Taking on the iconic role written for Lily Tomlin, Cecily Strong (Theater BFA 06) performs in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Sunday, Oct. 23. Known for her role as a cast member of Saturday Night Live since 2012, Strong returns to the stage for this 90-minute one-woman show, written by Jane Wagner and directed by Leigh Silverman, the show by runs
Through costuming and intricate sound-based mime work, Strong journeys through the stories of various people, from punk-rock rebels to sperm donors to wealthy Californian socialites to feminist reactionaries. Connected in more ways than one, her characters find the common threads of humanity, art, and hope while trying to explain these concepts to aliens.
Originally scheduled to open in New York in November 2021, a hiatus occurred when crew members started getting sick. Yet, the show went on. Audience turnout inspired Strong to keep going and performing despite the difficulty of the Omicron peak. As Wagner writes at the end of the show, for this play and any other, the audience was the art—a group of people who may not even know each other all gathered to share an experience together.
During her talkback after the Oct. 11 CalArts night performance, Strong described her process of this huge undertaking. She rehearsed for almost eight hours every day in preparation for the show.
“Memorizing the whole puzzle of the show was the biggest part,” Strong said. “It felt terrifying … it felt that big. The most frustrating part was the spatial organization of the different characters.”
In order to finesse the precision of each sound and action, Strong worked with director Silverman and sound designer Jeff Gardner using actual props first. The team even worked with a magician to perfect the timing of cues.
Despite the enormity of the project, she said that for her, it was a project she had to do not only because of the iconic nature of the piece but also because of her trust in director Silverman, who she “would follow to the ends of the universe.” Strong worked with Silverman to do rewrites of the play to increase relevance with current audiences, still maintaining the integrity of the piece and its historic resonance and relevance.
Strong avoided watching Tomlin’s recorded version of the show to avoid feeling like she was doing an impression of her performance.
“I can only be Cecily doing it, and I think that’s the best way to honor it,” she said.
During the talkback, Strong spoke about the difficult subject matter discussed in the play, saying she had to find ideas in the play that she believed in and that gave her hope. She advised students from her alma mater to trust what they find they are best at, reminding the artists to never “let anyone else write [their] narrative.”
Running for one more week, tickets are available to the CalArts community for $15 using the promo code SEARCHCALARTS for all performances except Saturdays.
—by Ishika Muchhal