As the creator, producer and host of Reno comedy improvisational troupe The Utility Players, Jessica “Jester” Levity has natural theatrical and improvisational tendencies. But her academic training at the University of Wisconsin–Madison was actually in philosophy, specifically metaphysics, her true passion. The combination led her to create Alchemist Theatre, a live experience intended to uplift the spirit and nurture the soul.
When she moved to Reno in 2008, she discovered the New Thought movement, a sect of metaphysical organizations centered around God and the spirit—not religious doctrine.
“They tend to be made up of people who grew up Catholic or in other Christianity-based churches, and they go there to avoid references to Christ-only doctrine,” said Levity, who actually began pursuing ministry at Circle’s Edge, a New Thought church in Reno.
But New Thought churches can be limiting, with their purposeful avoidance of religion.
“I would sit in services and feel like something was missing,” Levity said. “I enjoyed the people and the minister, but I didn’t feel there was much spirit in the room.”
On her brother’s advice, Levity attended a service at Unity Center of Reno and discovered music director Mark Emerson. It was with this “black gospel-meets-Broadway” piano-playing singer that she found what she was looking for and began “cheating” on her church to hear Emerson sing.
“Instantly, I was alchemized by him,” she said, citing the source of Alchemist Theatre’s name. “It transformed me.”
“She had been kind of stalking me on Facebook,” Emerson said. “But at the same time, I’d been really asking the universe to provide an outlet for my spirituality. I just wasn’t being fulfilled.”
Neither was Levity, which led her to create the church she needed. And she wanted Emerson to be her music director.
First and foremost, it would be theater, not church.
“For people seeking answers, church can have negative connotations,” said Emerson, an openly gay man who grew up Mormon but had no truck with its rigid dogmas and creeds. “With Alchemist Theatre, people are having a spiritual experience without knowing it.”
Levity quickly recruited her old college friend, fellow Utility Player Christopher Daniels, new to the helm as managing director at Goodluck Macbeth Theatre Company, to bring his own brand of theater to the Alchemist experience.
Taking a cue from his one-woman show as drag queen Ginger Devine, Daniels performs as Reverend Devine, a Southern gospel, tent-revival style preacher whose thought-provoking, flamboyant, humorous sermons are less rehearsed monologue than off-the-cuff reflection on a theme.
“I think Alchemist Theatre is a nondenominational way of examining our lives, answering questions and building community around celebrating our uniqueness and recognizing our oneness,” Daniels said. “I didn’t come from a philosophy or church background, so my message is intended to come from a place of authenticity that everybody can relate to.”
Each hour-long service takes place on the third Wednesday of the month at Goodluck Macbeth and centers on a theme. (August’s theme is “Brave.”) Levity offers guided meditation, then Reverend Devine does a rousing sermon. Interspersed throughout is music by Emerson, who leads the 11-member choir and five-piece band in a combination of well-known and original music that fits the theme.
The overwhelmingly positive response has led to increasingly packed houses. Also exciting is their recent invitation to do a TEDx Reno talk on Oct. 2, which Levity says will be an Alchemist Theatre service “smushed into 18 minutes.”
“I think we as a people are lost and searching for clarity and understanding and compassion, and it’s hard to find that,” Daniels said. “So we try to be a community of uplifting support and encouragement. We’re all on the same path, so we just try to make people feel good.”