Bates College senior to perform Tomlin's 'Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe'

Saida Cooper, a Bates College senior from St. Albans, Maine, will perform the Jane Wagner-Lily Tomlin play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 1-3, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 4, in Gannett Theater, Pettigrew Hall, 305 College St.

Admission is $6 for the general public and $3 for non-Bates students (free for Bates students and faculty). Please call 207-786-6161 for additional information.

Cooper, a theater major, has adapted and analyzed the one-woman play and is performing it as her honors-thesis project. Director Michael Rafkin, founder of Portland’s Mad Horse Theater, has helped Cooper hone her performance in a Bates residency supported by the Mellon Learning Associates Program in the Humanities.

Wagner, comedian Tomlin’s longtime collaborator, wrote this popular play about a bag lady who tries to explain American society to space aliens — an explanation that carries the sole performer through a wild gallery of characters. The piece debuted in 1985, netted Tomlin a Tony for best actress the next year and appeared on film in 1991.

“I really wanted to do a one-woman show,” says Cooper. “It is a huge challenge to be on stage all by yourself — you don’t have anyone to save you, you don’t have anyone to fall back on if you mess up. I wanted to see if I could rise to that challenge.”

“I also really like doing character work,” she says. It offers “a chance to break out of the everyday, try something new, be someone different — try to imagine what it would be like as this separate person. And I think that is what theater is all about.”

At Bates, Cooper has appeared in a number of productions of both the theater department and the Robinson Players, one of the oldest student theater groups in the country. For the theater department, among other roles, she played Guildenstern in last fall’s Hamlet and Ma in 2002’s The Sea Wall — a role for which she spoke for and manipulated the life-size, bunraku-style puppet representing the lead character.

Cooper calls Michael Rafkin “amazing.” She says, “He is very organic in the way he directs. Most directors will say, ‘We’ll tell you exactly where to go on stage.’ But he encouraged me to develop my own insights into the characters and their motivations, and to try different things with their movements, to just experiment with the set.”

Rafkin comes to Bates through a program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that brings expert practitioners in myriad disciplines to campus to work with students. In addition to founding Mad Horse and directing some 30 of that company’s shows, he has been stage director for the Portland Stage Company, the Portland Players and The Center for the Arts and Social Transformation at the University of New England, of which he was a founding member.

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