In a narrow, high-ceilinged theater space on 14th Street in Chelsea this summer, congregants sat raptly on white folding chairs as a man in a… black suit and skinny tie made his way down the aisle to the front of the room. With his mop-haired colleague wolf-whistling through an effects-filtered microphone, he proceeded in slow motion, as though he were underwater, until he got to the front of the assembly.
There, he gradually folded himself in half, backward — a human special effect engineered live, not digitally. A surprise contortionist isn’t all that surprising for those who gather to attend the Secret City, a monthly colloquy — some dare call it a church — convened in this small space since late 2007. From its origins as a kind of fortifying ritual for beleaguered theater artists, the Secret City has grown into a half-irreverent, half-earnest blend of revival meeting and group meditation session.
On that summer morning, the theme was “ecstasy,” and the events included an “offering” of fresh raspberries, a “sermon” on facing down the indignities of modern life, a brief discussion with the painter Jennifer Sanchez about her use of color, and the coup de grâce, a chamber-choral rendition of the disco hit “It’s Raining Men.”
The June meeting marked something of a turning point, as it came soon after the Secret City won a special Obie award, bringing it attention beyond those already in the know. On 14th Street, a very full event meant more than 70 people, but starting this Sunday at 11:30 a.m., the faithful will gather at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side, which can hold 125.
“There was no spectacle at the start, just four of us sitting on the floor,” recalled Chris Wells, the commanding 46-year-old writer and performer who founded and leads the Secret City as his more or less full-time job. “The services are very joyful and exuberant now, but my hope is that they will retain the vulnerability that we started with.”
That humble beginning represented a stripped-down reboot for Mr. Wells, a performer known in his hometown, Los Angeles, as a larger-than-life theatrical original whose work threatened — or promised, depending on your perspective — to burst the seams of the medium. Whether as Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or a dissipated Statue of Liberty in his own musical “Liberty!” Mr. Wells’s performances were like buzzing, bouncing parties unto themselves, at which he played host as much as provided the entertainment.
For those who’ve known him and his work, then, the Secret City feels like a homecoming.
“He’s much more than an actor or a singer,” said Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists and a loyal if sporadic attendee with his family. “Part of the joy of the Secret City is seeing someone as multitalented and versatile as Chris Wells find form for the size of his talent.”
Kelly Coffield, an actress who attends regularly with her family, puts it more simply: “Nothing Chris was being cast in was allowing him to say or do what he can here. It’s performative, but it’s not a role. It is like a prayer, to do a performance as yourself.”
Ah, the religion thing. That Mr. Wells employs the basic format of a Christian worship service — including scripted responses, songs, a meet-and-greet mingle, readings, a cultural calendar, a kind of sermon, a silent meditation, even a benediction — still makes some people leery, even though there isn’t even a passing reference to theology.
“When I invite people, I always try to explain that he uses the structural bones of a church service, but in the most rough-hewn and tongue-in-cheek sense,” said Tina Rayburn, an actress who was among the four original congregants. “Still and all, I get a hairy eyeball from some people who say to me: ‘What are you involved in, Tina? Sounds cultish.’ ”
Mr. Wells said that he’s tried to purge “church” from his vocabulary, and to think of the Secret City as primarily an art project. But he understands why the term sticks.
“Obviously what this thing is, is a church,” he said. “You can’t refute it. People come and see it and say, ‘Oh, it’s a church—it’s a church of art.’ ”
Taylor Mac, the flamboyant writer-performer of “The Lily’s Revenge,” said Mr. Wells’s experiment has made him partly reassess the religious upbringing he despised.
“When I went to the Secret City, I thought, ‘Oh, this is what all those religious institutions are doing in their own way: creating community and ritual, and fostering problem-solving,’ ” said Mr. Mac, who played “Memory” from “Cats” on the ukulele during one service. “People come to church to work on things in their lives. Those aspects of church are amazing — if you don’t add all the -isms” and the prejudices they’re perpetuating.
A sense of community is something Mr. Wells left behind when he moved from Los Angeles to New York in 2003. “Everyone knows there’s a lot of struggle here, and you have to have ambition, you have to have drive, but the thing that makes it worthwhile is — what?” he explained. “When I moved here, I was like, Where’s the what?’ ”
Like many artists, Mr. Wells has heard the critique that New York has been taken over by consumerism. His response is all the more insistent: “Well, that’s where you need love and tenderness and art and joy and community more.”
Mr. London of New Dramatists feels that the Secret City addresses a need even more specific.
“The Secret City is re-engaging with the notion of sacredness in the theater, which is all but lost in the ordinary prose of the industry that’s all around us,” he said.
Mr. Wells avoids the word “God” even more assiduously than the word “church,” but his mission is not aggressively secularist. “That is probably the thing I’m most proud of — embracing the metaphor of art allows for everybody to have their own personal experience of whatever they’re looking for on a Sunday morning,” he said.
Indeed, the Secret City has grown beyond serving just stage folk. The visual-arts component, organized by the painter Bobby Lucy, attracts art-world visitors, while the service’s music, led by the guitarist Jeremy Bass, has brought musicians in. Even the churchy elements, though they’re anathema to some, are an attraction for the spiritually curious. All of which makes it a natural fit for an ex-Catholic agnostic like the singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, who attends when she can.
“It’s really about honoring the source of creativity,” Ms. Cash said. “I don’t know if there’s a personal God, but I know there’s something bigger than me that is the source of art and music. And to come together with people who also believe that in some form or another — it’s sustaining.”