- The Reverend Billy Project: From Rehearsal Hall to Super Mall with the Church of Life After Shopping
As Victor Turner argues in his anthropological study From Ritual to Theatre (1982), there can be a very fine line between efficacious social rituals and modern experimental theatre. The very existence of such a line is challenged by the performances and social interventions of Reverend Billy, a creation of the performance artist Bill Talen. Reverend Billy is a revivalist preacher — except instead of preaching fundamentalist Christianity or ultraconservative dogma, he speaks out against consumerism, giant corporations, and various infringements upon public space, the freedom of speech, human rights, and the environment. Together with his director/partner Savitri D, Talen founded the Church of Stop Shopping, which, after the financial crisis began in 2008, became the Church of Life After Shopping; their organization is currently called the Church of Earthalujah. Reverend Billy performs alongside Savitri and his "Life After Shopping" gospel choir. Because his performances use the idiom of revivalist preaching and because in some ways Reverend Billy resembles a rock star with a clerical collar (Talen's mane of bleach-blonde hair contributes significantly to this effect), Billy often engages with his audience in a particularly aggressive, confrontational manner.
The Reverend Billy Project, Savitri and Talen's examination of their own work, opens and closes with metaphorical reflections written in the voice of Reverend Billy: in the first chapter, "A Dedication to Shouting" (which precedes the introduction), Billy preaches on the efficacy of over-the-top performance, and in a concluding "Benediction," as the voice of Earth itself, he composes a poem imagining what the world would be like if everyone stopped shopping for a day. The second and penultimate chapters are critical contributions by Alisa Solomon. In her "Introduction: A Theory of the Leisure Suit," she leads us into Billy's performances and theorizes as to why they are both so pleasurable and compelling for audiences and efficacious in combating social ills. Chapter 12, "Theater, Justice, and Holy Spirit: A Conversation with Bill Talen and Savitri D" is an interview conducted by Solomon in which the trio discusses the history of the Reverend Billy project as well as its future. In this interview, Talen cannily suggests that part of the success of the character he created is due to the fact that revivalist preaching is an "American vocal tradition, like the blues, like auctioneering, like announcers on the trains" (201).
The body of The Reverend Billy Project, however, consists of Savitri and Talen describing their various social interventions, with each chapter devoted to a particular event or social issue. They begin by examining a protest against a Starbucks store in Los Angeles, for which Talen was convicted of trespassing and vandalism and imprisoned for three days. Showing how this setback [End Page 190] did not end their protests against Starbucks, in the next chapter they describe mass protests in New York and Barcelona. In chapter five, Savitri discusses their work at Coney Island, where they served as King and Queen of the annual Mermaid Parade in 2008. After the parade Savitri went on a hunger strike, broadcast on the internet, to protest the planned commercial development and gentrification of that historic New York playground. In the riveting sixth chapter, the two relate how Billy was arrested and ejected from Hofstra University, where he had been invited to perform, and the ways this demonstrated how corporate concerns can trump even a university's supposed commitment to academic and artistic freedoms. Similarly compelling are the subsequent narratives of Billy's successful campaign to get Victoria's Secret to use recycled paper in its catalogues, his less successful attempts to stop corporate infringement on the public space of New York's Union Square (during one protest there he was arrested for reciting the First Amendment). Talen and Savitri go on to describe...