Bill Talen
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Bill Talen

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Reverend Billy — the alter ego of the performance artist Bill Talen, bleach-blond pompadoured and an
impressive presence at 6-foot-3 in his pale brown leisure suit — struts, preaches and sings his way across the Spiegeltent stage at the South Street Seaport, bringing his anticorporatist, environmentalist message to the converted via a sermon and several songs, accompanied by the Church of Stop Shopping gospel choir and a seven-piece band.

The Spiegeltent is an ideal site for several reasons. Reverend Billy takes full advantage of the parodic possibilities, running through all the sacred tropes of the tent revival. But more, the tent is across from a Victoria’s Secret branch, Victoria’s Secret being the Reverend Billy’s particular bête noire this time around.

The company is not alone. Over the years that Reverend Billy has been practicing his brand of guerrilla theater, Starbucks, Nike and the Walt Disney Company have been among his targets. Right now, he is particularly incensed that Victoria’s Secret has claimed countless trees (and accompanying fauna) in the production of its many catalogs.

But before Reverend Billy can be dismissed as yet another prankster-activist with a megaphone, one must note that there is something more here, far more. “Reverend Billy’s Tent Revival,” a 90-minute show running occasional Sundays and on Sept. 11 at the Spiegeltent through Oct. 1, projects an additional note of tragedy and loss: it reminds its audience that when large corporations decide to leave their imprint on local areas, neighborhood identity and self-sovereignty are destroyed.

And while Victoria’s Secret is only one of the chain stores at the seaport, making an example of it in the show is part of a larger point by Reverend Billy: the importance of conserving a noncorporate community spirit based on cooperation rather than consumerism.

That Reverend Billy is accompanied by a stirring choir and fine live band is icing on the cake, of course, but that cake is what nourishes. His politically radical parody of a fundamentalist church service may indeed preach to the converted. But all Sunday services, at every church, do precisely the same thing, though usually without Mr. Talen’s sly, subversive humor.

Reverend Billy may not convert you. But you will think twice about shopping, once the show is over. - NEW YORK TIMES


FALSE PROFIT Reverend Billy, the subject of a new documentary by Morgan Spurlock, sermonizes on the evils of multinational corporations
In his thrift-store white suit, priest's collar, and blond pompadour, Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping looks more like Elvis than Billy Graham. He stands on the sidewalk in New York's Astor Place, where one Starbucks stands across the street from another, with a third branch down the block. It's what he calls "the Devil's Triangle."
Behind him, the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, a 38-member crew dressed in red robes, holds signs above their heads—the Starbucks logo with a red line through it. "Take us to church, Reverend!" screams one.
Reverend Billy begins his sermon. "A number of us just returned from Kenya. The birthplace of civilization—the birthplace of coffee," he intones, playing his voice like a trombone. "We had the privilege of talking to Ethiopian coffee farmers. See, they preside over very special soil which makes the best coffee in the world."
The choir explodes in approval. "Amen, hallelujah!"
"The coffee farmers are starving," he continues, brow furrowing as he paces methodically back and forth on the sidewalk. "When they applied for the copyright to the names of their ancient coffees so they could lift themselves out of poverty, they were blocked by the devil." Steam rushes out of his mouth; he looks up theatrically at the sky. "The devil, in the form of a mermaid with no nipples."
"Lord help us," yells a blond choir member, appearing to faint.
Passersby by aren't sure what to think, but they stop and watch. A line of photographers and video cameras lends the spectacle an air of legitimacy. And within minutes a crowd of 100 people has gathered.
With tactics like these, Reverend Billy's crusade has slowly gained momentum over the span of a decade. But this year, progress seems to be coming much faster: Victoria's Secret announced in December that they will bow to the church's demand to cease using pulp from endangered rainforests in their catalogues. And Stop Shopping is the subject of What Would Jesus Buy? a new documentary by Morgan Spurlock, the man who sacrificed his body in Super Size Me. The film premieres at South By Southwest on March 11, and its production company is hoping for a nationwide release next December.
When I meet Reverend Billy, aka Bill Talen, before the Starbucks rally, he is at a farmers' market with his wife, Savitri D., the church's second-in-command. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a brown leather wallet to pay for a carton of eggs, a transaction I note with mild suspicion.
"We want to make a distinction between 'shopping' and buying things of value from someone you can talk to," Reverend Billy explains. He doesn't necessarily want you to grow your own food, hand-sew your clothes, or smell like a hippie. He just wants you to support local businesses over huge corporations.
"Multinationals dominate our neighborhoods, our lives, our government, the way we think, our ideas of happiness," says Reverend Billy. "We're trying to get people to stop running their lives by commodified behavior. Prosperity isn't what we've been told it is—it's laughing, singing, and dancing."
He swings into preacher mode, his voice welling up from deep in his belly. "We live in a sea of identical details. We have to resist temptation. But we all sin," he says.

BEAN STALKING To Reverend Billy, the devil is "a mermaid with no nipples"
Bill Talen's relationship with religion has always been complicated. He grew up in a Calvinist family in Minnesota. "Calvinists believe in predestination—that God decides before you're born whether you'll be spending eternity with the lord or gnashing your teeth in hellfire," he says. "I was 7 years old hearing this in Sunday school, and I'm going, 'But ... noooo.'"

A decade later, Talen was selling encyclopedias in New Orleans. "I came to this church and it was just rocking," he says. "I wandered in, stood in the front row and went nuts. All these grandmothers were fainting. I remember thinking, 'This is where God is.'"
But Talen didn't head straight to the nearest theological seminary. Instead, he was drawn to acting and began participating in small productions in San Francisco. After one show, an Episcopal minister named Sidney Lanier, who had created a theater group in his Times Square church, approached him with a suggestion. "You have a prophetic quality to your voice," said Lanier, "Why don't you investigate preaching?"
But Talen wasn't interested. "I'd been beat up so badly by right-wing Christians. I said, 'Let Saturday Night Live spoof preachers. It's not for me.'"
In 1995, after struggling to find his footing in San Francisco, Talen moved to New York. He had stayed in touch with Lanier, who offered him a job as the house manager of the American Place Theater, located inside St. Clement's Church. Talen began studying with Lanier and attending religious services. He wa - Radar


It's not unusual for religious leaders to find themselves at the center of controversy, after all, matters of faith are deeply felt. But the TODAY show's Natalie Morales recently met one very unusual pastor, who has managed to make a lot of waves, even without ever preaching about God. Reverend Billy (the creation of actor and activist Bill Talen) is the ringleader of the "Church of Stop Shopping." And his revival tour across America is the subject of the upcoming Morgan Spurlock film "What Would Jesus Buy?," his first movie since the national hit "Super Size Me!" Here's an excerpt of the companion book to the movie, "What Would Jesus Buy?":
Retail interventions
The first job of a church is to save souls. And pulling out of the advertising/debt/waste cycle of consumerism is our idea of deliverance. Much of our soul-saving mission work consists of dramatic rituals and plays inside retail environments. Our missionaries are sometimes disguised as consumers — “invisible” to management’s eye. At other times our Nonviolent Disobedient Performances inside the retail environment, the chaos and broad strokes — the Inappropriate Behavior! Amen! — carries our message best. The interventions that follow, developed over the last ten years, are some of our favorites.
As your new church prepares to Stop the Shopping of the citizenry, as you become a Sacred Spy of the Shopocalypse, it is worth asking yourself a few questions.
Who’s your Devil? Whether it’s a big box or chain store, or a nuke plant on a fault line: This is your “charged stage.” The consumers are the souls that must be saved. (But never forget: WE ARE ALL SINNERS.) When the consumers come into view, browsing or walking up the street, they will see your church performing inside, or Oddly near, the Devil’s logo. We must not be naïve about how powerful the multinationals are in the ordinary matter of BUY THIS. The consumers, upon seeing the imagery of the product or corporation, often immediately have memories, fantasies, anticipations.
This is Product Sex, and it is sinning of a very well-defended kind. It is our job to know what the existing props (the logo, celebrity spokesperson, corporate history, recent news items) are doing to the openness of those witnesses.
What are they thinking? Could they be open to asking a new question or two about the product before them?
Big Boxes and Boutiques
Our local chapter of the Church of Stop Shopping performs in any public setting where we can sing and preach — piers and docks, church rooftops, parks and boulevards. But there will also be “contested” space: the privatized spaces that wish to appear to be public space, but curb our Freedom of Speech.
There are two types, the big box and the chain store. These two have their contrasting seductions: the forces behind the fluorescing behemoth big box hope that the stores will glow and call to you with the promise of infinite products; while the chain stores, built to a more human scale, often try to blend in with the neighborhood, sometimes even imitating the local independent shops that they killed.
Retail Interventions in either of these environments can be intimate. We can whisper facts about labor slavery, the history of the company, the CEO’s stock options. But when a symbolic pageantry or public drama is staged for visual effect, then the two stages are very different. Big Box stores throw everything into the middle distance quickly. Your observers will generally be in cars or behind carts. In the “boutiques,” our church activists can sometimes withdraw to the sidewalk or street outside and continue to perform, with the curious customers following us out.
Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks are boutiques. Both have managed to depoliticize the public’s responses, and remain separate from the phrase “chain store.” Victoria’s Secret is still not associated in the public mind with clear-cutting virgin forests. Their million catalogs a day are mostly made of virgin timber. Starbucks still insists it has nothing to do with employing seven-year-olds. Starbucks routinely lies about the condition of its coffee worker families. Both companies have more exposure from their famous ads than from the damning research that watchdog groups post on websites. So with these smaller venues, direct education becomes more important. Whatever shocking bit of theater catches our audience’s interest, we still must prove our case in a more traditional way with clear and clean information sheets.
This is where a long retreat from a supermall can be an advantage. Once you give a shopper a sheet, security cannot intercede — they don’t pull the paper from the customer’s hands. So if we are escorted to the door and start walking across the parking lot, we might hand out information to a hundred people walking in from their cars. (It is fascinating to have later email conversations with people you encounter in the malls, and it helps spread the Word. Always make it easy for the shoppers to - MSNBC


LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- Buy Nothing Day is getting a Jesus jolt.
New York-based performance artist Bill Talen assumes the persona of Reverend Billy, often accompanied by a gospel choir, to use the histrionics and cadences of a televangelist (think Jimmy Swaggart) in an anti-consumerism effort to convert people to his "Church of Stop Shopping."
And for this year's Black Friday shopping frenzy, Talen is upping his profile with a colorful campaign promoting a new documentary film about his efforts, "What Would Jesus Buy?"
It will feature "Four Horsemen of the Shopocalypse" riding down Madison Avenue in New York and "elves on strike" at the Grove outdoor mall in Los Angeles, said Morgan Spurlock, who produced the film.
Spurlock, known for placing himself in uncomfortable situations in 2004's "Super Size Me" and his "30 Days" TV series, isn't going with the immersion technique for this project.
"I've unplugged, man," Spurlock said this week. "I've started to walk away from this idea of getting credit card after credit card to get people more gifts."
Spurlock says the campaign and film should appeal to conservative Christians as well as to those on the political left.
"People on both sides of the fence can agree on one thing, and that's that the holiday's gotten out of control," he said.
"We've been convinced that the way to show your love for someone is by what you buy them, by what the price tag is, by what is represented on the receipt. And that's the wrong message to send out," he added.
A review of "What Would Jesus Buy?" in "Christianity Today" questioned whether Talen's act, poking fun at both religion and consumerism, went too far.
"Yes, it's condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity," the magazine said, before concluding: "But the whole argument of the film is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity."
Buy Nothing Day was conceived by artist Ted Dave of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1992, and since then has been championed by Adbusters magazine, said Adbusters campaign manager Paul Cooper.
"It started off as a bit of a joke," said Adbusters editor-in-chief Kalle Lasn. "Environmentalists are really the core base of this movement. But after that there were religious people that came on board."
Cooper calls the day an "open source" event for all types of performance artists and activists. Any effort that generates thought about shopping and consumption is encouraged. Last year, one group wandered into stores wearing shirts that advertised 50 percent off everything in the store.
"There are a lot of people who don't like this weird tradition of hectic shopping and frenzied and angry crowds the day after Thanksgiving," Cooper said. - CNN.com, Associated Press


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Anti-Consumerism Activist and Subject of What Would Jesus Buy?
Bill Talen is the actor and activist who, as the Reverend Billy, leads the “Church of Stop Shopping” an activist performance group based in New York City. Using the form of a revival meeting, on sidewalks and in chain stores, Reverend Billy and his gospel choir exhort consumers to abandon the products of large corporations and mass media; the group also preaches a broader message of economic justice and anti-militarism, protesting sweatshops and the Iraq War. Though it continues its street theater activities, the Church also appears on stage and tours internationally.

In 1997, Talen, a Minnesota-born actor who had moved to New York from San Francisco three years earlier, began appearing as Reverend Billy on street corners in Times Square, near the recently opened Disney Store. Times Square had recently begun its transformation from a seedy but lively center of small-time and sometimes illicit commerce – and also of New York theater – to a more gentrified and tourist-friendly venue for large companies like Disney and big-budget productions like The Lion King. Whereas other street preachers chose Times Square because of its reputation for sin, Reverend Billy’s sermons focused on the evils of consumerism and advertising – represented especially by Disney and Mickey Mouse – and on what Talen saw as the loss of neighborhood spirit and cultural authenticity in Rudolph Guiliani’s New York.

Talent’s chief collaborator in developing the Reverend Billy character was the Reverend Sidney
Lanier. A cousin of Tennessee Williams with an interest in avant-garde theatre, Lanier was then the vicar of St. Clement’s, an Episcopal church in Hell’s Kitchen that doubled as a theatrical space, where Talen was working as house manager. Lanier encouraged Talen, who was suspicious of religious figures after rejecting the conservative Protestantism of his youth, to study radical theologians and performers; of these, Talen credits Elaine Pagels and Lenny Bruce as particularly strong influences. Though Talen does not call himself a Christian, he says that Reverend Billy is not a parody of a preacher, but a real preacher; he describes his church’s spiritual message as “Put the Odd back in God.”

After beginning as a solo performer, Reverend Billy soon acquired a loose organization that assisted in his in-store actions. These were originally centered around the Disney store. In one early action, Talen and his associates pretended to be shopping at the store and talking on non-functional cell phones, carrying on increasingly loud conservations about the evils of Disney and its products; once the ruse was discovered, Reverend Billy began preaching to the actual consumers until police removed him from the store. The Starbucks coffeehouse chain became another frequent target of the Church’s actions, due to its displacement of local small businesses, its labor practices, and its role in creating what Talen calls “fake Bohemia.”

Reverend Billy is featured in the documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?, released in November 2007. Produced by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock and directed by Sundance Award-winner Rob VanAlkemade, it focuses on the issues of the commercialization of Christmas, materialism, the alleged over-consumption in American culture, globalization, and the business practices of large corporations, as well as their economic and cultural effects on
American society, as seen through the prism of activist Billy Talen (a.k.a. “Reverend Billy”). Filmgoers will follow the Reverend and his troupe of activists, whose street theater performances take the form of a church choir called “The Church of Stop Shopping,” that sings anti-shopping and anti-corporate songs, as they take a cross-country trip in the month prior to Christmas 2005, and spread their message against what they perceive as the evils of patronizing the retail outlets of several different large corporate chains, in particular the strip clubs of Lenawee County, Michigan. Their decadence and debauchery is uncovered by the Reverend and the true nature of Christmas is revealed.

Reverend Billy is a well-informed speaker on consumer culture and globalization, with an entertaining blend of street theater, political grandstanding, and performance art.