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.

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