Whenever I'm met with confusion on the part of someone I've invited to join me at one of the Secret City's tent revival-style Sunday "services"—held monthly in Manhattan and in Woodstock once each summer—I whip out my "Cash card." As in: "Oh, by the way, the Secret City is something Rosanne Cash told me about. She's performed there."
That's all it takes to persuade the uninitiated to come along to this ceremony/performance/salon hybrid described as a "church of art." By the end of the service, they're complete converts.
That's all it took for me, too. I had no idea what Cash was talking about when she mentioned the "gathering of artists," a nonprofit to which she requested I donate her compensation for an essay she wrote for one of my anthologies about the push-pull New York City exerts on its inhabitants.
"You have to meet Chris Wells," Cash said, referring to the organization's spirited co-founder, artistic director, and Grand Poobah—a writer, actor, and cabaret performer who was raised without religion, but on his own discovered a love of ritual, ceremony, and worship rooted in creative expression, separate from any kind of deity or dogma.
The Secret City is a 90-minute, high-energy happening held on Sundays four times a year in LA, eight or nine times a year in Manhattan, and once a year in Woodstock. It's both an irreverent send-up of the tent-revival church service and a reverent bow to community, acceptance, and the power of the arts to shed light on shared human experiences. There's a choir, but it performs covers of pop songs and some originals around a theme—past themes include "Prophesy," "Risk," "Camp," and "Sugar." Each service features a visual artist, a musical artist, an offering of food, a spoken-word artist, and performers in other media, and has a theme-related "sermon" drawn from Wells's own life stories.
"I always found spiritual sustenance through making art," he says. Well, actually, first he found it in a church choir a friend invited him to join when he was 12. His family didn't go to church, but he went. He wasn't drawn so much by the notion of God as he was by the rituals, music, and communal worship. But at 16, he found theater, which quickly replaced church. Wells became an actor, writer, and singer in Los Angeles. It was hard, though, to find kindred spirits in sprawling LA.
The LA he was trying to find was the creative one. "Creativity is a means of practicing connectedness," he says. "I thought, why are art communities divided? Wouldn't it be cool if there was something sort of equivalent to church, but it was about and for artists? I've wondered, if your goal is to attract people with a transcending experience, or a feeling of belonging, or sustenance of any kind, why would you create so many barriers to so many people?"
Wells founded the Secret City in 2007 with his life partner, Bobby Lucy, after moving to New York. The first time it was held, only four people showed up. But word of mouth and Facebook brought the number of attendees up to 75, so the services moved to a larger space. In 2010, Wells's work with the Secret City won him an Obie for service to the creative community. In 2013, he and Lucy were awarded residencies at Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. Their first two services at Byrdcliffe Theater were filled to capacity.
"It fulfills a spiritual function that is completely separate from religion," says Cash. "Many of us who have washed our hands of religion still crave community and ritual and want to share a sense of wonder."
The Secret City will hold its third annual Woodstock service at the Bearsville Theater on July 31 at noon. Featured will be coloring book and collage artist Jacinta Bunnell and the Hudson Valley Horrors Roller Derby league. The theme will be "Play." There is a suggested donation of $15.