March 2001--It's not every day that a Broadway production features more sound designers than cast members, but that's the case with The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, now playing at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre. Okay, we're talking about a one-woman show, with two sound designers--hardly a case of the microphones taking over. Still, The Search for Signs has what is possibly the most complex sound design for a non-musical ever, so it's not surprising that it took two men--Tom Clark and Mark Bennett--to do the job.

For those of you who have been residing in other parts of the universe for the last 15 years, The Search for Signs is Lily Tomlin's fabulously successful show--written by her partner Jane Wagner--about, among other things, space aliens, the homeless, aerobic exercise, performance art, prostitution, supercilious hairdressers, the meaning of art, and the death of 60s idealism. Over the course of two hours, Tomlin brings to life an incredible gallery of characters--all of whom, we discover, are related by hidden links. Once hailed as the last word on 1980s manners and morals, The Search won over critics and audiences and again this season with its off-center hilarity and warm humanity.

And, even for the uninitiated, The Search for Signs has an astonishing sound design, one that makes up a fundamental part of Tomlin's performance. Every time the actress switches characters, there is a blast of static that is suggestive of a radio changing channels. Scene after scene features underscoring which is tightly linked to certain moments in the script. And virtually every sequence features built-in effects timed to actions performed by Tomlin. A shopping cart squeaks as it rolls along. A punk performance artist's getup features a battery of noisy zippers. A locker-room monologue is punctuated by the sound of hairspray and other ozone-destroying products.

Still, how did the two designers split up the job? Bennett says, "The system design is very much Tom's; he's a master at reinforcement. Also, he handled the miking work with Lily, which was very important. Lily has the most sensitive ears of any performer I've ever worked with." As for himself, Bennett says, "Lily and Jane wanted to expand the content of the sound design, so I created a huge palette of cues. They used it in Seattle [where the show tried out at the Seattle Rep], where it became clear what worked and what didn't. I rejoined them in Princeton [at the McCarter Theatre] and we added things and took things away."

Of course, Bennett says, the show's sonic concept "was revolutionary in 1985. That's the brainchild of Lily and Jane. The first sound design went uncredited--and a number of designers have stepped in over the years. I'm really the latest addition." Clark, who started working with Tomlin and Wagner in 1992 and has kept in touch with them ever since, agrees with Bennett. "Nearly everyone over 35 in the sound design business has worked with Lily," he laughs, adding "about 40% of the design is new or significantly altered from the original Broadway production, including spot effects and music." In fact, Clark points out, The Search of Signs is a constantly evolving work. "Lily's working style is such that, every day, in rehearsal, virtually anything can change. She keeps the show in motion, and is perfectly willing to move things around, to change or delete scenes. Part of the challenge is keeping up with the speed at which she thinks." Bennett adds, "It's rare to come into a project where your performer is so well informed, and the director as well."

In fact, Bennett worried about improving some cues too much. For example, there's the performance piece by teen-aged artist Agnus Angst, in which she lashes out at the world, accompanied by the theme music from Days of Our Lives. "The conceit is that Agnus has made these tapes off her TV," the designer says. "Will the audience get it or will it sound like a bad recording? The design is such a hybrid. The kitchen sounds are from Lily's house; some of the radio sounds were made by her, flipping the dials on her stereo."

Nevertheless, both Bennett and Clark helped to update the project technologically. "I was brought in to three-dimensionalize the cues," says Bennett, adding, "they originally had a stereo setup. This time, we did a whole surround system, a swirl of sounds that moves with Lily as she changes characters. I used [Digidesign] ProTools and an eight-channel setup to build the cues." Clark notes that, in the show's early years, "They ran the show on NAB cassette cartridges, with a series of cues sequenced on them. If the system got out of sync, they were in deep, deep trouble." Since then, he adds, upgrades have been applied: "When the show went out on tour the first time, they used Richmond Sound Design's Command Cue system, which was the first automated playback system built specifically for the theatre, and allowed you to deal with location and level and time fades. Getting that show teched was a monumental task. With the advances in computer systems, it's gotten easier--but there's still a lot of rehearsal involved."

For this production, Clark says, the playback is performed by SFX, from Stage Research. "It's a remarkable program, particularly given the fact that it runs in the Windows environment. It draws the audio off the computer's hard drive, and the program deals with signal routing, levels, fades, auto follows, timing, and triggering. In this show, we have two computer systems running SFX--one for what you hear from onstage, and one for the auditorium. The software throws MIDI commands that change the status of the Yamaha O2R mixing console, which is the main signal routing vehicle for the sound system. It's capable of running seven or eight stereo files simultaneously, which is amazing. Also, using SFX, approximately 10-15 cues are triggered with the lighting console, to keep the sound and lighting effects synched together." He also cites SAWPro from Innovative Quality Software, "the editing software to prepare the sound files that SFX played back."

In spite of all this technology, however, many, many cues are performed, breathtakingly, in concert with Tomlin's actions, by Chris Cronin, the sound operator. "He's extraordinarily sensitive," says Bennett. "He breathes with Lily." Bennett cites the sequence in which Agnus undoes all the zippers on her leather outfit. "Chris starts with Lily, then follows her timing. There are other cues--the click of the mascara wand, the closing of locker doors--that he's learned to time perfectly with her." Clark adds, "Chris is working almost as hard as Lily is. There are 500 individual events that he has to trigger, half of which are visual cues that are timed in milliseconds. If you get out of sequence, it's all over."

Bennett adds that there are other challenges, having to do with the show's underscore. "Lily will lock herself into a lengthy pieces of music--two to three minutes--where she has time it just right." For example, there's the second act's tour-de-force sequence, which follows a young feminist into love, marriage, career, and, ultimately, divorce and disillusionment as the 60s' fades into the 70s. The scene ends on a bittersweet note, with Tomlin turning away from the audience as the music of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," sung by Diana Ross, reaches a climax. "That sequence is timed within an inch of its life," says Bennett. "Lily has X amount of time before the cadence comes up and she has to turn upstage. She rides the groove of it--she takes the material and works with it."

Clark adds that the show's sound system consists primarily of Meyer Self-Powered units, including UPA-1Ps, with 650Ps for subwoofers, and EAW JF50 and JF60s for the surround system in the auditorium. For fill, Clark used the E3 loudspeaker, from the German company d&b audiotechnik. "They've recently started selling it in this country," he says. "The E3 is what I'm using on all my musicals this year, for front fills and underbalcony positions." Tomlin uses a DPA 4061 mic with a Sennheiser SK50 transmitter.

There's one other piece of technical hardware--a kind of production database, if you will: Janet Beroza, the show's PSM and co-producer. "She has been the brain trust for the show's sound going back to the first Broadway production," says Clark. "Keeping track of the files is a monstrous job; because of her we can handle all this data, and know which pieces of music work, and which ones throw Lily off." The Search for Signs may be a one-woman show but, as Clark and Bennett make clear, it is clearly a team effort.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe has extended its limited run twice and is now scheduled to run indefinitely.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg.