Though similar ideas had emerged before it, the small-world concept was put to its most memorable test in 1967. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram tried to explore how long it would take to connect a few disparate strangers through only the people who mutually knew each other. The results of those tests have given us (and Kevin Bacon) the enduring concept of six degrees of separation, and a sense that the world has, in a way, been shrinking—as communication and travel have advanced, we’ve been able to forge connections between increasingly distant places.
The study’s seen its share of criticism too, but much of it seems hard to deny when Facebook will readily put out how many mutual friends you share with people you’ve never met. And it’s those sorts of greater, unseen connections that run through The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Jane Wagner’s 1977 script won her partner, Lily Tomlin, a Tony Award for playing its 13 characters, from a pre-teen runaway to a rich-but-bored woman to a “bag lady” on the street, as it weaves not only through those characters’ intermingling lives, but the deepest reaches of the cosmos—a feat that Stephanie Wolfe, a formidable actress and improviser in her own right, is amping up for in rehearsal.
“It’s about how interconnected everything is,” Wolfe beams, sitting in the Varscona Theatre lobby. “That old thing about how if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, a rainstorm happens here. It’s about how we are connected not only as human beings, but how we’re connected, literally at a particle level, to the universe.
“I love when there’s a six degrees of separation between things,” she continues. “I love all that stuff.”
Wolfe’s had the script on her shelf for years. She’d seen a touring version come through the long-defunct Phoenix Theatre years ago, but the rights to produce the show don’t come around often. It had come up as a pipe-dream project with Wolfe and director Dave Horak before, and Horak managed to acquire the rights in time for what was intended to be a run at last summer’s Fringe Festival.
They were deep in rehearsal last summer when, as quickly and inexplicably as they’d arrived, the performance rights were revoked. Little reason was offered, though there might have been a link to the run’s status as a Fringe production rather than a main-stage one.
“They’re very protective of it,” Wolfe speculates. “I don’t know. I guess other people have had that problem [acquiring the rights], too.
“When you read it, when you see it, there’s a great deal of love put into that script. It’s their masterpiece. They do hold it close.”
Undeterred, Wolfe and Horak bowed out of the Fringe but kept exploring options.
“We were like, ‘OK, well, let’s just keep our chins up,'” she says. “It’s not like we lost cast members and whatnot. … When Teatro [La Quindicina] heard that that’s what happened, they opened their beautiful, big, loving arms and said, ‘Put it in our season.'”
That seemed to satisfy the powers that be: now, one summer later than intended, Wolfe’s run at
The Search … arrives with main-stage production power behind it. The delay’s actually proved beneficial to the subject matter, she notes: since last summer, some the script’s references have grown much more pertinent.
“How relevant it is is astonishing,” Wolfe says. “Donald Trump is mentioned in it more than once. There’s an actual line saying, ‘We had the biggest fight ever, because he didn’t think a woman could make a good president’—that’s in the forefront right now. There’s stuff in this text that is like, jeez—a year ago, this would’ve been an, ‘Oh, that’s a historical [line], harkening back to the feminism of the ’70s.’ Nope: it’s kind of front and centre.”
Which is where the script places Wolfe, too: though she’s been a venerable face on Edmonton stages for years, this is her first-ever solo show.
“I found out how to, just practically, conserve my voice,” she says, of the process. “Actually, how to use it without losing it.”
The secret, in that regard?
“All the stuff I learned in theatre school—Oh, they were right!” she laughs. “There’s always a better way to do something than screaming it.”
Learning how to react to herself has also come up—though Wolfe’s the only actor, The Search … isn’t just a sequence of monologues: there are multi-character scenes that see her playing out all sides of a conversation.
“It’s been really fun; sometimes you crack yourself up as one of the other characters. Like, ‘Oh, that’s funny—she did good.’ Or the opposite—’Oh my God, she can’t act. Can’t stand working with her,'” Wolfe grins. “But then we hug it out and we’re good again.”
Thu, Jun 23 – Sat, Jul 2 (7:30 pm; 2 pm Saturday matinees)
Directed by Dave Horak
Varscona Theatre, $20 – $34