When Chris Wells, Obie-winning actor, singer, writer, cabaret performer, and arts educator, came up with the Secret City concept, he and his friends were “playing with the form of ‘What is church if it’s not religious?’” In a similar vein, he has said, “We worship art. The events promote this notion that there’s connectedness through creativity. There’s a warm, welcoming, rejuvenating energy, so people leave feeling inspired and connected to their purpose.”
Wells first brought a Secret City event to Woodstock in 2014, having already established what he calls “performance rituals” several times a year in New York City and Los Angeles. The shows combine art, food, music, storytelling, meditation, singing, performance, and community interaction in an artistic celebration that will take place this year from July 25 through July 28, at various locations in Woodstock.
When Wells brought the devotional, communal spirit of Secret City upstate, he wondered, “What happens, what form does it take, in the country? I thought, well, it would be a revival.” Like the spiritual revivals of the past, last year’s incarnation even involved a tent to accommodate the annually growing number of participants, both artists and audience. This year’s event will also finish up in a tent, with the expectation of a crowd bigger than last year’s 400.
The theme, “Back to the Garden,” not only relates to the 2019 celebration of the Woodstock Festival’s 50th anniversary, but evokes a return to one’s true values. “The Woodstock region is extraordinary,” Wells said, “with that special artistic spirit the place is infused with. It’s diverse, progressive, welcoming, and culturally an interesting place, an exciting and inspiring place to make this work.”
From Thursday to Saturday, creative sessions of various kinds — most of them at no cost — will lead up to Sunday’s climactic processional and performance. The kickoff will be a party on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Byrcliffe Barn. The gathering is free, with light refreshments, a cash bar, introduction of guest artists, and a performance by The Secret City Band. (Donations are encouraged, however.) Attendees are invited to make hats for Sunday’s parade, with the guidance of puppeteer and board member Lynn Jeffries.
On Friday, July 26, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., a number of Woodstock residents will host performances in their homes, presenting jazz concerts, poetry readings, in-house art shows, and other events, including a concert by kids from the Rock Academy. “It’s a way to celebrate how this town is an incubator of arts of all kind,” said Wells.
At 8 p.m. on Friday, at Reynolds & Reynolds Taproom on Route 212, a reunion performance of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra will feature original members of the band. Famous in the 80s and 90s for its avant-pop music incorporating randomness, spontaneity, and surprise, the band now includes guitarist Jennifer Maidman, trombonist Annie Whitehead, and an assortment of new members. Tickets are $15 per person and are available at the door.
Saturday’s 10 a.m. fundraising brunch and pool party, hosted by a board member at a private property, costs $50 and will include a preview of the next season. Secret City is partially funded through a grant from Arts Mid-Hudson, while the profits from ticketed events go to the performers, but additional money is needed to put the events together.
On Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., artists, performance artists, and musicians will present site-specific work at locations around town. Scheduled performances include cello music in the woods at the Comeau Property, dance at Mower’s Field, ukuleles on the Village Green, and more, with all shows involving some degree of audience interaction. At 6:30 p.m., a picnic will be held at Andy Lee Field, where Blue Mountain Bistro and Nancy’s Ice Cream will sell sandwiches and ice cream. Entertainment will be provided by modern day troubadour Andru Bemis. At 8 p.m., at the Colony, Brent Felker and Company present live band karaoke. “People can pick their song,” said Wells, “and the band will back them up.” Tickets for the Colony show are $12 to $15.
The culmination of all this artistic ferment comes on Sunday with the processional, planned with the help of such partners as the Woodstock School of Art, the LGBTQ Center in Kingston, the Catskill Interpretive Center, Mt. Tremper Arts, and others. Through workshops over the past six months, the collaboration has generated an abundance of “stuff to be carried and waved,” said Wells. Expressing the “Back to the Garden” theme, they have created hundreds of paper flowers, animal puppets, butterflies, banners, flags, kites, and more. The public is invited to join in. Meeting at the Comeau at noon, the procession steps off at 1 p.m., parades down Tinker Street to the village green, and proceeds up Rock City Road to the tent set up at Andy Lee Field. At 2 p.m., the Artistic Tent Revival’s signature “service” begins, with a community choir, dancing, the Secret City Band, guest artists, storytelling, contemplation, revelry, and more, to create “a roof-raising, ecstatic art experience.” Entry is free, but there is a suggested donation of $20 per person.
For those who have not been involved in the creation of the event, it’s still possible to volunteer, said Wells. “Bring a guitar, sing in the choir. On Saturday, you can come to town and busk. The idea is to bring the entire town alive with art and music and performance. It’s about connecting everyone, and there are lots of ways to take part.”