Should you ever have the chance to converse with Lily Tomlin, you don’t have to tell her it’s an honor. “Believe me, it’s not,” Tomlin said recently in her distinctive deadpan.
At 82, Tomlin is not precious about her reputation or the esteem she enjoys as a comedian and actor. But she remains fiercely proud of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” the one-woman play that was written for her by Jane Wagner, her wife and longtime creative collaborator.
“Search for Signs,” which had its Broadway debut in 1985, is a comedic and philosophical whirlwind in which Tomlin Ping-Ponged across 12 roles, including the sullen teen punk Agnus Angst; the feminist activists Edie, Lyn and Marge; and the wealthy, urbane Kate. Their scenes are framed and interwoven by the character of Trudy, an enlightened vagrant who believes she is in communication with aliens.
Tomlin’s performance in the Broadway production of “Search for Signs” won her the Tony Award for best actress in a play. That production ran for more than a year, and the play became an emblematic entry in the careers of its author and its star; Tomlin continued to perform it in other cities, in a 1991 film adaptation and in a Broadway revival that ran from 2000-1.
“Search for Signs” has become a treasured work to performers like Cecily Strong, the “Saturday Night Live” cast member, and directors like Leigh Silverman (“Well,” “Violet”). As Silverman, 47, said, “This play gives us a sense of purpose and a meaning while telling us all the time how meaningless it is. It holds us up and supports us and loves us. It cherishes the audience in a way that no other theater experience I’ve ever had does.”
Now Silverman is directing Strong in a new production of “Search for Signs” that will be presented at the Shed. This incarnation, which is choreographed by James Alsop, begins performances Dec. 21 and opens Jan. 11; its limited run is scheduled to end Feb. 6.
While they are still working through the play’s ambitious and ample material, Strong and Silverman said their preparations are testing them to their fullest extents. “There’s no plan to this,” Strong, 37, explained. “I said nobody else bug me until February — all of my time and my brain and my heart and my soul is here, and that’s where it has to be.”
Tomlin and Wagner, who are executive producing, are content to observe these rehearsals from afar, weigh in when needed and reflect on what the play has meant to them. (Or simply to kibitz affectionately, as in one moment when Tomlin turned to her wife and audibly observed, “We’ve lived a long time, sister.”)
Wagner, 86, said she was confident in the approach that Silverman and Strong were taking. “I have such a feeling of security, really, with the two of them,” she said. “But now that you mention it, I’ll start feeling pressured again, I’m sure.”
Tomlin, Wagner, Strong and Silverman gathered earlier this month for a video interview in which they spoke about their individual and collective journeys on “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Lily and Jane, can you recount the origins of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”? How was it created?
JANE WAGNER I was in a New Age phase. I was reading some philosophy and I began to be aware that I was being aware. [Lily Tomlin laughs.] That’s an insight that I hadn’t even thought about having.
LILY TOMLIN I was on the road a good part of that time.
WAGNER Which was very good for us.
TOMLIN She would send me a load of pages every now and then. I remember the first packet I got, I was playing in Lexington and she sent me a huge stack of papers all about Trudy. Every line, one after another, was so observant and perceptive. I read them at a show one night and there was a raucous and wonderful response. When I read Trudy saying, “Frankly, I think they find us quite captivating,” I knew where the play was headed. But I had no idea how she was going to get there.
Cecily and Leigh, how did you each discover the play?
CECILY STRONG The first time I encountered it was in my library in high school, looking for monologues. I was very serious about being an actor and I remember finding this cover with a long crazy name. What could this show be? I looked at a couple of Trudy monologues and I wanted to do something like this. This is a stupid thought, but I had it: I’ve got to marry a writer. I need to have someone write this show for me. I certainly never thought it would be a possibility to do this.
LEIGH SILVERMAN I saw it at the Kennedy Center [after the show’s original Broadway run]. I was 11. My mother took me and we were sitting in the front row. It really sent me on a journey to see a performance like Lily’s. It was radical — written by a woman, performed by a woman who played all kinds of characters. Lily was so masculine, androgynous, highly feminine — she was all of it, the full package. I felt like my whole being was rearranged and maybe for the first time put into place.
Lily, you continued to perform the play for many years in different settings. Does it remain in your body from production to production?
TOMLIN You have a lot of muscle memory from it. When you start working on it again — this doesn’t feel right, I must have moved over here — then it falls into place. It comes back to you very quickly.
WAGNER I’ve gotten by as a writer with no muscles. All my life, I’ve never had muscles.
TOMLIN She’s at an age where the muscles would come in handy.
Would the play change depending on the time and place where you were doing it?
TOMLIN In 2001, right after the 9/11 attacks, we opened in San Francisco. Jane used to collect a lot of old Whole Earth Catalogs from her hippie days, and she cited this quote from Whole Earth Catalog. I used to end the production in San Francisco with this same quote because I felt it was so meaningful. It’s anonymous: “Humans are finally the bits of earth that leap up from the planet’s surface, tell what they see to each other, and then die. The sum total of all this seeing and telling is the story of one planet waking up to itself.” We loved that. That’s how we felt at that time.
Did you get protective when other people would ask to put on the play? There were solo shows and versions with larger casts playing all the characters.
WAGNER We did once we saw one of the productions you just described. It was pretty awful.
TOMLIN In the old days, the requests would come in and I would deal with the agent. He’d say it’s a good theater or whatever, and we’d let them do it. Sometimes they would send us a film of what they’d done.
WAGNER That’s where it went wrong, I think. [Laughter.] I’m more easily beaten down than she is.
TOMLIN That’s why we keep her from the theater. She stays locked in a hotel room and I go, “I’ll be back in three or four hours”
WAGNER I’m thinking about us doing it when we had no producer.
TOMLIN I was the producer!
WAGNER Well, I didn’t know that. I’d send you pages and you’d do them or toss them.
TOMLIN Very often in the development process, I’d come in from a night at the theater and I’d talk to Jane about some monologue. I’d say, “If you can just make it — blah blah blah.” Instead of just adjusting some small phrase, she’d just write another monologue. I had like six or seven drafts of some monologues in my head, and I would move sections around, trying to find what the key would be. I was so steeped in it, I was able to just put it out and fly with whatever I could fly with. That’s what an actor really hopes for.
Leigh, what got you interested in reviving the play?
SILVERMAN When we were in the darkest moments of the pandemic, I was feeling so lost. I have done a lot of solo plays in my career. Most recently I did “Harry Clarke” with Billy Crudup. We were actually supposed to do it again during the pandemic and it was canceled. I had this moment where I thought I never want to do another solo show, ever, ever, ever again. I had a conversation with the Shed and they said, “We want to reopen and we’re looking for the right theatrical experience to do that with. Do you have any ideas?” I said no. And then I had a second call and I said, “I really don’t want do another solo show. But I do think this play should be done, and this is the time.”
How was Cecily chosen? How did everyone get comfortable with that choice?
SILVERMAN When we were talking about people, very serendipitously, there was the finale of “S.N.L.” last season and I was watching Weekend Update, where Cecily dove headfirst into a giant box of wine and drank her way out. Watching that, I had this moment where I was like, she can do it. She had the combination of the stamina, the skill, the courage and deep, deep empathy. The wild curiosity to just be outrageously funny.
STRONG Of course I wanted to do this. The biggest reason to say no is, why would you ever put yourself in a position to be compared to Lily Tomlin? But you hear Leigh talk about it and you start tearing up. It’s like, yes, yes, let’s do this. Just the way the show feels, physically — I get to go through this wonderful catharsis every time we run it.
WAGNER Lorne [Michaels, the creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live”] has an uncanny ability to understand talent, and he believed in you so much. You wouldn’t have been on “S.N.L.” if you weren’t pretty great.
TOMLIN I was totally for it because I wanted Jane’s authorship to stand. So often, I’m thrown into the mix as her collaborator. It’s just not true. Jane is a solitary writer and that’s all there is to it. She writes pages and pages, and if you asked her now to write about this bottle of water, she’d probably come up with 2,000 words.
Cecily, you recently performed a Weekend Update character, a clown named Goober who tells jokes about abortion, that felt like she could have fit into this play. Was that piece inspired by your work on this show?
STRONG Not consciously writing it. It came from, I’m going to take Ambien and I’m going to write essays to myself every night, or I’m going to remain frustrated and do weird things. Obviously this is something I wanted to get out. I kept posing it to people — I’m thinking it’s about a clown talking about her abortion — and everybody was like, okaaay. I certainly felt scared, and then I felt like I came closer to earning this show. [Speaking to Tomlin] To your bravery, your courage, and what a bombastic, badass thing it is.
Jane and Lily, were you ever criticized for your depictions of feminist characters in this play? They are affectionately rendered but still allowed to be laughed at and joked about.
WAGNER Oh, yeah. We heard that a little bit.
TOMLIN What was there?
WAGNER Do you want me to name names?
TOMLIN No, you don’t have to name names.
WAGNER There are always people that say you shouldn’t. One time somebody insisted we shouldn’t have a monologue that was a half an hour long.
TOMLIN Oh, yeah, well, that’s old stuff. You have to make those decisions yourself. Don’t be influenced.
WAGNER When I went to a consciousness-raising session — and I only went to one, because I was kind of in shock — I knew that I had to talk about it. People looking at their genitalia and everything like that, there was something satirical there that you could use. I still love the movement and believe in the movement.
Cecily and Leigh, how do you begin to tackle a play like this, where one actor is responsible for this much material?
SILVERMAN There’s so much that you put down one coat of paint and then you keep going.
STRONG I don’t think I’ve ever taken on anything like this, where I’ve been so challenged. How do I put on a coat and I’m trying to sing and I’m trying to quote Buckminster Fuller? It’s so many things but the minute we get one thing right it just feels so good. I feel like my brain is changing a little.
Do you allow yourself to have favorite characters within the play?
STRONG Something new tickles me every day. Leigh just gave me a big cart of stuff and was like, put it somewhere. What do you do with this thing? It was a great way to enter into Trudy. The other day, I was talking to a plant. I was like, ooh, I like the sound of how that plant shakes.
Do you seek notes or input from Lily and Jane? Do they just weigh in when they want to, like the voice of God?
STRONG I’ll take anything I can get.
WAGNER We like the voice of God concept. [Laughter.]
TOMLIN We’re trying to come [in person].
WAGNER I have trouble with my leg. Loss of muscle memory, I guess.
SILVERMAN We send them video and they’re with us always. There’s a line in the play where Trudy says that she puts some time aside each day to do “awe-robics,” and I will say that so much of working on the play is an exploration of “awe-robics.”
WAGNER They’re wonderful, the way you communicate. I think you’re going to do something that actually makes our brains crack. Which could be good for the run of the show.