It’s the stare that sticks with me. Chris Wells is one of the most mercurially expressive performers I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing over decades in both L.A. and New York—I’ve watched him sing in cabarets, act in shows ranging from the original Bat Boy to a series of inimitable Tracy Young concoctions at the Actors’ Gang, and emcee his extraordinary artists’ “church,” the Secret City—and he is as quick with a song or a joke as he is adept with a soulful, stemwinding monologue or a simple moment of onstage communion with his fellow performers.
But it’s the moments when he pauses, even for a second and often for longer, to fix his gaze on us in the audience—a gaze that somehow combines shock and tenderness, challenge and welcome, gravity and bewilderment—that have transfixed me over the years, and which may offer one clue as to why this most presentational of performers may also be one of our most profound.
Wells’s new solo show, It Will All Work Out (at Dixon Place in New York City, Apr. 14-29), weaves memoirs of his peripatetic artist’s life into a kind of musical/cabaret extravaganza. Joined onstage by a band led by his longtime songwriting compadre, Jeremy Bass, and a small ensemble—Susan Hwang, Janelle Lawrence, and Juliet Garrett—with It Will All Work Out Wells appears to be embroidering further on the solo show format, along the lines of his brilliant post-9/11 show Liberty! or his more attenuated gender-dysphoric romp Olsen Terror. I’m imagining the effect will be something like Orson Welles performing David Sedaris monologues in a Taylor Mac show. Clearly it is Wells’s natural tendency to create even his most personal work in collaboration with community, including the multitude of characters within himself.
To shape his new show he’s joined by director Eliza Laytner. I spoke to them both from the midst of tech earlier this week.
Rob Weinert Kendt: How did you two meet?
Chris Wells: We were doing SITI Company training up in Saratoga a few years ago. I was invited to be a guest artist that summer by Anne Bogart and Ellen McLaughlin, and I went to workshop some material with Rachel Grimes. Actually it was some of the same stories we’re doing in this show, just adding music and theatricality. Eliza and I were just joking that we are making a musical in eight days of tech.
Does this include some material from that memoir collection you did in 2011, Big and Salty? I recall that in part as a sort of coming-of-age piece.
Wells: That’s something Eliza asked me when we started working on this: She said that one of the themes seems to be coming of age, even though I’m certainly of age now. The overarching theme seems to be this sort of constant becoming, that no matter how old you are, you’re always shifting identities, growing identities. The first story starts when I’m 13 and the last story ends when I’m 50.
Eliza Laytner: When I first read it, I had thought of it as a coming-of-age story. But the more we’ve been working on it, it seems to be about maintaining a spirit of optimism and hope and wonder in the face of a world that sometimes seems troubled and uncertain. And that difficulty is all relative, depending on where you are in your life.
What’s the story woven through the piece?
Laytner: There are these different stories, and the throughline is about a person constantly maintaining optimism and wonder throughout experiences and moments of pushback and discomfort. We’ve spoken a lot about the Brechtian form, about fragmentation, and the concept of a modern-day floor show that is sometimes standup, sometimes cabaret. There are all these stories, strung together, that hopefully bring the audience joy.
Wells: This show really is a return to form for me. It’s pushing into that old-school understanding of a cabaret form where there are all these different performance styles. It has direct address and a heightened sensibility, and it has a real awareness and generosity toward the audience. I think that’s something I’ve become more interested in—this idea of, we are in the room together, we are sharing this experience together. If this show does speak to the current moment at all, it’s in this idea of sharing a moment together in a room.
Laytner: We’ve also spoken a lot about magic, and how everything is magical in the world of this show.
Wells: But cheap magic.
This all sounds great, but I wonder if you could be more specific. In Liberty! the metaphor was a boy who wanted to be the Statue of Liberty; in A Fairy Tale it was the Brothers Grimm and fairy tales, playing on all the meanings of “fairy.” What’s the metaphor here?
Laytner: We talked about how the world of this play should be like coming into a carnival. I don’t want to give anything away, but there will be carnival lights, carnival music. There’s a popcorn machine.
A popcorn machine? I’m sold.
Laytner: You know, New York is such a tough place to live, and we all want to go to a carnival, to get away a little bit. So we think of parts of the show as: Let’s ride on this ride, let’s have some cotton candy, let’s get our Tarot cards read. It’s not so much about being distracted from our lives, but about uplifting ourselves.
Wells: It’s helpful to hear you talk about the world of the play. As I was listening to you describe that, Eliza, I thought, there’s something about this show that is suggesting a lens by which we look at the adventures and misadventures of our life—there’s a celebration, even of the shitty turns our lives take, even the disappointments, not even just the great losses but the small ones too. And the idea of everyday magic, cheap magic, speaks to something I’ve cultivated over this last period of my life: developing a real eye and using your creative vision to find magic all around you.
This show is a result of that, of asking, what is different about creative mindfulness? There are those of us who are trying to find—even if it’s delusional—moments of magic, of color, of synchronicity. There are little pieces of cheap glitter throughout the world of this show, and it’s about me kind of discovering that my life is full that glitter too. This is one of the great rewards of the life that you choose as an artist: You start to see incredible magic around you. It’s not about the Oscar or the multi-million-dollar contract, it’s about the ability to see the world through this creative lens. The stories are often mundane in their details, but there are profound revelations within them, and within the stage world of the show.
When you say it’s a return to form, how would characterize where your work has been in the interim?
Wells: When I started Secret City, I stopped doing a lot of straight theatre. I wanted to build something bigger, and in some ways I’ve been doing kind of a bigger kind of work. This show represents a sort of deeper integration, of my cabaret work, of my more narrative work, of music and storytelling. Also these incredible costumes that have started arriving in the Secret City, which allude to some of the drag work I did even before the Gang.
Shifting gears, can you tell me about the show’s rosy title?
Wells: I’ve said to people, I feel like I’m creating the dharma path I need to walk down with that title. As you know, I’m not necessarily the most trusting person—I can get pretty anxious. I guess we would say it’s aspirational.
Well, one thing I noticed is that “It will all work out” is not the same as saying, “It’s all good” or “Things are going to be fine” or even “Don’t worry.” It’s got “work out” in there, which suggests a process—work, even.
Wells: Oh, thank you for that. If I were the sort of person who wakes up at 3 in the morning worried about this kind of thing (and I am), I would worry that the title sounds kind of privileged and naïve and self-helpy. I hope that both the title and the message of the show go deeper than that.
All your work has a bit of a wink to it, as well, so I took the title in that spirit too.
Wells: Yes, totally. All those years doing the commedia stuff at the Gang, you gain a heightened awareness of everything, even one’s own emotional state. In some ways it interrogates itself. And you could just as easily invert the title and say, “Will it all work out?”
When you talk about seeing magic in everything, that sounds a lot like the gospel of the Secret City—of a creative approach to life, and finding a spiritual connection among artists. Thinking about it now, I’ve always sensed something deeper behind even your silliest work.
Wells: This is probably being too revealing, but I think the danger—and it’s good to have some danger in one’s work—is that this kind of show stays on the surface. It would be easy for it to live there: The material works for a crowd, I know the songs land, I have a good sense of humor. I know all of that stuff can be very successful, and it would be easy to stop at that. But I’m interested in, how do all those pleasurable elements come together to create a real depth of human experience? Even that resonates with the title. You’re almost trusting that with any ritual, just laying stones out in a certain way, if the elements are placed in the right formation, the mystery of the world will be revealed to you. That’s always my sort of hope with my work. That if you cultivate each individual element well, somehow that door will unlock.
Laytner: I’m always looking for and logging moments where imaginations erupt. I’ve done a lot of devising with my group, which is called Blue Flamingo, and part of our mission is about how we can become better listeners, not just in the work but in life. That’s part of the practice. This has been such a fun process, to create a place where people feel safe and comfortable but also inspired and turned on.
Can you tell me about where the Secret City is these days—I’m sorry I haven’t been to one in a while. How often is it now?
Wells: It’s quarterly in New York and quarterly in L.A., and then we have this big summer revival up in Woodstock in July. One of the huge things when I moved to New York in 2004 is that I was lamenting the lack of a real creative community, and it’s important to me to make my work in the context of community.
Many theatre artists feel that, but most of them solve that by founding a theatre company.
Wells: I guess because I had had such incredible avant-garde theatre experiences, with both Actors’ Gang and SITI Company, I couldn’t see myself starting over. I had burned through those early years when I had a kind of willingness that I didn’t have anymore. I had a kind of willingness still, but I wanted to build something that would, yes, give me a forum but also have an impact that I think theatre has been lacking. I feel like theatre has lost the thread of service, of really speaking to the people that it’s meant to speak to, and it’s just become an engine of product and entertainment rather than of service and learning.
Where will you be next?
Wells: We’ll be at Joe’s Pub in June, then Grand Performances in L.A. Then we’re going to Lancaster, to Antelope Valley Community College, my alma mater, in California. We’re building toward this national tour, where we’re going to enter the country with our Secret City freak show and see what happens out there.
Sounds bold, but I have a feeling it will all work out.