February 27, 2000
SPRING THEATER/VISIONS OF AMERICA
The Downtown Gospel According to Reverend Billy
From Cyberspace to the Pulpit: Congregating at the 'Church of Billy' (April 16, 1998)
By JONATHAN KALB
"I think of a child's mind as a blank book.
During the first years of his life, much will
be written on the pages. The quality of that
writing will affect his life profoundly."
"We are drowning in a sea of identical details. . . . Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist. . . .
Times Square has been blown up by 10,000
smiling stuffed animals. . . . Don't shop, children, save your souls!"
is pulpit, when he performs in theaters, is a red Village Voice distribution box, apparently stolen from a street corner, with his
own picture displayed in the window. He
wears a clerical collar over a black shirt
and a white tuxedo jacket, the bleached-blond tips of his too neatly coiffed rockabilly
haircut adding just the right note to his
uncannily accurate Jimmy Swaggart imitation.
Bill Talen, a k a Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, outside
the Disney Store on West 42nd Street last year.
He rushes in, flashes a politician's smile
and begins preaching to his typically cool,
black-clad, downtown congregation of faithful nonbelievers: "We believe in the God
that people who do not believe in God believe in. Hallelujah!"
This is Reverend Billy, a k a Bill Talen,
minister of the Church of Stop Shopping, and
anyone who has not seen him has been
missing some of the most courageous, hilarious and pointed political theater in New
York. This is not a type of theater that only
takes place in auditoriums or other controlled environments but one that can also
appear in what Mr. Talen calls "the tight
proscenium arches that are in the subways,
in the lobbies of buildings and in parks."
In 1997, Mr. Talen began preaching on the
sidewalk outside the Times Square Disney
Store, eventually conducting "preach-ins"
and political "actions" inside the store,
which led to several arrests. (The store
closed earlier this month for construction of
an office tower on the site.) He has also
been preaching 90-second sermons on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition"
program and performing solo plays, directed by Tony Torn, David Ford and Vanessa
Klimek, at various small theaters around
During the last year, however, he has
become something of a lightning rod for the
creative and political aspirations of a growing number of other theater artists and
In December, a weeklong festival he organized at Judson Memorial Church in
Greenwich Village drew more than 1,200
spectators on its first night, despite no pre-opening coverage in New York's major
newspapers. Mr. Talen and the comedian-monologist Reno were the hosts of the event,
"Millennium's Neighborhood (Not a Celebration of the Malling of New York)." It
included some 80 artists (many of them
professional pranksters like Mr. Talen).
Among the speakers was the labor advocate
Charles Kernaghan, who arrived directly
from the World Trade Organization protests
in Seattle. The festival was devoted to the
causes of resisting consumerism, battling
the encroachment of corporate monoculture
in New York and (in Mr. Talen's words)
reclaiming "contested and surveilled public
spaces" -- the Disney Store and Washington
Square Park, among them. (During four
Sundays in March at the Salon Theater on
Bleecker Street, Mr. Talen will perform a
series of new comic church services, directed by Mr. Torn, each built around the cause
of a different community group that has
requested his support.)
How has this radical gadfly been able to
pester so effectively in an era when 1960's-style activism is supposed to be safely enshrined as history? And why have local
groups begun to seek him out in the way
they might an actual spiritual leader? The
answers to these questions, while rooted in
local issues, are also broadly relevant to
America's brave new culture of info-glut,
virtual values and 24-hour cybershopping.
Born in Minnesota in 1950, Mr. Talen was
brought up in a Dutch Calvinist tradition
that he rejected at 16. After graduating
from Franconia College in New Hampshire
and occasionally taking part in antiwar and
civil rights protests, he moved to San Francisco and became a performer, employing
storytelling routines that incorporated music and poetry.
He arrived in New York in 1994 and
became an artist in residence at St. Clement's Church, where he began developing
the Reverend Billy character under the
guidance of Sidney Lanier. Mr. Lanier is the
former vicar of St. Clement's, a cousin of
Tennessee Williams and the model
("only the noble parts," he says) of
the character T. Lawrence Shannon
in Williams's play "The Night of the
Iguana." Mr. Lanier said he immediately recognized Mr. Talen as "more
of a preacher with a gift for social
prophecy than an actor."
He helped Mr. Talen through what
had become a serious spiritual crisis
by giving him religious readings (by
the pre-Christian Gnostics, Elaine
Pagels and John Dominic Crossan).
Mr. Talen then related the readings
to the tactics and values of his own
comedian-heroes (chiefly Lenny
Bruce and Andy Kaufman), began
studying the demeanors of preachers
in New York's Pentecostal churches,
and found himself with an act whose
power no one could have anticipated.
At first glance, Reverend Billy is
easily confused with a simple parody
act in the vein of Don Novello's Father Guido Sarducci from "Saturday
Night Live." But to watch him is to
realize he is engaged in a more complex (and benevolent) deception that
harks back to P. T. Barnum and Melville's "Confidence Man." Mr. Talen
co-opts the persona of a right-wing
televangelist and uses it to awaken
actual spiritual hungers in his ostensibly impious audiences. Faced with
what the philosopher Ernst Bloch
once called the "swindle of fulfillment" in rampant consumerism, Mr.
Talen nullifies it temporarily with
his own counterswindle -- all the
more effective for being obviously
phony and live.
Flooding the halls he performs in
with an astonishing torrent of righteous words about the spell of consumer narcosis, he ends up offering
hundreds of hard-core artsy skeptics
(often in their 20's) their first chance
ever to shout "Hallelujah!" and to
indulge in Pentecostal call and response. They then find themselves
possessed of a precious community
not accessed via flickering screens,
and a channel for various inchoate
angers he has done them the service
His subjects range from the encroachment of suburban blight on
the city's neighborhoods (proliferating Gaps, Banana Republics, Starbucks and the like), to the outsize
role a media giant like Disney plays
in shaping American values and
influencing who is seen as an American, to the general debasement of a
democracy that now defines freedom
as consumer choice.
Conducting this operation is a delicate matter, Mr. Talen explained recently over coffee in his Bleecker
Street loft, "because the whole 'spiritual' thing has been completely hijacked."
"All the language has been hijacked by people we're in mortal
combat against," he said. "If it's not
the right-wing fundamentalists, then
it's the New Agers, who are just as
"But if you start by simply saying,
'Stop shopping!' and stop right
there," he continued, "then suddenly
we're all at the edge of this abyss
together and it's the beginning of an
invitation back into your own individual chaos."
Mr. Talen is hardly the first to
build a concept of radical theater
around the trappings of religious ritual, of course. In the 1960's, groups as
diverse as the Living Theater, the
Bread and Puppet Theater and Jerzy
Grotowski's Polish Theater Laboratory did so. Reverend Billy, though,
is a rare instance of applying the
practice powerfully in the information age.
Mr. Talen says his basic question
is, "How do you make a statement in
"It is my feeling that in the age of
information most statements can't
carry progressive values. Such
words disappear in thin air, become
instantly nostalgic or stylistic. We
seem to lack a critical culture right
now. Why? Information carries
meaning hypnotically but not powerfully. Stories, in contrast, create
meaning when we observe the experience of a changing individual."
The problem, Mr. Talen believes,
is that "stories" (in Walter Benjamin's sense of tales that contain
"counsel," the passing on of individual wisdom) are increasingly melted
down to serve the culture's corporate
super-narrative, or else ignored by
Reverend Billy has become one of
the bellwethers of a possible renascence of guerrilla theater partly
because he has demonstrated how to
build such art around local issues
that can be made palpably clear and
fun to protest. Each of his "church
services" next month will culminate
in a group march out of the theater,
to commit a political action on the
theme of the night.
The March 5 evening focuses on
"the dot-comming of Silicon Alley,"
in particular on the loss of a large
portrait of the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat by André Charles, a
street artist, which occupied a wall
on a building at Lafayette and
Bleecker Streets until it was painted
over last June by workers hired by
the NoHo Business Improvement
District. Co-sponsors for this evening
include Extreme Artists 2000, the
Lower East Side Collective and
RTMark, the sophisticated cyberguerrilla group that succeeded in
helping to make the Web's leading
toy retailer, eToys Inc. (etoys.com on
the Web), drop its legal attack on the
previously registered art Web site
On March 12, the focus will be on
the recent battle of the Theatorium,
a downtown theater collective,
against eviction (a battle that was
won by the theater at the 11th hour)
and the looming gentrification of the
neighborhood east of Essex Street
and north of Delancey Street on the
Lower East Side.
The March 26 theme is sweatshops. And the March 19 evening is
dedicated to the Esperanza Garden,
founded in 1977 by Alicia Torres on
Seventh Street, between Avenues B
and C, and bulldozed by the city on
Feb. 15 amid scores of protesters and
police. (The development of the land
is still being fought in court.) On New
Year's Eve, Reverend Billy
preached at the garden before local
residents camped out in front of
earth-movers, a gigantic ceramic
frog, an invited audience dressed up
like vegetables, and several documentary camera crews.
Mr. Talen is
a subject in two forthcoming films:
one by Richard Sandler, who made
the documentary "The Gods of
Times Square"; the other, "A Day in
the Hype of America," by the Seattle
filmmakers Global Griot.
he actions and pranks in
"Millennium's Neighborhood" included group addresses to cameras attached to street lamps in Washington
Square Park, led by the Surveillance
Camera Players; the ritual defacing
of a Docker's billboard; and a walking tour of the three Starbucks stores
around Astor Place in the Village, led
by Megan Wolff. Ms. Wolff, a veteran
of Mr. Talen's monologue workshops
(he currently teaches at the New
School), discussed company practices in front of Starbucks customers
in the manner of a genial, self-appointed docent.
The new "new radicalism," it
seems, knows the value of accurate
information, knows how to turn facile
quality-of-life arguments against
their cynical purveyors, and understands the enduring threat of live
performance that can operate beneath the mediated radar of mass
culture. Reverend Billy's preaching
in the Disney Store, he said, was an
attempt to infiltrate the site of "purest anti-meaning," Disney's "high
church of mind-deadening retail . . .
where personal story, or any original
action, receives its purest response
in such evidence as people laughing
hysterically, people quietly agreeing,
people wincing, turning away in
shame, people shouting with anger,
people arresting me."
Can this man get a witness?