More than three decades into her comedy career, Lara Rae feels a bit like she’s doing standup for the first time.

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This article was published 25/11/2015 (1969 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

More than three decades into her comedy career, Lara Rae feels a bit like she’s doing standup for the first time.

And in a way, she is. When she steps up to the microphone during the all-female Empow(HER)ment show this week at the Park Theatre, she will be performing her first full set of comedy since embarking on a gender-transition journey she says she waited a lifetime to begin.

"I think I’m able to bring my old experience toward my understanding of this new experience," says Rae, 52, who describes this as the happiest time of her life. "In a sense, I have twice as much material to draw from; I’m not necessarily talking about being in two genders, because I’m beginning to pass as a woman in the sense that hardly anyone even notices anymore… Mostly, I’m passing as a transgender woman, and being accepted or rejected as a transgender woman.

"The interesting thing, with this show and with shows I will perform away from home, is that people will be meeting me, as a performer and a person, for the first time, with no context of my old self. And that is the most thrilling part to me — not that I want to reject my old persona and gender, but it’s super exciting to me to be able to tell my story as somebody who people are meeting for the first time."

"As soon as you become the minority... then you have a different relationship with the audience. And that’s something that I have been inspired and challenged by.”–Lara Rae

For more than half a century, Lara Rae was known as Al Rae, a veteran comedian who began his career in the early ’80s as half of the musical-comedy duo Al & George. Al Rae relocated from Toronto to Winnipeg a quarter-century ago, reinvented himself as a solo comedy act and then co-founded the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, serving as artistic director since its inception in 2002.

Rae, who was married and has a grown daughter, came out as gay three years ago, and then earlier this year revealed that he had begun the process of gender transition. Last month, Lara Rae made her first stage appearance as host/MC at the Gas Station Arts Centre’s annual Girls! Girls! Girls! fundraiser — a significant step in establishing a new identity as a performer — and her inclusion in this week’s Empow(HER)ment show marks the first time the new onstage version of Rae will be fully on display.

"When I came out as queer, and then when I began the process of changing my gender, it moved me into a minority," she explains. "For the first time, as someone who spent my whole life as a privileged white male, I was ‘the other.’ For most of my life, when I would walk out onstage in a comedy club, I was your standard-issue comedian, addressing everything I saw in the world from a position of white male privilege.

"I had already, thanks to some education and the diligent work of my ex-boyfriend, managed to disabuse myself of a tremendous amount of that (perspective), but you can only change so much when you are granted, and take advantage of, that privilege every day. But as soon as you become the minority — as soon as the MC’s introduction or the information in your set ‘others’ you, then you have a different relationship with the audience. And that’s something that I have been inspired and challenged by."

Longtime promoter of diversity

As artistic director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Rae has long been a promoter of diversity and inclusion; for that reason, Empow(HER)ment’s creator and host Chantel Marostica sees this as an opportunity to repay the favour and celebrate Rae’s hard-won happiness.

"She’s just been ‘one of the guys’ for so long, and comedy can be a lot easier when you’re surrounded by men," says Marostica, a recent transplant to Toronto who’s returning home to host the Empow(HER)ment show. "But that’s a different kind of support system, and I think it’s going to be really great for Lara to realize how much closer and how supportive the women (in comedy) are, and how great it is to be around women who inspire you.

"She’s been who she is the whole time, but it’s almost like she was wearing this mask of being a male. Now she can drop that, and the comedy will come from the heart of who she really is."–Empow(HER)ment creator Chantel Marostica

"She has always been great about booking women and LGBTQ comics — maybe, I guess, because that’s been her journey, but also because she likes to surround herself with positive women — and now this is a chance for all of us to take another step toward welcoming her into our circle and helping her to create a sense of community with us."

Marostica adds that a support system will be an important part of Rae’s comedic reinvention, because Lara is bound to face challenges as a performer that Al would never have encountered.

"Being a woman in comedy, that automatically cuts the number of people who surround you by more than half; being LGBTQ, that puts you in a very small group," she says. "It’s going to be a different road for her, because she’s going to be one of the only ones. She’s going to be surrounded by all the women, but she’ll be finding her place, in the trans community and as a comic.

"When she came out as gay, she started writing (material) for that, and now she’s going through another process of writing for another phase of her life. There are so many things ahead of her; I think they’re all positive, though.... She’s been who she is the whole time, but it’s almost like she was wearing this mask of being a male. Now she can drop that, and the comedy will come from the heart of who she really is. I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch."

For her part, Rae says the easiest part of the gender-transition journey so far has been gaining support from friends and colleagues in the comedy community. In that world, she explains, acceptance has been immediate and absolute.

"It’s the only group that I’m really, truly, utterly comfortable in — the world of fellow comics," she says. "I’ve been accepted by this community, both the boys and the girls, and I’m so grateful for that. It really helps.

"What I’ve found, on the other side of having conversations with so many of them, is that they want to know two things: are you fundamentally the same person — can they say the same things and be the same person they’ve always been around you — and are you still funny?

"As long as those two things are in place, acceptance seems to follow in the standup community."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

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