"I'm excited and terrified. But mostly excited," admits Cecily Strong, who is making her New York theatrical debut in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at The Shed beginning December 21. The solo show officially opens January 11, 2022 at The Shed, a large cultural arts center located at Manhattan's Hudson Yards.
Playwright Jane Wagner penned the script in 1985 for her now wife Lily Tomlin, who won a Best Actress Tony Award for its first Broadway production. Tomlin appeared in a 1991 film adaptation of the work, and again its 2001 Broadway return, which was Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Play.
"I got to meet Lily and Jane over Zoom and it was so cool and I was so NOT cool," said Strong. Both Wagner and Tomlin have been involved in this new staging for The Shed, directed by Tony nominee Leigh Silverman, with Tomlin and Wagner serving as executive producers and Wagner revisiting the script for a new 90-minute version. “I’m sure it must be quite the experience for them to sort of put their blind trust in a couple of strangers without them here. It’s very generous of them.”
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe begins with a character named Trudy, who serves as Earth’s guide to aliens searching for intelligent life. The physically demanding show requires its single performer to somersault in and out of several characters, giving the audience little glimpses of the individual quirks and idiosyncrasies that make up our collective humanity.
“I’ve never been so tired in my life,” said Strong, who spoke to Playbill just before the production went into tech week. “I’m really living, eating, breathing, and sleeping this show right now.”
The actress grew up a theatre kid in Chicago and made her professional debut at age 11. She went on to a BFA in theatre from Cal Arts, but this show is requiring Strong to exercise muscles she hasn’t used in a while. “I’ve done SNL for ten years, and I think maybe I’m missing a step in between where I should have maybe done a play with an ensemble,” she jokes. Strong acknowledges that there are similarities in the quick character work in Saturday Night Live and The Search for Signs…“but it’s still a very, very different skill set” learning specific lines and specific movements that are linked to sound cues.
Despite publication 30 years ago, a glance through the 1991 script will immediately pull out moments that remain remarkably relevant, from quips about a gossip repeating information without the knowledge of who said what (hello, internet) to the feminist fight for equality (still).
“It’s crazy,” said Strong. “I’m playing these feminists fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment that was way back when, and now we’ve got abortion maybe be taken away in the Supreme Court.” Like Tomlin and Wagner before her, Strong is no stranger to using comedy and satire for pointed commentary on systems of oppression—It’s easy to see why she got an email one day asking her to do the show.
“At its core, though, [the show] is about the search for humanity and meaning in a world where maybe we have to accept, and live with, and find joy in the fact that maybe there is no meaning,” said Strong, who, again like Tomlin, is fully adept at finding that joy and sharing it with an audience. “Part of our humanity is that we will sit together in the dark to laugh and cry together as strangers.”
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe runs through February 6, 2022 at The Shed.