It's the first preview night of Lily Tomlin's famed one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Unverse, and there's a unique feel to the crowd at the Ahmanson Theatre. While there are the expected patrons—people who have read the numerous raves of the show and are about to check it out for the first time—there also seems to be a groundswell of fans already familiar with the program. Very familiar. Kimberly, a teacher from Santa Monica, is excited to see the show for what will be her fifth time. That's nothing compared to her friend Michelle, who has attended 15 performances. Michelle first caught The Search in its 1985 incarnation on Broadway, which snagged a Best Actress Tony for Tomlin and Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics awards for its writer/director, Jane Wagner. Since then, Michelle has caught revivals of the show over the years, everywhere from Seattle to San Francisco.
Perhaps most intriguing is that people like Michelle aren't all that unusual; talk to the crowd and you'll start to get the feeling that The Search has become a bit like the Grateful Dead of the theatre world. Said Tomlin, "There are fans who have seen the show more times than Jane has."
What is it about Tomlin and Wagner's creation that bears so many repeat viewings? On the surface the idea is simple. A bag lady named Trudy serves as the guide to visiting aliens intrigued by the human experience. Along with the insightful Trudy, Tomlin portrays an assortment of vivid and vulnerable characters making acute observations on human life as they tell bittersweet tales of triumph and disappointment. Among the 12 characters Tomlin slides into with merely a flash of lighting or a change in her posture are Agnus Angst, who is a blend of troubled teen and punk performance artist, and Tina and Brandy, who are saucy hookers. Then there's Tomlin's simultaneous rendering of Edie, Marge, and Lyn, three old friends whose entire adult lives are played out in a matter of minutes. Keeping the show so fresh and original is the blend of Tomlin's high-octane performance and Wagner's insightful and touching, but never maudlin, script.
Tomlin and Wagner have been professional and personal partners for more than 30 years, but if you ask them how their collaboration works, they're at a rare loss for words. "We don't know," Wagner said, shrugging. "She acts and I write." This elicited a minor jab from Tomlin: "When she writes. She doesn't write enough. She's a wonderful writer, and when she does, it's just magical."
Back Stage West: So do you want Jane to write more?
Lily Tomlin: Always. She'll fill notebooks and doesn't refer to them. So then I save the notebooks and look through them and find these gems.
Jane Wagner: I have a problem where things don't seem good enough at the time, and when I read them I'm just appalled. So Lily's wonderful in the sense that she reads them and can tell me what's good. Because I wouldn't necessarily think it's worth talking about.
Lily: Jane is very imaginative and also very smart and just knows a lot of stuff. So her take on things is so unexpected. You don't know where she's going to come from. When she starts something, I can intuit. I can feel where it's going. I could never tell you where it's going, but I can feel it. Like when she was writing The Search I was out on the road, and I got a bunch of material in the mail, about 60 pages single-spaced; it was Agnus' performance piece. I was performing at the Old Globe in San Diego, and I rigged up some effects and tried to do the monologue.
Jane: We didn't keep one thing for the actual show.
Lily: There was a kid who was there the night I did it at the Old Globe, and for about 10 years he wrote me and said, "You ruined Agnus when you cut her."
BSW: How did this collaboration begin?
Jane: Lily and I had similar sensibilities that we somehow developed on our own.
Lily: I was doing my Edith Ann album in '71, and I'd seen the first teleplay Jane had ever written, called J.T. It was a drama written for children's programming but was so critically received she won a Peabody. I saw it a couple of years after it had debuted. It was about a kid in Harlem and a stray cat, and it was so wonderful, so edgy, and so tender and so many things, and the dialogue was so compressed and observant. And I wrote her because I wanted Edith to be more. It was so telling about the kid and so illuminating and tender, I wanted to get that for Edith. So that was the first time we worked together.
Jane: She was on Laugh-In at the time. And it was funny to me because nothing I did was in any way like something you would think would go on Laugh-In.
BSW: Were you shocked to get this letter from Lily Tomlin?
Jane: Yes. I had never written comedy before.
Lily: But she's a deeply human writer.
Jane: And I've been considered witty at parties. But I didn't answer her for a long time.
Lily: I didn't get an answer for months. Then it got down to the wire, I had to deliver this album. So I was hanging out at the Ice House in Pasadena, and at the last minute she sent me a bunch of material, and I persuaded her to come out here and help me produce it. I just went to the Ice House and put a truck in the alley and started recording.
Jane: Winning the Peabody opened a lot of doors for me, so I would have gone forward with writing. But I probably wouldn't have tried comedy if not for that letter.
BSW: The Search differs from the other one-person shows that the Ahmanson has been presenting [Elaine Stritch and John Leguizamo] in that it's not overtly autobiographical. Was that a conscious choice while you were writing it?
Jane: Their shows are very self-referential. I thought of doing that, doing something biographical. I don't know why we went in this direction for Search. I certainly have enjoyed those other shows. John Leguizamo has been very nice, he said he was very influenced by Lily. Maybe I shouldn't be the one to say that, but he's been very magnanimous about that. [To Tomlin] OK, I'm embarrassing you.
Lily: No, I just don't want to take other people's words. But he's been very kind. He thanked and acknowledged me and [Richard] Pryor as being influences. I wouldn't mind doing a biographical show. I thought about doing a one-person show in which I did Jane.
Jane: I won't give her the rights.
Lily: Instead of Mark Twain Tonight, it will be Jane Wagner Tonight.
BSW: The format of the show was unusual for its time. What was the early response like?
Jane: One thing I remember early on: Everyone came to us about a monologue and told us that it couldn't be this long. Somebody came back and said they had a migraine it was so long. Lily's the kind of person who will get mad at that person with a migraine, whereas I'm the kind of person who wants to run out and get them [an aspirin].
Lily: Because you can't interrupt process. I've seen too many people who have originality, and I wouldn't dare push them off their track, because you don't know where that's taking them. They could be going to such an incredible place. And you can't deter me, because I believe in the material. Just because I can't make a monologue work, it's not because of the material; it's because I'm not doing it justice.
Jane: But I easily get squelched. Not like Lily. She used to do some of the material, and if she was at the Fairmont Hotel and got no laughter, nothing, I would tell her to go back and do Ernestine or Edith Ann or something. Just make them respond. But she would make it their fault they're not laughing. She'd be playing to a group of businessmen who wanted something else, they would not laugh, and she would go on and not care if they laughed or not.
Lily: I did care. But I believed in the material, and I knew next time they would understand or I would find the key and make it right. Just because they didn't like me doing it didn't mean I should abandon it. I had to see it through.
Jane: I wanted you to start doing Henny Youngman jokes—anything for a response. I think what scares me, and why I don't write more, because I always have ideas—but very often my mind races to the reviews, that you're creating something that becomes a product, and you worry you'll lose control of it. That's why The Search is so good, because we did what we wanted to do, and we didn't have anybody saying you have to change this or reorder things. And I've never had that since. It's very unusual. Of course the writer in the theatre is much more able to be true to their vision. But I'm affected by critics. I don't read my own press. I think critics can be very devastating, and it's hard to be so arrogant and so above it. Lily's more of a trouper.
Lily: A critic like John Simon does nothing but go after people's appearance. When I did Nashville, John Simon said I was "horse-faced." And that really ticked me off.
Jane: Being ticked off is different from being devastated. There are bad reviews that can be perceptive.
Lily: I'm softening the blow. Of course I was horrified at the time, and I was much younger, and you never want to be attacked on your appearance. It doesn't seem quite fair. Awhile back, I e-mailed a critic. It's a long story. At the time, when I read the review, it was so shallow and so seemingly empty to me, and I didn't know who this person was, and just by coincidence I went to an event shortly afterwards and she was there. And I was introduced to her by name—and this will sound bad on my part because I didn't mean it the way I said it—but when she said what her name was, I said, "Oh, my God, I had no idea you were so old." Because I thought she was a kid. She sounded so young and stupid. But when I said it I sounded worse than she did, I sounded horrible. I wrote her later and apologized.
Jane: I think most people should be confronted. There are so many times where I feel that I've seen something that is so good and somebody else didn't get it the way I did. If I got it, why couldn't they? I think criticism can help if it's perceptive.
Lily: Usually I start out diplomatically. I say, "Why did you feel this way?" and "I'd like to hear something more substantive from you, and maybe you can come back to the show and we can talk about it." They're not very responsive.
BSW: I suspect a lot of critics think artists don't care what their reviews say.
Lily: I don't think that's true. If they don't care, they don't have any artistry. Maybe someone who writes that or is really scathing and brutal, maybe they rationalize it that way. They think, What do they care? They don't even pay any attention, they're famous and this and that. Someone suggested that if I saw John Simon at a restaurant, I should go by his table and whinny.
BSW: What is it like inside the theatre when you're staging the show? Is there specific direction given, or do you two communicate with more of a shorthand?
Lily: Sometimes we get down to things like staging, but we usually talk about it from an emotional point. I'll never forget that time we got into that big fight in the theatre, because she sits way in the back and doesn't want to walk down to the stage. So she calls out stuff to me, and sometimes I can't hear her and I say, "I can't hear what you're saying. You need a handmaiden who runs down with a note."
Jane: We have respect for each other. We can argue and still respect each other. Our styles are different in that I don't have the confidence that Lily has. She's quick to commit to something, where I'm always questioning. That's not the way to be the most prolific, to always be deconstructing while you're writing. There's a time to be the censor and a time to be the writer, and if you do it parallel it's not too effective.
Lily: Even if I may disagree heartily about something, I believe Jane might know better than I do. Especially if it's about making something deeply dramatic and impactful work.
BSW: What do you think would surprise people to know about you?
Jane: I think people intuit pretty much a lot of truth about her: that she's very strong, that she's convicted. That she will work on something and work on something. She's fierce. I admire her on a day-to-day basis.
Lily: But she has more common sense than I do. The depth of her sensitivity, I don't know how people couldn't know it from her writing. And her interest in so many different things. Once she played the piano for three months without hardly stopping. She only stopped to sleep. She can slice onions very thin and can teach any animal how to do something. She taught our goat to shake hands.
Jane: That's one of the things I'm most proud of. I taught that goat so many things.
BSW: So the obvious question is, how do you keep your personal and professional worlds working?
Lily: I let her have her way. BSW