Friday, July 29, 2011

Spotlight: Chris Wells and his Secret City

Chris Wells is an amazing performer, writer, actor, singer, sermonizer and gatherer of people. He created and hosts Secret City, a beautiful, monthly, hard-to-describe event that got a big write up in the New York Times last year. I call it Church for Artists minus God. Their monthly gatherings resemble a religious service, except it's fun. While Chris has issues with traditional religions, he has the belief that the ritual around church is part of the core human experience: coming together as a community, sharing our stories, trying to make sense of life, consoling and inspiring one another through hard times and offering up a joyful noise. And Chris is unequivocally the preacher. So yes: There is music. There is a sermon. And you will leave with a smile on your face. It's also better theatre than 90% of the shows I go to. And there was no reason it should have ever come into existence.

About a year ago Chris shared with me and a crowd at the Bootleg Theatre in LA a story about how he came to found Secret City. After many many years as an actor in LA Chris felt he'd done everything he could there and he wanted a bigger playground for theatre. So backwards from the traditional actor's migration, he moved from LA to NY. Living in The City was always a lifelong dream of his. But after 3 years acting in NYC (he was even in a film I produced through RIPFest), he didn't like the parts he was being considered for.  And like me seven years ago, he was tired of being poor and not making a big enough impact, so he chose to move on. Not sure what to do next, a friend reminded him that years ago he'd had that brainstorm that someone should start a Church of Art. And Boom. Chris had that Eureka moment. He had to start it. And the time was now.

So as Chris shares on his website: "In October 2007... I asked three friends to... bring anything they might like to share in the way of a poem or a quote or a picture. We sat in a circle on the floor and I explained that I wanted to start a sanctuary for artists, a regular gathering that would celebrate the creative spirit and those who keep it alive." By his description, it sounds humble, simple, almost uninteresting. Don't be fooled. Chris' charismatic generosity infuses each communion with an uplifting spirit the way I think church is supposed to make you feel. He brings in a host of guest artists every month to enliven things. And did I mention there's music? And you get to clap and sing? And there's much, much more laughter than there ever is in church? You have to go and experience it for yourself.
But here's the funny thing. Chris stopped acting in 2007. Then three years later, he's invited to the Obies (The Tonys for off-Broadway). He nearly didn't go because he wasn't in the theatre anymore, but at the last minute decided to attend. And then, near the end of the ceremony, they begin describing a "Special award" they were about to give. And production they're describing sounds oddly familiar. He turns to his boyfriend to ask if he's crazy or does it sound like they're talking about... when the presenter declares the award for "Chris Well and his Secret City". He was speechless. (For about 60 seconds. Chris always finds his words). But what a story. He had to quit acting to win an Obie
Here's the funnier thing - I remembered the story a bit differently. I checked in with Chris to see if I'd gotten the details right before posting this. I hadn't. I'm writing this 12 months after I heard him tell the story and I discovered I distilled his journey into a fabricated legend that went like this: Chris gave himself a deadline by which if he wasn't successful, he'd quit acting. That birthday came. He banished himself from the thing he loved because it just wasn't working. He was miserable. He commisserated with friends who reminded him of the Church idea to which he said, 'Stupid idea. I was probably drunk', but it stuck with him. So he got some people together. Everyone loved it. It grew almost on it's own and then he won an Obie... after having 'given up'. It's similar to what happened, but definitely different. What does that say about me for having misremembered the narrative in that way I wonder?
Regardless, if you're in NY, go see the "organization that serves the spiritual, social and human needs of artists. Over the past four years at their monthly gatherings, they have presented hundreds of performers, musicians, visual artists, chefs, jugglers, magicians, clowns, dancers, poets, and films." They also present "The Manhattan Wonderwalk every September -- it's a 14 hour walk of the island of Manhattan with performances throughout the city."
And if you live in LA (or anywhere else) tell Chris you need a Secret City in your town and maybe he'll come visit.
And help Chris raise money for their fifth season for the last week in their IndieGoGo campaign right here. Here's Chris below to tell you all about it.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stalker Nation

Facebook is stalking. We've become a nation of stalkers. A world of stalkers. Sometimes it's a strange curiosity. Other times it's less healthy which twists our idea of reality. We look at vacation photographs of people we used to work with. We do the virtual drive-by of that ex, but instead of just parking across from her house for a moment to savor the memories banished to the past, now you silently invade her life and see her baby photos. The babies you could have made with her. It used to be, you had to see them in person to look at those pictures, now you peer in through the virtual nursery and steal a glance. Another potential paramour doesn't even know we look at every one of their status updates. And unconsciously we feel they must look at ours in the same way, but in fact, they may not care less. And so we click our way deeper into an illusion of closeness, daily, when in fact we're just ticky-ticky tapping some plastic alone in our room. Try this. Close your laptop and keep tapping on the case of your computer for 60 seconds. That's all we're really doing. Feel close now? I just did it and I feel very, very alone. Weird, huh?


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Major Score

Last week I ran over my power cord with my office chair. Though I was on soft carpet,  the wheels were able to pull the cord right apart. Didn't quite slice it,  didn't quite yank it in two,  but it's unfixable. I was quite dismayed about the prospect of buying a new cord. My old Powerbook with the old circular non-magnetic connector ate through a number of those cords (when did something as simple and often as tripping over the cable),  so I know they're not cheap. And they were never an improvement. As soon as I got the new one,  I had the potential to kill it within days. It happened so frequently I started going to the MacStore and complaining. They knew it was a huge problem and I talked my way into getting two for free. Not this time. $86 later,  I trudged home and powered up my old laptop. Amazingly though,  this power cable IS better. It attaches from the side instead of straight on (which I actually preferred). BUT it not only charges the battery so it lasts longer when it's not plugged in,  but it must charge at a lower intensity,  so the machine rarely ever heats up,  which turns on the fan,  which drains the battery (not to mention it makes it impossible to hold in my lap it's so hot). I'm amazed what I thought was just a replacement is actually an improvement.
When was the last time something you thought was an Epic Fail turned out to be a major score?


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Your War

A few months ago I was listening to a This American Life piece in which a reporter was trying to understand the parties that broke out on college campuses after it was announced the US had killed Bin Laden. Those kids were 8-10 years old when 9/11 struck. They didn’t have friends who’d died in the attacks as I did. They hadn’t worked in The Towers earlier that year as I had. They hadn’t watched with impotent fury in the 80s as Reagan armed and trained “freedom fighters” from Managua to Kabul, including the future leaders Al-Queda. So why did they care so much and why did they literally jump for joy at this assassination? I agree Bin Laden was despicable. I agree the world is better without him in it. I approve of our using lethal force and even taking him out rather than taking him to trial. But I'm deeply dismayed that these kids did not remember that we looked on with horror when we saw rare pockets of Muslims celebrating our loss on 9/11. And that they didn't recognize that their impromptu celebration was little different. When the reporter asked these kids why they were hooting and hollering the response the reporter got was that this ‘war on terror’ was their war, not ‘your’ war. The ‘You’ in this case was the reporter and anyone over 25. And according to them “We” had no idea about the right way to commemorate the occasion. Then they finished up the interview returned to binge drink like this was just another frat party.    
What was the last thing you heard that made you think, “Wow, I am in a different generation from these whipper-snappers. And I didn't get old. They got stupid.”


Monday, July 25, 2011


My girlfriend recently pointed out I had some renegade eyebrow hairs. As one ages fellows like me get these long bendy strays. But I don’t often notice them and I felt embarrassed she stopped a few. With no scissors handy,  I went to the mirror when she wasn’t looking and tried to pull out the major offenders. But instead of a spot job,  I got a whole bunch in my grasp and yanked them out whole. Now I’ve got a little hairless patch in my brow. I hoped it wouldn’t noticeable to anyone else until they grew back. But I when I told her about my over-reach,  she said,  “You know they don’t grow back when you pluck them.” “Really?” I asked,  light-years from my esthetician degree. “Just think about Amanda Palmer,” she said. "...Oh,  shit."

What’s the last thing you tried to fix,  but ended up making it worse?


Friday, July 22, 2011

Spotlight: John Moran

In 1995 I read a brief review in the NY Times about a show called Mathew In The School of Life at The Kitchen. It's the only time I ever went to see a show just because of a review. And it changed my life. I'm still not sure why I felt so compelled to see it as the review was unclear as to what the show was, but the opening line got me, "Watching "Mathew in the School of Life," John Moran's dazzling science-fiction techno-opera, it is easy to imagine having stumbled into a phantasmagoric music box where elaborately programmed robots replay the same nightmarish scenarios over and over into infinity." I mean who wouldn't want to see a phantasmagoric music box? And after I saw the show I knew I wanted to make them myself. So for my next piece, I wrote a one-man hyper-opera reversing his process and adding cartoon sound effects. Oh, and I also sang sometimes in my piece because I loved blurring for the audience whether I was vocalizing live or lip-syching. When I wrote on my website that he and director Bob McGrath's production were inspirational, he found me and contacted me. (Partially to explain the technique was something he developed on his own without Mr. McGrath's involvement. Sadly a few years later they had a very public artistic separation compared to the 'divorce' of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson a decade earlier.)
But we emailed a few times about the technical process he was using and it was thrilling to be found by someone you were writing about. I'm curious if he'll find me again (Hey, John! Hope to see you in August.). I'd already just about finished my opera so I had to figure it out on my own already and we were using different technical tools. But it turns out our process was similar, and different. And our results? Well, he made live animatronic large-ensemble, mass-hypnosis. I made solo live-action, lip-syching, singing, cartoons. Now he makes duos and I make nothing.
Another difference between us is that he had Philip Glass for a mentor and proponent. I did not. But that's because the one time I met Mr. Glass, I just said hello and stood there awkwardly in the Green Room trying to think of something to say that wouldn't open a worm hole into epic fail. You see, I know the kind of disasters I can create while greeting famous people when I open my mouth, so I opted for silence.  John on the other hand famously palmed the fucker a cassette tape in the middle of Kansas and scored a guardian angel with an operatic vorpal sword as well as Allen Ginsberg's home number. (Mr. Ginsberg was highly featured in Mathew). As Mark Twain said, "All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure." I seem to have neither at the right times and both at the wrong times.
Sadly, after John got his 6th show "Book of The Dead/Second Avenue" produced at (finally) a bigger venue, (The Public Theatre) he just disappeared.  For like 7 years. In some ways that reminds me of me. My last show was at LaMaMa... 7 years ago. I stopped making work for the stage without telling anyone I was going to stop.
The difference is, I went to LA to sell out and have failed miserably. Whereas John went to Europe, failed, came back to New York, went a little crazy and a little homeless, but here's the important news. JOHN MORAN IS BACK. AND HE'S COMING TO CALI.
If you haven't head about Philip Glass' new new music festival "Days and Nights" (because it seems no one has), here's a link. It's an amazing 3 week festival in Big Sur, CA. This is it's inaugural year. I'm not going to miss it. And John will be performing an evening length duo with Saori. Here's a piece about it. And at the bottom of this post is a video of one of his more recent pieces. But as with all great theatre, this video conveys none of the power of seeing it live. In fact, because of the lip-synch technique he uses, it just looks off. Meanwhile, you have no idea how seeing it live can absolutely transport you into an alternate reality.