“Religious art” is a term that calls to mind everything from elaborate temples and grand cathedrals with frescoed ceilings to humble household shrines. But for Chris Wells and his cohort of devotees, the art has become its own religion.
“What would a spiritual ritual made by artists look like?” Wells asked himself. In 2007, he decided to find out, and called together the first Secret City gathering in a small room on West 14th Street in New York City. It consisted of just four artists: Wells – himself an actor, writer and singer – his partner, Bobby Lucy, and two of their close friends.
Wells had noticed that, even in such a thriving artistic center, the artistic community was “fractured.” “I had been in theater all of my life, and the more I was involved in the theater, the more I felt that all of these other artforms I was interested in weren’t really talking to each other.”
Today, many of the Secret City’s returning crowd refer to it as “art church.” Though he was raised without religion, Wells has always been “fascinated with what religion is trying to serve.” According to Wells, “Community is created through shared ritual,” and so he set out to create a ritual that is inclusive and “non-dogmatic.”
The project grew quickly through word-of-mouth and previous participants inviting others to join in. The Secret City’s biggest breaks came in 2010, when it won an Obie Award and was covered in The New York Times’s Theater Section in an article titled “Sort of a Salon, Sort of a Church.” Wells describes the publicity as a “legitimizing stamp” that drew bigger crowds of artists and spectators.
Following the recognition, the Secret City moved beyond its humble beginnings into a larger New York City venue and, in 2012, to Los Angeles. The ongoing performance gathering now occurs quarterly in Los Angeles, about eight times a year in New York City and annually in Woodstock, where Wells and Bobby Lucy – both awarded residencies at Byrdcliffe – now live.
Woodstock, with a population hovering around 6,000 residents, is a significant departure from the metropolises where the Secret City usually convenes. “I think in general, the arts are sort of isolated,” muses Wells. “I think that’s sort of the nature of our lives.” It’s not hard to imagine that finding a cohesive, collaborative, multimedia arts community might be a challenge in a city with millions of residents, but how does the Secret City carve its niche in Woodstock, a reasonably small town with an active arts community? “Woodstock is an extraordinary place,” says Wells, “so it’s not as if it’s lacking in those connections; but the Secret City takes that idea and concentrates it in this event that tries to touch on all the senses.”
Wells adds that the Secret City reaches beyond Woodstock to find its talent. “We’re trying to curate very broadly. It’s definitely not strictly a rock ‘n’ roll feel,” he says, referring to the lingering influence of the ’60s that is ever-present in Woodstock.
Now in its third year upstate, the so-called “service” has already outgrown its original location at the Byrdcliffe Theater. After packing the venue to capacity twice, the Secret City will be holding this year’s service at the larger Bearsville Theater on July 31.
As with all other Secret City events, the service in Woodstock will have a theme. Wells has gathered an array of artists – some of them local – for the “Play”-themed performance. He says that the process for finding participants is “very unscientific.” Through personal contact, conversations and “following leads,” Wells curates shows featuring artists of all kinds. “You cultivate your intuition about what feels right.” In the case of the upcoming performance, that meant asking himself, “What are artforms that really speak to the idea of ‘play’?”
The artists he decided on include genre-hopping musician Eric Redd and visual artist Jacinta Bunnell, who designs subversive coloring books and often incorporates games in her other works. Lest anyone think that the Secret City is comprised only of acts falling under the usual umbrella of art, the service will include appearances by vegan chocolatier Lagusta Yearwood Umami of Lagusta’s Luscious in New Paltz and Hyde Park’s roller-derby team, the Hudson Valley Horrors.
Wells, a Los Angeles native, was inspired by a lyric about roller skating in the song “Good Times” by the 1970s disco group Chic. He says that the sport brings to mind summer fun. “I’m always trying to get movement in the services,” Wells says, calling to mind the tent-revival inspirations for the Secret City gatherings. “Roller derby is this sort of exciting, sexy, dirty idea of play,” he adds, illuminating a distinct contrast between the City and those inspirations.
As always, the 20-person choir the Secret City Singers will be present, along with the Secret City Band. Wells promises that the service will be very colorful. “Day-Glo,” he says. “The choir and I will be decked out in neon.” Wells says that audiences can also expect a reading of one of his stories, but stops short of divulging too many details. “I don’t want to give it all away.”
In the spirit of inclusiveness, the Secret City is a ticket-free event, with only a suggested donation entrance fee. It also provides free childcare, with art lessons for kids. “We don’t censor the artists,” Wells cautions, but says that “We want people to feel like they can bring their kids.” There is also a coffee hour following the service, to which attendees often bring food to share.
The Secret City is often (fondly) described as “irreverent,” but Wells states that, while he’s not religious, he’s not “anti-religious” either. Rather, he is captivated by religion’s ability to motivate people to convene, worship and form a community. “What is it that makes religion so durable?” Wells wonders – though perhaps he is discovering it for himself.
The Secret City, Sunday, July 31, 12 noon, $15 suggested, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; www.thesecretcity.org.