Amen to art

Founder and host Chris Wells performs The Secret City Theme Song with The Secret City Singers. (Kim Zsebe)

The Secret City Woodstock will hold its fourth annual art gathering on Sunday, July 30 at noon at the Bearsville Theater. And this summer, the usual one-day program will be expanded with a weekendlong festival leading up to it: the inaugural Art Revival that kicks off Friday evening, July 28 with a lineup of performance and installation and runs through Saturday, concluding with a community potluck that evening, followed by a walk through town.

Chris Wells, artistic director of the Secret City, has probably spent a lot of time over the past decade explaining to people what, exactly, a Secret City gathering is. The event has been called a tent-revival meeting for artists, a salon and even a “church of art,” because the basic format of the Sunday gatherings uses the elements of a religious ceremony (a sermon, an offering, a choir), adapted to secular purposes.


But calling something a “church” makes a lot of people nervous, and Wells says that, while he himself doesn’t have any particular “church baggage,” his goal in creating the Secret City was “to create something inclusive that all people would derive a sense of joy and connection from. I tend to tell people that it’s a community celebration of the arts, with a live band, a community choir, a lineup of performers and artists, crazy outfits – and everybody has a really great time!”

Wells was involved in various theatrical endeavors in Los Angeles before he moved to New York City in 2007, where he met his partner, visual artist Robert Lucy. The two co-founded the Secret City that year, with the first event held in the small Theatre Lab on West 14th Street, with just four people showing up. Wells and Lucy left the City for Woodstock in 2013 when both were awarded residencies at the Byrdcliffe Art Colony.

In the ten years since it began, the Secret City has become a monthly event in Los Angeles and New York City and an annual event in Woodstock. The town has been the ideal environment for the Secret City, Wells says, because of its artistic heritage, its natural surroundings and the creative community of people in the town.

“The first year at Byrdcliffe was packed, so we knew there was a lot of interest in this here. In adding the festival, we’re exploring the idea of expanding the program for locals and for people who come from out of town, to draw attention to the unique cultural history of Woodstock. The idea is: If people come to town, they will encounter all this different type of performance art and dance and music, followed by the potluck with all the artists, and then the big event on Sunday.”

Friday, July 28 at 7 p.m. is the kickoff, with a pop-up gallery and show at the Bank of America on Route 28 and a satellite performance in New Paltz at the Rail Trail Café at 8 p.m. Saturday’s program will run throughout the town, with a range of eclectic performances that include a “string dance,” a cellist, a “listening tour,” an interactive dance and an experimental video. The community potluck takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Pavilion at Andy Lee Field on Rock City Road, followed by a collective promenade at 8 p.m. from the park to the Station Bar and Nancy’s Ice Cream.

Sunday, July 30 will be the main event: the Secret City gathering at noon, featuring the vocal group Prana, artist Martyn Thompson, the Energy Dance Company, music by Sxip Shirey, a food offering by Organic Nectars Cashewtopia, the Secret City Band, the Secret City Singers and host Chris Wells. Every year the show has a different theme; this year’s is “harmony.” Free childcare and art lessons for the kids will be available. A potluck coffee hour will end the day.

“Part of the excitement is that it’s a different show every time you come,” says Wells. “Every show has different featured performers, and you never know what you’re going to get. But it’s always a cool, interesting lineup of people who are making and doing unlikely and interesting things.”

The Secret City is open to all. Admission on Sunday is by suggested donation of $20, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. Programs for the Secret City Woodstock Art Revival will be available at the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce booth at 10 Rock City Road and online at

– Sharyn Flanagan

Secret City Woodstock Art Revival, Friday-Sunday, July 28-30, installation/performances Friday, July 28, 7 p.m., Saturday, July 29, all day, potluck, Saturday, 6:30 p.m., official Secret City gathering, Sunday, July 30, noon, $20 suggested, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406,