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Interview: Cecily Strong is Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life

Strong is leading a search party to find ourselves in Jane Wagner’s famed one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe."

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Now at The Shed, TV favorite Cecily Strong (Saturday Night Live, Schmigadoon!) is leading a search party . . . to find ourselves. Taking on Jane Wagner's famed one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Strong is stepping into big shoes in her New York theater debut with a piece most closely associated with the legendary Lily Tomlin, who serves as executive producer. But Strong, an SNL great, is up for the challenge and, based on her comedic talent, there's a good chance The Search . . . will shine as a highlight of the theater season.

The Search . . ., directed by Leigh Silverman (Lifespan of a Fact, Violet), explores American society, art, power, and the feminist movement through a series of characters. It was produced on Broadway in 1985 and earned Tomlin a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. It was later turned into a film. Wagner has updated the play for this production.

Strong is one of the funniest performers today and, with The Search . . ., she has almost a dozen characters to masterfully bring to life.

"It's eleven characters, and our main character is Trudy, who has been sort of squatting at The Shed," Strong said in a recent interview. "She's working with her space chums-these aliens who are searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe-and she's helping them collect data about life on Earth. So they're time traveling, and she's also channeling different people's lives, which is how we meet these other characters."

The eleven characters are searching for meaning and happiness. "It's a sort of an exploration of humanity," said Strong.

"[The play has] always been a bit timeless," Strong added, "because humanity, hopefully, is timeless," The play premiered decades ago, but Strong points to its feminist arc as an example. "We follow Lynn who is fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment," she said. "We're doing it right now at a time when, today, we're talking about abortion rights and the Supreme Court; it's uncomfortably timely, in fact."

Overall, Strong says the play is "about finding joy and meaning in our own lives and then, maybe, understanding that there is no meaning. And especially after going through these past couple years where we've lost so much connection, which is sort of a big part of the show too," she added. "It talks about an audience of a play. That's what blows the aliens away-the fact that people will come together, strangers, and watch something and cry together and laugh together. And that's an experience that we haven't gotten to have for a couple years."

On working with the fantastic director Leigh Silverman, Strong said, "I can't say enough great things about Leigh. I just think she's so brilliant. To sit with her and talk about [the show] for five minutes, you're like, 'Yes, I'm in. I want to do that. I want to be in that world.' And so I'm excited that I get to make these discoveries with her, and I feel very honored. She's totally brilliant and supportive and really knows this show."

Comparing the show to creating characters on SNL, Strong joked, "It's walking and chewing gum at the same time," although there are some similarities. She said SNL sketches are brief, and the cast can rely on cue cards while the play is scripted, and Strong has more time to bring characters to life on stage. "I think just being comfortable," she said, "inhabiting characters and having to go there really fast is always good training for doing something like this where I'm jumping in and out of different characters, sometimes in the same scene."

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by James Alsop. It is playing now at The Shed's Griffin Theater, 545 West 30th Street, and is scheduled to run through February 6, 2022. Visit theshed.org for tickets.



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