Last Sunday I got up, poured some coffee down my face, disappeared into the subway and emerged around the corner from Dixon Place, a small theatre on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that is the new home of The Secret City. When I arrived, the lobby of the theatre was crowded with people talking to each other, reading books, and sharing various baked goods and juice that people had brought. (How churchy! Except people had tattoos and were reading the new Jonathan Franzen novel.) Around 11:30, the theatre doors were opened and people began to shuffle into the space.
The theatre was simply decorated and evoked images of a theatre, church, and art gallery. In the middle of the stage, was an “altar” made out of a long folding table covered with a beautiful cloth. On the table was a candleholder with several lit candles, a vase full of fall colored flowers, and a few other items placed there by congregants. In front of the altar, was a stack of suitcases in different sizes. Suspended from the ceiling were various sculptures that suggested “angels” without necessarily being angels. To the (house) left of the altar was a music stand made into a pulpit by being draped with a flowing piece of brightly colored cloth. And to the left of the “pulpit” was a dresser’s mannequin with a robe on it that suggested Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. To the (house) right of the altar was a modest band that included a guitarist, cellist, and a few singers.
As I found a seat, there was a post-it note on the seat with a pen that said, “Today I am grateful for _____.” So I filled out what I was grateful for and shortly thereafter, the service began. Chris Wells, the singer and artist who founded The Secret City three years ago found his way behind his makeshift pulpit and said, “Welcome to The Secret City!” and began to clap. No sooner had he begun than the entire room was full of people standing, clapping, hooting, and hollering to celebrate the beginning of the ceremony. I felt waves of warmth running through my body and a profound happiness infusing itself into me. I was nervous and didn’t really know what to expect. In theory, I loved the idea of community ritual without religious dogma or ideology. In practice, I was nervous about the cult potential of such an endeavor. ("This is the part where we all get naked and throw rotten plums at each other! And also, let's all write down our bank account numbers and pass them to the front.") My nervousness turned to joy as Chris Wells said, “OK! Welcome to The Secret City! This month’s theme is ‘transformation’ and so we’ll be seeing some art, some magic, tasting some delicious caramels, watching a bit of a movie, and hearing some music all having to do with that theme! So we’re going to start with a little call and response. Your part is sung and it’s simply this, ‘We're CONNNNNNNEEEEECTED!’. OK? Let’s all try it.” I was hooked. Immediately.
I wrote to Chris and he was kind enough to email me the words to The Secret City Theme Song...
A Secret is a thing that you can share
A secret is both powerful and rare
To truly know a secret is to bear
Something the world wants to know
A secret can be cruel or it can be
Something that might set the world free
To truly know the secret is to feel
Something is behind what’s all around.
This is The Secret City
A world where everything is seen
This is a Secret City
Can you, feel it. Can you. Touch it.
Can you. Make it.
The Secret is that we all agree
There’s something underneath the sky and sea
And something floating in the air we breathe
Something the world needs to know
Building the Secret City
You’re here yes we’re all here today
This is a Secret City
Can you. Feel it. Can you. Touch it.
Can you. Make it.
Tell the Secret
Tell the Secret toThe World Today.
Ah, it was a great way to get things started! The service followed the format of a church ceremony almost to an item. There was a brief meet and greet at the beginning. There was call and response. There was a moment of silent meditation. There was a reading. There was a sermon. There was an offering. There was even a benediction. But, there were other, more unusual things that were incredibly rewarding and beautiful too. There was a “cultural calendar” section where a woman got up and read a kind of, “This Day In Art History” report. For instance, “It was on this day in 1909 when George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance opened in London.” Or “It was on this day two years ago that our brilliant Paul Newman passed.” In addition there was a “tasting” where Dan Jenkins passed out salted caramels he’d made for the service. There was also a “Look At This” section where an artist got up and talked about the aforementioned Technicolor dreamcoat. Broadway vet Michael Cerveris and cellist Leah Coloff did a fantastic rendition of David Bowie’s song Changes. Oh yeah, and a magic show!
It was really rewarding that the entire service was in service of exploring the theme of “transformation”. The dreamcoat that artist Larry Krone was working on was made up of dozens of needlepoint prints that he’d picked up at thrift shops. So by taking other people’s art work and sewing them together into a cape and then adding his own embroidery he was transforming many people’s art into a singular wearable piece. Dan Jenkins mused on the transformation of chemicals when cooking and talked about caramel as a unique food that’s neither liquid nor solid. A scene from Paris Is Burning dealt with transformation of man to woman (through drag) and also the transformation of a group of people from isolated and alienated to welcomed and celebrated within a kind of ceremony for themselves (A "ball"). The magic tricks featured the transformation of a dollar bill to a ripped up piece of paper back to a much stranger version of the same dollar bill. The sermon was Chris Wells story of coming out to his family and the transformation his mother underwent from distant and ashamed into a friendly and accepting. It occurred to me that no church service I’d ever been to in my life undertook such a multi-dimensional and effective exploration of a theme.
Early on in the service, I found myself incredibly moved by the energy in the room and the passion and generosity of Chris Wells's approach to MC-ing the service. I realized that I was experiencing something incredibly important to me. I was experiencing relevant resonant ritual. There was no talk of God and there was no excavation of ancient religious text to search for contemporary meaning. I felt that I was experiencing something truly spiritual and divine with other people in a sacred space.
Joseph Campbell talks about The New Myth being the old myth poetically renewed. (See the full quote at the bottom of the screen.) This is exactly what The Secret City is doing. Chris Wells and company have taken the structure of a ritual as old as the human race and have poetically renewed it, revivified it, and have made it relevant and beautiful. As I read an article in the New York Times about The Secret City later in the day, the reporter talked about it as being a performance piece and noted that The Secret City had won an Obie (off-Broadway theatre award) for 2010. Reading the article made me think back over the service as piece of theatre. In so doing, my psychological definition of what I’d participated in expanded slightly. Was it theatre? Was it church? Was it a show? Was it performance art? Well, yes. (Sidenote: The experience of reporting on The Secret City had so moved the reporter for the New York Times that he'd returned as a congregant.)
I’ve thought about theatre as a place of holy ritual for many years now. I think any place an important ritual is enacted, something holy is happening. I mean holy in the sense of getting after that spiritual potentiality of the human soul that mysteriously resides in us. As Thornton Wilder would describe it, "...that eternal part..." about human beings. Classrooms, rock concerts, theatres, churches, and sports arenas all are homes to rituals that tell important stories. They even have architecture and ceremonial order in common. They are designated places where an assembled group of people participate in a ritual that points past itself to something transcendent in the human condition. That eternal part inside human beings needs rituals. We look for them, pay for them, and use them to understand ourselves and how to live a human life and die a human death. Rituals pitch us out of our every day experience of life and lift us into a place where we have a more euphoric, revelatory, and inspired experience of living. Effective rituals move us, teach us, and change us.
When we watch a sporting event, we go to a kind of temple where we are watching the athletes participate in a competition that teaches us something. Most arena sports have teams of people that could serve as metaphors for armies, co-workers, nations, differing points of view, etc. (People argue that the Kansas/Mizzou rivalry is a yearly re-hashing of the fight over slavery hundreds of years ago!) Sports might also teach us something about team-work and cooperation. The team that wins often is the team that works well together. (“We’re all in this together. We do better when we work together.”) So there are little lessons in there wherever there is ritual whether we overtly see them or not. In classrooms a teacher performs (teaches) in front of an audience (class) and literally teaches them about the world they live in. We’ve come to a place in our human history where most people agree that the difference between an individual’s success and failure socially and financially in this life is directly related to the level of education he or she has. So, we can say that these stories (lessons) that these teachers are passing on are of tremendous personal value to those who receive them. So thank goodness for those rituals. (Classes) Churches feature the same dynamic. A religious figure stands in front of a congregation and tells stories from a religious text and then meditates aloud on how those stories should help us filter and understand the events of our lives. And then, of course, theatres are the exact same thing. There is a congregation gathered before an altar and when the curtain goes up the actors come out and tell one long story that is, like all of the other mentioned activities, trying to point past itself toward some larger truth about how to live or experience being alive. (In my favorite ones, the story is the same as sports; “We’re all in this together. We’re better when we work together.”)
What’s the point? Ah! My point is that, I feel like The Secret City is what it is…which is an interactive ritual that serves the human need to experience community and continuity while opening new dimensions in the soul and heart.
I often found myself weeping during the ceremony. I was so moved as the assembled congregation celebrated the magician, the artist, the singers, the sermon, and each other. I was so excited to participate in a call and response that was made up of ideas and structures of the old myth, “poetically renewed” for this group of people. The final recitation of the service was the following from Rachel Carson
Those who dwell among the mysteries of the earth
Shall never grow weary of life.
Those who contemplate the beauty of this earth
Will endure as long as life lasts.
The clearer we see the wonders of the earth
The less taste we shall have for destruction.
Now THAT is a group recitation I can speak from the heart.
Ultimately, I think what was most inspirational about my experience at The Secret City is that it affirmed my Field Of Dreams theory about the theatre. “If you build it, they will come.” That’s the sentence that the mysterious voice repeats to Kevin Costner’s character in the feature film Field Of Dreams. (Ultimately, the baseball field is a pretty transparent metaphor for church or religious ritual. He builds this place where his community can come and celebrate with the spirits of their ancestors, etc.) In any event, Chris Wells and friends have been building their own Field of Dreams for three years and have watched attendance multiply every month. It’s becoming a bigger and more exciting community of artists all the time. As word gets out, more and more people will come. He had a beautiful idea and there are so many people who want this kind of ritual and community and celebration in their lives. It’s ultimately what I want the theatre to be about and the kind of moving experience it provided for me is what I always hope for every time I start rehearsing a play. The theatre in my dreams is very much in line with the mission of The Secret City.
I want the theatre world in general to take note of what’s being done at The Secret City. I want the theatre to rise up to its mission and its potential and be a place of effective and powerful ritual. I want it to be a place for the human imagination to run wild. I want it to be a place where the old myths and stories can be poetically refreshed and renewed to resonate powerfully and passionately with the people who walk through the door. Whether it’s in the works of Chekhov or in an improvised play or in a community “service”, I want the theatre to embrace itself as life-affirming and necessary ritual and to have the power to enlighten and inspire and move. Joseph Campbell is correct in asserting that the world needs a New Myth and I feel like it is, as it has always been, the artists who will re-create it. (That's the subject of a whole other entry...) The Secret City, at the moment, is about and for artists. I'm glad it is. I think artists need to continually check in with their sense of mission and trajectory and impact. What better way than in an environment that celebrates and empowers them like The Secret City does? I’m hoping to be able to participate more and more in the rituals and projects aimed at discovering how that New Myth might manifest itself through me. But, I’m as sure as I’ve ever been sure about anything, that the New Myth that many people in the world have been waiting for, is taking shape within the walls of The Secret City. It’s a secret I’m happy to share. ("We're connnnnnneccccted.")