lt;P> Fifteen years ago, Lily Tomlin inaugurated the one-person show into Broadway's mainstream with her run of "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." As a clairvoyant bag-lady named Trudy, Tomlin morphed into a collage of 13 characters, mostly women, who challenged the decade that defined excess and introduced the power suit.
On Nov. 17, Tomlin returns to Broadway with another run of "Search," opening at the Booth Theatre. Since 1985, one-person shows have become so commonplace that it's easy to forget just how new the concept was and how many performers today owe their careers to her.
Tomlin took a leap of faith in the mid-1970s when she left "Laugh-In" and retired Edith Ann's oversized rocking chair. Instead of developing a sitcom series and auctioning her talents to the highest bidder, Tomlin chose the precarious route of solo performance. She recruited her friend, writer and director Jane Wagner, and together they embarked on what would become a lifelong pursuit.
In 1977, the theater world didn't know exactly how to handle Tomlin. There she stood, on Broadway, with a cast of amiable characters and a delicious ear for dialect in "Appearing Nitely," a one-woman show scripted by Wagner. Though critics couldn't neatly categorize it (was it a play or a panorama?), they loved it. NEWSWEEK's Jack Kroll called Tomlin "a culture heroine, something very rare for a woman in this society." She received a special Tony award for her performance, Broadway's stubborn way of saying, "whatever this is, we want more."
Eric Bogosian, one of the genre's most celebrated performers, can't say enough about Tomlin. "For me, Lily pretty much invented this particular type of solo piece," he says. "In that first show ["Appearing Nitely"], she jumped from character to character. It wasn't impersonations or impressions. It wasn't song-and-dance or a comedy routine. It was a set of characters that came together in a play. It was new."
By the time "Search" hit New York, Bogosian had just pulled-off his first one-man play, "FunHouse." As a relative rookie, Bogosian says he saw Tomlin's Tony-winning performance as a beacon for his career, which now spans 100 monologues, including "Talk Radio," "Drinking in America" and "Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead."
"It was like shooting off a starter's gun," he says of "Search." "Lily implies a moral and a value system, so that each piece is a parable. The play attempts to give you a portrait of the world, not just her world."
Bogosian's wife, the director Jo Bonney, agrees. Having directed her husband and other solo performers, like Danny Hoch, she's become a craftswoman of the medium. Bonney spent two years documenting solo performances for her book, "Extreme Exposure: An Anthology of Solo-Performance Texts." Published last March, the book travels as far back as Beatrice Herford, a vaudeville performer from the late 19th century, and makes chronological stops along the way to highlight key players including Ruth Draper, Lenny Bruce, Anna Deavere Smith and John Leguizamo. The seventh stop: Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner.
"It's this wonderful two-headed creature," Bonney says of the Tomlin-Wagner dynamic. "They both seem to have this capacity to look around and see society with all of its warts and pimples and have great compassion for it. And then let us have compassion for it."
Bonney says there's a domino effect of influence in this genre, given the alternative nature of the work and the specificity of the form. "Each artist looks back to people who inspired them," she says. For Tomlin, it's Ruth Draper, whose mid-20th-century monologues of working-class women transcend time. For Bogosian, it's Tomlin. For acclaimed poet and troubador performer Dael Orlandersmith, it's Bogosian.
"Bogosian was the one who really did it for me," says Orlandersmith, though she credits Tomlin as the mother of the form. Like her predecessors, Orlandersmith doesn't rely on costume changes but, rather, a voice inflection or a gesture to jump between her characters.
Orlandersmith, whose performance "The Gimmick" was produced last year at the New York Theatre Workshop, also refers to her shows as one-woman plays, a third-cousin once removed from staged autobiographies that fill New York's alternative venues.
"A lot of people are misusing the genre," she says. "I hear people saying, 'Oh, I'm gonna tell my life story.' What they forget is that Ruth Draper was an actor. Lily Tomlin is an actress. Eric Bogosian is an actor."
Kate Rigg is also an actress, one who just finished performing "Kate's Chink-O-Rama," an exploration of Asian stereotypes, at New York's Joe's Pub--part of the Public Theater. Rigg, 27, remembers seeing "Search" as a high-school freshman at Toronto's Royal Alexander Theatre. She describes the experience as "intensely personal" and recalls the dream she had two weeks after seeing the show.
"I was in a cave with all of these movie extras," she recalls. "There were all these maps, drawn in chalk outlines, on the walls. People were afraid to touch the walls. I looked over and Lily was there. She handed me a packet of pastel chalk and said, 'Color in the lines. All you have to do is just color in the outlines.'"
"And then Lily smiled and she floated away," Rigg says. "It stayed with me forever."