I moved to New York City at thirty-eight to pursue my acting career. Then, when I turned forty, I stopped acting and started The Secret City. Then in 2010, I won an Obie Award. For The Secret City. The irony of giving up acting to start a community arts organization and winning an Obie Award for it is not lost on me.
Bobby and I almost didn’t go the ceremony. The Ace Hotel was the new hip hotel in our neighborhood and they were celebrating their first anniversary, so they had a Mr. Softee truck out front and gave away free ice cream. Bobby and I caught wind of this, and at about six-thirty, we strolled over and found the truck. We joined the crowd of happy ice cream–eating people. We each got vanilla with chocolate syrup.
It was seven by the time we got home. The Obies were at eight. I said to Bobby, “I wish we didn’t have to go..”
But I had RSVP’d and didn’t want the Obie people to think I was rude. The invitation had come two weeks earlier: asking if I would be their guest.
Bobby and I decided to get it together. And we walked to Webster Hall; entering the building, we met up with Liz Levy, an early supporter of The Secret City.
“Hey,” she asked, “Are you up for an Obie?”
I laughed. “No.”
For a moment I had a tiny fantasy: Wouldn’t it be great if I were here to accept an award for this strange work I made for myself? But, I’m not even acting anymore so… Then I caught myself: Oh, Chris, why can’t you just be present for this, enjoy it. Stop fantasizing!
We walked in just as everybody was asked to move upstairs. We got swept up in the crowd, which felt like one of those historic moments when a city is evacuated — the Saigon airlift, the fall of Havana, the village of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof. You know what I mean: people moving en masse, with a level of panic rippling through the multitude. But this was the Obies, so instead of frenzied families bearing furniture and candlesticks with tied-together bundles of clothes, it was drunken actors clutching $14 cocktails and iPhones.
I looked at our tickets, we had assigned seats on the main floor, really close to the stage, fancy, I thought.
I turned to Bobby, and said, “I’m happy we came.”
As the show unfolded, I sensed that something might be going down. The Obie committee was introduced, and three of the names were people who had been to The Secret City in previous months. And I thought, Maybe I’m going to get an Obie tonight. That quickly turned into: Oh, Chris, why can’t you just be present for this. Stop fantasizing!
A few minutes into the show, an actor was given an Obie for sustained achievement. He got up and said, “First, I want to say hello to the balcony because that’s where I usually sit, so I knew when they asked me to sit on the floor that something was up.”
Oh god, I thought, I’m going to get an Obie Award and I am not well groomed; I needed a haircut; my pants were kind of tight.
However — here’s how the mind works — I talked myself out of what I knew to be true: Chris, why can’t you just be present for this, enjoy it. Stop fantasizing!
The next presenter walked up to the mike, and said, “It’s a salon, it’s a sanctuary,” and something in my stomach went knock. I started to cry. I turned to Bobby, who was totally checked out. “Bobby,” I said, but he seemed fixated by the molding in the ceiling and the architectural details of the room.
The presenter continued: “It’s part ceremony, part community gathering . . .”
“Bobby,” I repeated — this time he turned to me — “they’re about to give me an Obie Award.”
“What?” he mumbled as I said, “They’re about to give me . . .”
And when the presenter announced, “For The Secret City, Chris Wells,” Bobby’s mouth fell open. I know that’s a cliché, but his mouth actually did fall open. Like, it was closed one second, and then the next it was wide open.
I stood and hitched up my pants, but I was convulsing with sudden emotion. And this was causing my belly to jiggle. I walked to the end of the aisle and bumped into the wall all the while making whimpering sounds. I thought, I have got to access some dignity before arriving at the podium. I thought of Cicely Tyson and took long, slow strides to the stage.
In the emotions of the moment, I forgot to say that Bobby Lucy is the reason all of this has happened. It took true love entering my life to remind me what my values were, that I’m here to do something specific, maybe even special.
The Secret City is devoted to this pursuit: the quest to remember who we are and what we’re here to do. Creativity is the work of everyone whether we identify as artists or not: we’re here to create and to re-create, and in so doing, we make the world over and over again. And when your people help you do your work, that is the very best of all. It’s like great sex with Nutella added in.