, while living in Charlottesville, she pivoted to improv comedy and storytelling, where it’s always something new.

“The level of control that [improvisational comedy] brought to my life, being on stage and being an improviser, where you just have to go” and let go, rocked her world. Over time, performing helped Zarling, a trans woman, find her own voice and be completely honest with herself and her audience about who she is.

“I finally unscrewed the jar and let my real self out,” she says.

To hear Zarling talk about her life in comedy is to witness an animated retelling of some of her favorite performances. There’s the time she made a little kid laugh so hard, he puked (“I should have just retired then and there,” she quips). And the time when she led her 60-person audience in an impromptu singing of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” where some audience members got so into it, Zarling handed the stage over to them. During that sing-along, she realized that being “in the middle of this happiness” is her dream.

Zarling’s workshops and shows are about community, positivity, and having fun, but within that, she does some pretty serious work.

Most spaces in the U.S., theaters and comedy clubs included, are not queer-friendly, says Zarling, and she hopes to change that, even if it’s just making venues (such as IX) more aware of the importance of having gender-neutral bathrooms. She holds improv workshops geared toward trans- and non-binary people to say “you are welcome here,” in this physical space and in this artistic space. There’s a lot of confidence to be found in “having an audience and holding it and having people interested in what you have to say,” she says.

“Comedy is your chance to be in front of people, to have your voice and say what you feel,” says Zarling. “Yes, there are forces trying to work against you. But no matter who the president is, that doesn’t stop you from making your friends’ lives better. That doesn’t stop you from reaching out and making your community better,” even in seemingly small ways.

When Zarling performs, she doesn’t talk much about being trans. “When you’re a performer, there are things you want to talk about…[and] being trans is sometimes the least interesting thing about me,” she says. She has a vibrant social life and loves to travel (so far this year, she’s visited Dublin and Belfast, Ireland, and driven across the continental U.S. twice); she teaches improv for business; every summer, she runs the comedy unit at a weeklong leadership camp in Alabama for kids ages 10 to 18.

But, she’s aware that in many cases, she’s the first trans person some of her audience members will get to know, and when they leave, this little piece of her will leave with them. At the very least, “they’ll be like, ‘Okay, maybe trans people just want to go pee?’” she says with a laugh.

At the show, Charlottesville fans can expect a bunch of characters, created with help from the audience. There will likely be a blind taste test (of…something), definitely a sing-along to the Violent Femme’s “Blister in the Sun” (“Wisconsin’s most famous band,” says Zarling), and a bit formed around a character created from a prop that Zarling will find in a local thrift store the day of the performance.

The thrifted prop bit has proven to Zarling that with comedy, she’s accomplishing exactly what she hopes.

While performing the show in California, she found a luchador mask and created a character called the Luchador Life Coach. “Who hates their job?!” she yelled out to the audience. A woman raised her hand—she was a paralegal dreaming of being a costume designer. “Who needs a costume designer?!” the Luchador Life Coach yelled. Four or five people raised their hands—one of them, a burlesque dancer, gave the paralegal her card. Zarling returned to that same comedy group about a year later, hoping to see the paralegal—but the woman couldn’t make it; she was working on a costume for one of her design clients.

Now Zarling doesn’t just say she changes lives through comedy—she knows she actually does it. “I have tangible evidence!” she cries, throwing her arms to the sides, sending a small cloud of powdered sugar onto her black sweater. But she doesn’t even notice—she’s just going with it.

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