Not Religious? This Sunday Service In Silver Lake Worships Theater And The Arts

Secret City Singers choir rehearsal early on Sunday morning before the service at The Bootleg Theater in Silver Lake. (Courtesy of Secret City)

By Marcos Najera with Marialexa Kavanaugh

Sunday morning in America's a spiritual time for lots of people as they head to a house of worship. But it's also when we separate ourselves from others based on what we believe.

There's one church (of sorts) in Silver Lake that hopes to connect as many people as possible, but it's not part of a religion — it's a live performance that toggles back and forth between a cabaret and a joyful tent revival. It's called the Secret City and their next show is Sunday at the Ford Amphitheatre on Cahuenga.

The mastermind behind it: Los Angeles theater veteran Chris Wells.

"Well, the funny thing is, I very much believe in theater," Wells said. "And maybe as an actor, maybe I was feeling I wasn't using everything. I was performing and I was good at it and I had achieved some success, but I wanted something hugely challenging."

That frustration got Wells thinking about how to stretch himself as an artist and how to extend the reach of traditional theater. So he started talking to friends like Leslie Tamaribuchi, a CalArts faculty member and current Secret City board member.

"I remember just a few coffee dates we had in the mid-'90s where we would just brainstorm," Tamaribuchi said.

It turns out those coffee talks about how to use theater as a tool to build community led to small tea parties in Silver Lake where more creative people would join in on the jam sessions.

"There was a lot of conversation about church and ritual and the idea of organizing this gathering around, like a church service," Tamaribuchi said. "But we had a lot of conversation around how people felt about the idea of church. What people's experiences of church were. And whether that was an attractive word to use."

They found that they both went to Congregational churches growing up.

"I was part of a family that moved around, that was pretty nomadic and moved every 1.5 to 2 years when I was growing up, so we would always find a church as part of moving to a new place and as an entry point into community and getting to know a new place," Tamaribuchi said. "It was never really about God or faith as much as it was about community and place."

Secret City members wear silver and white to honor the holidays (Courtesy of Secret City)

Tamaribuchi said that one of her most formative experiences growing up was when her junior high church group spent one day a month visiting services from other religious institutions.

"Going to a Chinese Baptist church where they had full immersion baptisms and everybody was speaking in Mandarin. Going to an AME church. Going to a Jewish synagogue," Tamaribuchi said. "And seeing kind of what the delight in what was similar in how people gather to enact ritual and form community, what was different and surprising and diverse."

But in 2003, the idea for t Sheecret City got put on hold. Wells was done with L.A. He'd fallen in love with his boyfriend, painter Robert Lucy, and the couple moved to New York. Wells's acting career was on the upswing, but that meant lots of time away.

"So when I moved to New York, I realized that I never really ever find the community there that I was looking for," Wells said. "And I also was doing a lot of regional theater and I was not feeling that engaged by the theater I was making. I wasn't that satisfied living on the road and living out of a suitcase."

What did satisfy him: the memories of those L.A. brainstorm sessions and intimate salons with friends, where people would bring a poem, a story, or a song to share.

So Chris and Robert rented a small studio space in lower Manhattan and picked up where they left off in L.A. The word quickly spread, and soon the Secret City was holding "theater church" once a month in New York.

Since 2007, the raucous services have brought together thousands of art lovers with the artists themselves — in any given service, presentations can come from painters, poets, bubble blowers, chefs, Aztec dancers, fashion designers, you name it.

And just like in a traditional church, each ceremony is rooted in a sermon. At Secret City, the man of the cloth is Chris Wells — although his cloaks tend to have sparkly sequins, glitter, and feathers. And his homilies come from his real life stories.

In 2010, the Secret City scored an OBIE award. It's a special honor given for Off-Broadway theater. In this case, Wells received a special citation for creating the Secret City and for service to the creative community.

Two years later, Wells and company have gone bicoastal, staging shows in New York to right back here in L.A.

At a recent service, L.A. filmmaker Laura Nix shared a clip from her latest work — a documentary about a community of senior citizen ballroom dancers in San Gabriel.

L.A. Filmmaker Laura Nix was a featured artist of Secret City. (Courtesy of Secret City L.A.)

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

She played a clip of Chinese Vietnamese who came to the U.S. in their 20s, dancing at their high school reunion. After the clip ended, Wells invited the couple, Millie and Paul Cao, to perform live for the excited Secret City audience.

Paul Cao was feeling self-conscious in his dance attire, but when he took off his coat and revealed his own sequins underneath, the theater went wild. Then they danced.

"When they finished — I get chills thinking about it now," Nix said. "The entire audience stood up and gave them a standing ovation. They were just screaming and hooting and hollering and pounding the floor with their feet, because I think they got it."

That's exactly the goal, Wells said.

"Whether they know each other or not, we are asking them to engage with each other," Wells said. "We've designed the events so there is built-in interactivity. We're telling people, 'We are here to engage.' And we hope that people are not put on the spot or made to feel uncomfortable, but there is a very hearty, joyful invitation to participate."

He designed the events to soften the barrier between audiences and performers.

"Being with other people, I think there is salvation in that," Wells said. "I think that's how we are going to be able to move forward. If we can actually be with other people in real time and space."

Secret City now has regular programming in New York, L.A., and Woodstock, New York. They also have a weekly radio show broadcast. For more information, check out their website.


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