Name as you’d like it to appear: L.E. Zarling
Gender as you’d like it to appear: She/Her/Goddess
City you live in and/or improvise in most: Richmond, VA
Personal website or another project that you’d like to link to: www.lezarling.com
Impro(v) Bio: I’ve been a performer for 16 years and a coach/teacher/producer for over a decade. I have performed and taught all over the country with my current one-person show: Wisconsin Laugh Trip. In the past, I’ve directed improvised sitcoms and documentaries along with producing stand up shows. My main approach is to challenge myself and take on shows and ideas that feel like they have a high possibility of failure.
How does being trans*/NB influence your impro(v)?
Honestly, I think being an improviser has had a greater influence on me coming out at trans. Improv was the first thing that gave me confidence as a person and as an artist. I feel that trans people have a lot of self-doubt from society reinforcing on them that their existence is “wrong”. With improv, I didn’t have time for self-doubt. You have to do everything immediately, in one take, live and trust that you’re good enough to pull it off.
As I became more comfortable on stage I was able to use improv to work out my own feelings. If I was struggling with something, if I had an emotion I had to get off my chest I could just play that character on stage and explore those feelings. It allowed me to have a space where I could be myself and where I could have some control over my life. I ended up going from having no control over anything in my life to having control over myself at least on the improv stage. That control and confidence grew until I realized that there is no reason that the way I act and project myself on stage can’t be the way I live my life.
Being trans and travelling more has added a certain feeling of importance to my improv. It’s fun to do shows but sometimes you go places where there aren’t a lot of other trans/queer performers and it means a lot to the younger performers in that area to see someone like them who is successful doing what they want to do.
Do you play trans*/NB characters often?
In my one-person show, I’m mostly myself, so I guess, yes? I usually don’t express a specific gender when playing a character.
How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans*/NB characters in impro(v)?
If it is done genuinely and respectfully I’m fine with it, but since I’ve never seen it done genuinely and respectfully I guess I’m not fine with it. I think we’ve seen plenty of cis/het white dudes try to play women or gay men and its obvious they’re making choices just to make fun of those groups.
Besides announcing it, how might you know/show a character is trans*/NB?
My choices really don’t go deep enough to already have a gender or character in mind when I go on stage. Usually, I like to just have an emotion and some sort of physicality and see what develops around me.
How do you feel about playing different genders generally, in terms of naming gender and of expressing it?
I’m completely comfortable playing whatever the scene requires.
Does your local impro(v) community know/understand your gender? If so, how has that been in terms of acceptance/understanding?
My close friends have been great and very supportive. I don’t do much locally so not sure what ‘the community’ thinks, don’t really care.
What are some things that teachers/directors/other performers can do to make sure trans*/NB improvisers feel safe and welcome?
I think making asking for people’s pronouns a part of all introductions does a lot for making trans/NB people feel that they’re seen and respected. And for everyone’s benefit- at the start of a new class or workshop or when a new team comes together have everybody talk about their limits and comfort levels. Some people (of all genders) don’t like to be touched some trans women might not want to play men in scenes. It isn’t about making a “safe” space, it’s about coming together as performers and respecting each other’s boundaries.
Thinking about examples of trans*/NB characters across all media (Impro(v), TV, Movies, Plays etc), what are the best trans*/NB characters or stories you’ve seen depicted? The worst?
I mean the best is Wisconsin Laugh Trip! You should definitely contact me and bring the show and my workshops to your theater!
Honestly, I’ve never bothered turning to any media looking for trans/NB stories. But every Halloween I get to see all the comics who think the Ray Finkle costume is the funniest thing ever.
Who do you look up to/admire as a trans*/NB person in impro(v) or the world generally?
Any trans/NB who gets on stage and performs is a damn superhero. I honestly wish I knew more of them. Laurel Posakony and I have done several festivals together and I love them! Chloe Koser is up in New York and we’ve never met but we’ve talked a few times and she’s fucking amazing. I’ve never been able to see Sarah Jane Mahr perform but we had a chance to get dinner together when she was in Richmond and it turns out she’s the best!
I hear that there are more and more trans/nb students out there and I can’t wait to meet them at festivals and see them on stage in the future!
What’s something special that you and/or trans*/NB performers have to offer?
I don’t think people realize how much a trans person has been through and survived to get where they are. For me, so much great comedy has a realness to it, a truth to the emotional content. Trans people have that. If someone is 21 and has been out all through high school you have no idea the suffering they’ve been through. Someone who is older, they’ve lived an entire, miserable life before finally getting to be their true selves. Putting that on stage is art. Being able to reach those emotional depths in your scenes makes your improv that much better. A good improviser isn’t somebody who is removed from the scene and is constantly thinking up the next funny thing to say, it is the person who can latch on to an emotion and play it completely real and fold it into the crazy improv stuff that is going on around them.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about being trans*/NB or impro(v) in general? We’re all total badasses.