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Cecily Strong and Leigh Silverman Find Connection Amid Isolation in The Search for Signs

Strong stars in the play made famous by Lily Tomlin in a new revival at the Shed.

Cecily Strong stars in Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, directed by Leigh Silverman, at the Shed.
(© Kate Glicksberg)

"I assume if you get into a box of wine, it may lead to a number of wonderful things happening in your life," said Cecily Strong. According to the actor, it certainly has for her.

Strong never could have predicted it at the time, but diving into an enormous vat of boxed wine while impersonating Fox News host Jeanine Pirro on Saturday Night Live led Strong to the Shed, where she is making her New York stage debut in the play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Jane Wagner's one-woman show, a series of monologues examining American society, premiered on Broadway in 1985. The "Me Decade" embraced Lily Tomlin's performance, in which she played 12 different characters. After winning the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Tony Award for Best Actress, Tomlin starred in a film adaptation of the play in 1991. She reprised the role in a 2000 Broadway revival, but the show has not been seen onstage in New York since.

"Who would ever want to open themselves up to be compared to Lily Tomlin?" Strong said, admitting she immediately said yes to starring in the show, even though she thought the idea was "insane."

Leigh Silverman is the director of the off-Broadway revival of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
(© David Gordon)

She said yes to Leigh Silverman, the Obie award-winning and Tony-nominated director who, after seeing Strong swim and sing her way through that box of wine, offered the role. Drawn to the play's exploration of human connection, Silverman had revisited the script during the pandemic and suggested the Shed's creative team mount the show to reopen its off-Broadway performance space at Hudson Yards.

"The end of Search is all about how interconnected we all are," Silverman said. "And we're all feeling so isolated. To work on a show that's about connection, and about the mystery of connection, and that appreciates and celebrates the audience for being there sitting in the dark with a group of strangers laughing and crying about the same things… I said to [the Shed's creative team], 'I just can't imagine a play that will speak to this time more than then this play.'"

Silverman was familiar with the show's 12 different characters, which were reduced to 10 for the production starring Strong. Search is framed by the character of Trudy, a homeless woman who claims to have connections with extraterrestrials. Her "space chums," as she calls them, are on their way to visit her as they explore the universe.

Cecily Strong plays Trudy in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
(© Kate Glicksberg)

Along with Trudy, Strong switches rapidly between nine other characters, including the appropriately named teen performance artist Agnus Angst; a soul-searching professional named Chrissy; sex workers Brandi and Tina; and Lyn, Edie and Marge, a trio of friends finding their way through the Second Wave feminist movement.

It's a bittersweet and inspirational 90 minutes as the characters fall in and out of love, survive personal and professional disappointments, and experience births and deaths. When Search first opened, the play undoubtedly captured the zeitgeist of its time, but Silverman's concerns about its relevance more than 30 years later quickly dissipated – a cause of both relief and frustration for the director, who assembled an entirely female design team for the show.

"I feel like it could be written today. It's the same struggle," Silverman said. "Lyn's story, and the story I think of many of the people in our show looking for meaning, looking for signs, looking to understand themselves better, looking back on choices that we've made – all of these things resonate for today. Although I was concerned about it… the thing that I have felt and that I think Cecily feels and that many people have felt, is that it is as it feels as prescient and as relevant today."

Strong is no stranger to feminist performance. One of her most talked-about acts during the most recent season of Saturday Night Live was Goober the Clown. The skit aired as the Supreme Court heard arguments on a restrictive abortion ban in Texas, and Strong as Goober spoke freely about having had an abortion at age 23. "It's a rough subject so we're going to do fun clown stuff to make it more palatable!" she told "Weekend Update" host Colin Jost, while spinning her bow tie and squirting him with water.

It was Strong's courage and ability to embrace both pain and humor that attracted Silverman, who had thought finding the right performer for Search would be impossible. She had to find someone who possessed the courage to step into the shoes Tomlin had worn while refraining from imitating her. She also had to find someone who loves theater and understands the importance of the piece. Silverman said Strong was that person.

"I feel so lucky that she is able to hold both all of the intense challenge of the piece and also want to own it as her own simultaneously while honoring it, and that's such a special thing," Silverman said, adding that she did not watch Saturday Night Live frequently and had known very little about Strong other than she had a theater background but now was "retroactively full of fandom."

Silverman and Strong grew close quickly during the one month of preparation for the play. Along with rehearsals and tech, the two Zoomed frequently with Wagner and Tomlin as they developed the show. But as rehearsals began, so did the news of the Omicron variant. Determined to continue, the show's team has been tested daily at the Shed while abiding by Covid safety protocols.

"It's so intense, and [Cecily] is like living inside of a plastic bag," Silverman said. "Nobody's allowed to talk to her backstage except for me and one other person. She's very carefully contained. It's not what anybody wants, it's not how anyone would choose to work but we all know the sacrifice for the payoff, which is being able to perform that show every single night."

Cecily Strong stars in in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Shed.
(© Kate Glicksberg)

But several people working on the show tested positive just before previews began, and the sense of responsibility weighed heavily on Silverman and Strong.

"Our tech room just kept getting smaller and smaller," Silverman said. "We talked about it, and we really felt like, 'A year ago at this time, we were home. We were not working, and all we wanted to do was work.' It was up to us to stand in some kind of defiance of this moment."

"I kind of broke down in my dressing room," Strong recalled. "And Leigh said, 'The Shed is behind you. They want us to do this. If there are two people in the crowd, we're doing this show for them. And they've gotten over their anxiety to show up and we've gotten over our anxiety to show up and we're sharing this together.'"

That combination of anxiety and joy was cathartic for both Strong and the audience as the show began performances.

"Once people laugh, they're open to crying," Strong said. "I think you have to laugh through tough things. That's how you start the way to emote, going through that catharsis."

That release was especially poignant for Strong, whose younger cousin passed at the beginning of January 2020, a deep loss that was followed immediately by the pandemic. Search opened on January 11, the same day that her cousin died of cancer.

"His sister came that night to the show. It was so beautiful," Strong said. "It felt like, 'You're with me and I'm supposed to be here doing this,' It was part of the magic of and part of the sadness and the heaviness of life. As my uncle said, 'We're adding a little joy to this day as well.'"

Cecily Strong stars in in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Shed.
(© Kate Glicksberg)

The final moments of Search speak of the inevitable connection between human beings and celebrates the audience in the theater – an especially emotional moment for Strong as she speaks to an audience during the Omicron surge.

"That's more proof that that's how important connection is to human beings and we haven't gotten to have it," she said. "Then it even goes one step further to say, 'And we're having it right now in this room together.' It's so wonderful and beautiful to be a part of that. I don't know how I would have gotten through this time without it. I feel so lucky to share it.

"I got a text from a friend who saw the show and he said, 'You get to the end of the show and it's that moment of, Oh, this is why there's theater.' Because this feeling, this magic, doesn't happen anywhere else in the world."