February 27, 2006

The Downtown Gospel According to Reverend Billy

The Downtown Gospel According to Reverend Billy
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."  -- Walt Disney 


"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!"   --Reverend Billy 

His 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.

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 town.

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 community groups.

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 of naming.

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 fundamentalist.

"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 2000?"

"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 the media.

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 etoy.com.

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.


The 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?