The Secret City is what used to be called a happening in the 1960s. It’s art and music and song and poetry and readings and movies and audience participation. It’s church – the performances are held at 11:30am on Sunday mornings once a month (their tagline is “We worship art”). It’s fun and funny. It’s thoughtful. It’s held at Dixon Place, which is a non-profit organization founded in 1986 to provide a space for literary and performing artists to create and develop new works in front of a live audience. After reading their calendar, I think I’d like to visit Dixon Place again to see the works in progress. There’s a bar and lounge upstairs and the theater is downstairs.
Each month The Secret City picks a subject. For March it was energy. The theater is small and is seats on risers. While we were taking our seats, Jeremy Bass and The Secret City Band were playing “Electric Avenue.” The band is Bass (music director/guitar), John Brodeur (bass), Marlon Cherry (percussion), Leah Coloff (cello), Brian Kleve (trumpet/flugelhorn) (he wasn’t there on the 20th), Ryan Rumery (drums), and Karl Saint Lucy (piano).
Next is the Welcome. Chris Wells (founder/artistic director) came out wearing a very fuzzy feathery hat and long black cape. He sang and spoke and gave his hat to a woman sitting in the front, dramatically took off his cape, which revealed a black and white striped outfit, and eventually took off his big black-framed glasses.
While Wells recited “What is this City?” we would respond at certain points with “this is it” and ended with “and so it is.” The call and response was similar to church. Then there was The Mingle, where we all exchanged hellos and complimented each other on our outfits or asked other questions. Again, this was like church except it lasts for much longer than the “sign of peace.” The woman to my left was very friendly – her name was Bernice and I had heard her talking with the woman to her left earlier. That woman was wearing a huge hat and beautiful bustier and Bernice was complimenting her on it. The woman to my right had an accent and asked where I was from. Both she and Bernice were impressed that I’d traveled all the way from Queens. The accented woman lived in the area and Bernice had traveled from uptown after an MRI but she lived in the West Village. Bernice had been to The Secret City before and was happy to see two newbies. As you can see, the conversation lasted longer than a simple “peace be with you.”
The Breath of Life was a simple breathing in and breathing out exercise. Romana Soutus read The Cultural Calendar, which was a list of March 20th births and deaths, weddings (John and Yoko), special celebrations (International Day of Happiness), and different events happening around town including Soutus’ upcoming show at La Mama.
Artist Miriam Cabessa painted in front of us. For Look At This: Action Paintings on Paper a dropcloth was put down on the stage and then a canvas on top of it. Cabessa opened a jar and poured some of the liquid on the canvas. She spread it around until it covered the entire canvas. Then she put a dab of yellow oil paint in the middle and made a big bright circle of yellow. Next she took some purple paint and, with a rag, she spread it all around the canvas except on the yellow circle. Then she took her hands, palms down, and dragged them from outside the circle to in the circle. She repeated this several times while coming from further out or from different areas of the canvas. Cherry provided accompaniment. It was pretty impressive for on the fly. When she was finished the audience asked questions. Cabessa was using her breath to dictate where her hands would go and where they would end up. So she was using the energy from her body to create the work. She said that usually when she’s finished she erases the canvas and the audience groaned. Cabessa said she could keep the painting if we wished. Cabessa and a volunteer carried the painting offstage. On the wall in front of us were other paintings by Cabessa. She said she usually uses objects, like books, to create her works.
We had A Taste of microgreens from Brooklyn Grange Farm. Brooklyn Grange is the largest rooftop farm in the world. The microgreens included arugula, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and others. The flavors were very peppery and nutty.
A Game with Ayun Halliday. She is a writer and actor married to Greg Kotis, who wrote Urinetown, and was Stephen Colbert’s girlfriend at Northwestern. She is also the volunteer coordinatrix for The Secret City. Get On Up! was a lot of fun but hard to do from our seats. We stood up and followed her directions (in song) while we shook our arms, legs, and head and turned around shaking our bodies.
Watch This was a scene from a Bollywood film – “Jaan Pehchan Ho” from Gumnaam, which was directed by Raja Nawathe. The women were dressed in fringed dresses and the guys were in black suits with white piping. Everyone wore black bandit/Zorro masks. The song was fast and the dancers were faster. They shook their bodies and the heads wildly as a singer in a white suit and thin sleezy mustache moved around or lay on the ground. The audience couldn’t stop laughing – I found it funny and weird but was so fascinated I couldn’t laugh.
Larry Kunofsky did A Reading: Energy and Its Opposite or, On Trying to Finish My Book. It was short and it was funny. Story: A Special Energy by Wells was a bit longer and very funny. Wells told his story about joining an adult ballet class. We heard about his reluctance to join and his reluctance to carry on and the aches and pains in a very amusing way. Especially his consternation about a quote above the studio door.
Meditation was just that. We all sat quietly with our eyes closed. A Song was Michele Mais singing “I Got the Music in Me.” She was loud and rocking and it was the perfect way to energize us. I had noticed Mais sitting in the audience when we had first walked in – she is very hard to miss with her big hair and black-lined eyes. Mais played Justice in Rock of Ages both off and on Broadway.
The Offering (like Meditation) brought us back to church. The volunteers passed around baskets while we filled them with the $15 suggested donation. The Secret City runs on donations only and is helped by a group of volunteers. During The Offering, The Secret City Singers performed “High Energy.” Saint Lucy is the choir director and the singers are Alexandra Avans, Susan Brecht, Carla Cantrelle, Sunny Chapman, Sarah Merchlewitz, Heather Lynn Milner, Connie Perry, Ryan Sheridan, Marie Sicari, Marilyn Perez Uncal, Susan Vittucci, and Shonnie Zion. Not all of them were there. The singers were dressed in different black and white striped or patterned outfits, all giving the appearance of energy. One had a white feather in her hair echoing Wells’ hat.
Announcements were made then there was the Recitation, which was adapted from Rachel Carson. The audience recited along with Wells.
We all walked out while The Secret City Band played. Wells said they could always use volunteers and anyone could join The Secret City Singers – just ask Saint Lucy. I’d like to start singing again and I’m considering it.
Upstairs volunteers had filled the lounge with food (mostly sweets) and beverages. The audience was invited to eat and drink and meet the performers.
It was such a fun and happy way to spend a Sunday morning. Thank you to Mrs. Devereaux for turning me on to this.
By Carene Lydia Lopez