April 22nd, 2011
Reverend Billy and His Crusade Against Consumerism
Perhaps you’ve heard of Reverend Billy. He’s the prophet of anti-consumerism. The street performer, protest artist and one-time candidate for New York City mayor. He’s been the subject of the Morgan Spurlock film, “What Would Jesus Buy?”
Perhaps you’ve seen him in his acting get-up, a parody of the southern white televangelist—the cotton-white preacher’s suit and clerical collar and that bleached-blonde pompadour that stands on his head as if juiced by a finger in an electrical socket.
Reverend Billy is the stage persona created by a man named Bill Talen, 60, who grew up in a strict Dutch Calvinist household in the Middle West. Talen is an actor and writer who began his career in San Francisco’s Life on the Water theatre, where he presented works performed by Spalding Gray and Danny Glover, among others.
Talen moved to New York City in the mid-1990s, in the throes of a self-described midlife crisis. Here, with the guidance of an actual cleric named Sidney Lanier, Talen dreamed up the character of a street preacher named Reverend Billy.
The idea of Reverend Billy is relatively simple: blind, mindless consumerism is harmful, to society, to families, to individuals and, ultimately, to the earth. Despite its simplicity, the idea is relatively radical for most of us in the U.S.
Talen began his Reverend Billy career by marching into the Disney Store in Times Square and “exorcising” the demons of shopping. Usually, he held up a stuffed Mickey Mouse and preached a “stop-shopping” gospel, which included bits about the horrors of sweatshop labor and the importance of finding and maintaining our own stories, not ones sold to us by corporations. Shoppers usually stood stunned and watched the performance with their hands over mouths. Store workers usually called the police. Talen gradually expanded his “retail interventions” to the Gap, Starbucks and Nike and other outlets of multinational companies he believes rely on sweatshop labor. He has been handcuffed and escorted into the back of a police cruiser more than 50 times.
Over the years, Talen’s act has become less of a parody or satire and more refined and thought-provoking (though still very entertaining). For his performances, Talen has developed musical accompaniment—the 35-member Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, which performs Broadway-worthy numbers. He now has an actual congregation and has performed weddings, baptisms and funeral rites.
His message has evolved, too. While still preaching about the horrors of sweatshops, Talen’s main focus these days is on consumerism’s effects on the earth. The Church of Earthalujah—part theatre, part musical, part worship service—has a performance every Sunday at Theatre 80 in the East Village (the run ends June 26).