Bill Talen

Bill Talen

BandComedySpoken Word

Bill Talen exhorts consumers to slow down their consumption. In addition to performances held internationally, Talen is the subject of the Morgan Spurlock documentary titled "What Would Jesus Buy."

Biography

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.

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