How the Secret City became a Sunday service worshiping art – MARCOS NAJERA

Sunday morning in America.

It is a spiritual time of the week for many people as they head to a house of worship.  But it… could also be considered a time when lots of us separate ourselves from others based on what we believe.  There is one church (of sorts) here in LA that hopes to connect as many people as possible.  Yet it’s not a church at all and it’s not part of any religion.  It’s actually a live performance that toggles back and forth between a cabaret and a joyful tent revival. It’s called The Secret City and their next show happens this Sunday at The Bootleg Theatre in Silverlake.

The mastermind behind this project is Los Angeles theatre veteran, Chris Wells.

“Well, the funny thing is, I very much believe in theatre,” laughs Wells. “I will always think of myself as an actor and person who makes theatre and performs.  I guess I felt the theater I was making wasn’t really addressing the community.  And the community wasn’t really engaging with the theatre. They are just showing up to consume something.  I sort of wanted to break through both of those things.  And maybe as an actor maybe I was feeling I wasn’t using everything.  I was performing and I was good at it and I had achieved some success but I wanted something sort of hugely challenging.”

That frustration got Wells thinking about how to stretch himself as an artist and how to extend the reach of traditional theatre.  So he started talking to friends like Leslie Tamaribuchi, a Cal Arts faculty member and current Secret City board member.

“I remember just a few coffee dates we had in the mid-90s where we would just brainstorm,” says Tamaribuchi.

It turns out those humble coffee talks about how to use theatre as a tool to build community led to small tea parties in Silverlake where more creative people would join in on the jam sessions.

“There was a lot of conversation about church and ritual and the idea of organizing this gathering around, like a church service,” says Tamaribuchi.  “But we had a lot of conversation around how people felt about the idea of church.  What people’s experiences of church were.  And whether that was an attractive word to use. One of things that Chris and I have in common, as really different people, we both went to Congregational Churches growing up.

I was part of a family that moved around, that was pretty nomadic and moved every 1.5-2 years when I was growing up so we would always find a church as part of moving to a new place and as an entry point into community and getting to know a new place.  It was never really about God or faith as much as it was about community and place.

I feel like one of my most formative experiences growing up was a year when my junior high school church group actually spent a Sunday a month or a day a Month visiting other religious institutions services.  Going to a Chinese Baptist church where they had full immersion baptisms  and everybody was speaking in Mandarin.  Going to an AME church.  Going to a Jewish synagogue.  And seeing kind of what the delight in what was similar in how people gather to enact ritual and form community, what was different and surprising and diverse.   That, I feel like there is something in that series of experiences that I also recognize in the Secret City and that I’m really attracted to.”

But in 2003 the idea for The Secret City got put on hold.  Chris Wells was done with LA.  He had fallen in love with his boyfriend, the painter Robert Lucy.  The couple moved to New York.  Chris’ acting career was on the upswing, but that meant lots of time away.

“So when I moved to New York, I realized that I never really ever find the community there that I was looking for,” says Wells  “And I also was doing a lot of regional theatre and I was not feeling that engaged by the theatre I was making.  I wasn’t that satisfied living on the road and living out of a suitcase.”

What did satisfy him were the memories of those LA brainstorm sessions and intimate salons with friends, where people would bring a poem, a story or a song to share.  So Chris and Robert rented a small studio space in lower Manhattan and picked up where they left of in LA.  The word quickly spread and soon The Secret City was holding “theatre church” once a month in New York.

Since 2007, the raucous services have brought together thousands of art lovers with the artists themselves—in any given service, presentations can come from painters, poets, bubble blowers, chefs, Aztec dancers, fashion designers, you name it.

And just like in a traditional church, each ceremony is rooted in a sermon.  At Secret City, the man of the cloth is Chris Wells, although his cloaks tend to have sparkly sequins, cool glitter and fantastic feathers.  And his homilies come from his real life stories.

In 2010, The Secret City scored an OBIE award.  It’s a special honor given for Off-Broadway theater.  In this case, Wells received a special citation for creating The Secret City and for service to the creative community.  Two years later,  Chris Wells & company have gone bi-coastal, staging shows in New York City, Woodstock, NY right back here in LA—where it all started.

At a recent service, LA filmmaker Laura Nix shared a clip from her latest work—a documentary about a community of senior citizen ballroom dancers in San Gabriel, CA.

“The couple I’m following is a Chinese Vietnamese who came to the US in their 20’s,” says Nix.  “The clip is from them dancing at their high school reunion!”

After the clip ended, Chris Wells invited the couple, Millie and Paul Cao, to perform live for the excited Secret City audience.

“Paul had his costume on. But he was shy,” remembers Nix. “He felt very self conscious that he had his sequins on in a room like on Sunday afternoon.  And he took off his coat and he revealed his sequins and the entire place the whole theatre went completely crazy for him.  they were just like ‘what?!’—everyone just went completely wild.  And Millie had her on sequined dress.  They went up and they did their dance.  And it was maybe a  minute and half.  When they finished—I get chills thinking about it now.  The entire audience stood up and gave them a standing ovation. They were just screaming and hooting and hollering and pounding the floor with their feet because I think they got it.  Which is ‘Look at what these folks are doing!’”

That’s exactly the goal says Wells: “Whether they know each other or not, we are asking them to engage with each other.  We’ve designed the events so there is built-in interactivity.  We’re telling people ‘We are here to engage.’  And we hope that people are not put on the spot or made to feel uncomfortable but there is a very hearty, joyful invitation to participate … the events are designed to soften the barriers between what an audience member is and what a performer is.  Being with other people, I think there is salvation in that.  I think that’s how we are going to be able to move forward.  If we can actually be with other people in real time and space.”

Next summer, The Secret City will reach even more people—offering its first free outdoor performance at Grand Performances in downtown LA.