Whether protesting climate change, racial injustice. or overconsumption, Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping do it in glorious song
It's going to be a very busy Thanksgiving weekend for the Talen family. For the holiday, Bill Talen, better known as political performance artivist Reverend Billy;
his partner and longtime director, Savitri D; their young daughter Lena; and their Stop Shopping Choir are heading to Saint Louis, Missouri to enjoy an organic Thanksgiving feast on the lawn of the world’s largest biotechnology seed company, Monsanto. Afterward, they'll bring food to nearby Ferguson activists, who have been protesting nonstop since a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. Then it's back to their home base of New York City on Sunday, where this self-described "radical performance community" continues their five Sunday Joe's Pub holiday run of Monsanto Is the Devil
, equal parts evangelical church service parody, musical extravaganza, town hall meeting, and call to action.
While those may sound like independent events, Reverend Billy sees a very clear through line. Although the Church of Stop Shopping's original focus was counteracting rabid consumerism, Reverend Billy and his cohorts have spent the past year using their unique brand of musical activism to spotlight corporations' insidious role in climate change, including a 15-minute protest/performance at a Manhattan JPMorgan Chase bank last fall that got the reverend arrested, not to mention lots of international media attention. To Reverend Billy, all of these happenings are theatre, whether they're taking place on a stage, out on the street, or in the aisles of Walmart, and it's a compelling way to bring the group's message to the people.
I talked with Reverend Billy and Savitri D about connecting various sociopolitical dots, how they come up with their shows, and what they hope audiences take away from the experience.
Consumerism used to be the Church of Stop Shopping's core issue, but you've been very concerned with the environment of late. How did you segue from one to the other?
We didn't! Consumption is among the primary causes of climate change: consumption of energy, consumption of fossil fuels that become products, etc. I would say that [the Church of Stop Shopping's] turn toward this end of the spectrum, concentrating on environmental issues, began in about 2005 around Hurricane Katrina. But we'll always continue with our main mission. When we're down in Ferguson, it will be Buy Nothing Day
[a.k.a. Black Friday]. So we're going to have to buy everything ahead of time and make sure we don't break the boycott. These issues are never separate. Everything is connected.
We try to be current with what's going on right now and still address our core issues. Consumerism hasn't gone away. Americans and people in other countries are consuming as much as ever. The crisis has escalated in such a way that we have to tackle things more directly. There's a larger issue they fall into: citizenship. The fact that there's police violence in our city, that we're still blowing up mountains in West Virginia, these things are connected by our not being able to respond through the normal democratic process. We are addressing climate change very directly now and we have in our shows for the past couple of years. In a broader sense, we're trying to activate people. Don't let this be normal! It's not normal to just turn away from police violence, to accept mountains being blown up, so we're trying to de-normalize those kinds of things. The problem right now for most people is not
a lack of information. We all know about climate change, so that isn't the focus of our work as activists. We want to inspire people to take risks in their lives, to change their lives and the lives of people around them.
So you're trying to find the intersection of art and action.
Well, action is
theatrical. Action is anticipated, framed, and packaged, but it's hard to make one that people notice. I think the challenge of our time is how do we break not the fourth wall, but the 400th wall? We're all dazzled in a hall of mirrors. This modern information age is making us passive and we don't know where to look. So when something like Ferguson happens, when a bunch of teenagers in a little part of Missouri that nobody's ever heard of rise up and say no and break that 400th wall and everybody looks over at them, they are theatrical. We went [to Ferguson] back in October on Moral Monday
and now we're going again. It's the same feeling I had when we went to the Wisconsin protests in 2011. Our daughter, Lena, was six months old, and we held her up in the roar of people who had taken over the state capitol. That first day in Zuccotti Park: it was theatre, and I was floating on air. We look for it now, where is this kind of activist theatre taking place? The anti-war march in Moscow
, the protests in Burma
, the students down in Chile who did that massive "Thriller" dance
. The activists of today have to find a way to break the wall. We have an imperative. We're not sure the life systems of the earth will continue. Scientists are telling us we're in trouble. 2030, 2050 2070, choose your apocalypse. Right now we've got a tremendous requirement as activists to run down the middle of the street and be planet criers.
It's one thing when audiences come to see you in a theatre and pay for tickets. But when you're performing outside of a traditional setting, what kinds of reactions do you get from viewers?
We've had people join the choir from the street! One Buy Nothing Day, we had a guy get off a public bus and walk back two blocks to join us---that's one end of the spectrum. The other is extreme defensiveness of hyper-consumerism. We get where that comes from. Brand loyalty is deeply ingrained in the spirit of the American people. The response we always hope for is to open someone's mind. In NYC, there's an expectation of street magic. In other places, people are surprised, not just at our message but that we're good at what we're doing. We use our chops to open up doors. Of course, delivering any message in a public space is upsetting to some people, never mind what the message is. We've been mistaken for an actual Christian choir with people saying, "Don't talk to me!"
Your troupe has a lot of members: you two, your musical director Nehemiah Luckett, and many choristers. How do you go about developing your shows, be they in a theatre or elsewhere?
Our shows are always organized like a church service. Billy has a sermon and we sing a set of songs. Some are our standards, but then we add four or five new ones that directly address what we're doing right now. We have places where we can talk about something that recently happened, or if we have a special person in the room, we can honor them. Our goal is to make it entertaining, a gathering place for different kinds of communities around a set of values, so it has a hybrid quality. Most of us are performers, so we do take a lot of time on the showbiz elements. It's activist art operating at a pretty high level theatrically. As artists, we have a responsibility to probe issues in new and creative ways. The text generally comes from Billy and me, and we work very closely with Nehemiah, who channels the themes back into the music. As far as the choir goes, there are a few we have more collaborative relationships with. In some ways we're set up like a lot of theatre companies: There are a few key artistic collaborators and then a larger group.
But there's an extra quality there: A lot of us have gone to jail together. We've taken that risk, performing in Walmart, in banks, when we went into the RoboBee Lab at Harvard
where they're designing a replacement for the honey bee with DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] money. We're sometimes trespassers and call ourselves the Church of the Necessary Interruption. We're badass invaders but we're singing joyous songs. I'm an Elvis impersonator reverend who's at least semi-comic. We all have smiles on our faces as we go up against our enemies. Last year, the DA called us terrorists for our protest at Chase
--- the top financier of climate change in the world. Nobody connects banks with the climate crisis. These are theatrical experiences, these lobbies and aisles are stages, and they have an impact on our theatre shows. All we've been through together, we can break the fourth wall and flow into the audience at any moment. With everywhere we've marched, it's easy to waltz between the tables of Joe's Pub.
Do you think it's difficult for a traditional performer to become a political one? Or don't you see a difference?
As a performer, there's this question of raising the stakes. I always took that seriously and asked myself, what am I risking? As Billy said, activism is theatrical so when theatre people get involved, they bring this amazing skill set: costumes, sets, choreography. One of the reasons I got out of straight theatre was because I was appalled at the monochromatic audiences. It was like a chemistry experiment where all the white people fell into the theatre. We think it's really important to have a diverse choir, and it's important to have diverse audiences. When we do our shows in a theatre like Joe's Pub, we try to keep ticket prices low so more people can come. We try to reach out to different kinds of communities. Families are fantastic--- there's just so much energy in the choir, it's like a herd of wildebeests.
Is that supposed to be a Lion King
] Yes it was my subtle Lion King
reference. Look, where else can you see 45 people on stage for 15 bucks? Diversity is our strength. The more diverse you can make your life, the richer and more resilient it will be.
I want to add something about performing at Joe's Pub, the meta story around the Public Theater, the gentrification of a community where Charlie Parker and Allen Ginsberg once lived and created. We call Astor Place the Bermuda Triangle of Retail, now emblazoned with the imagery and text of corporate franchises like Duane Reade and Kmart. I'm keying in on that story in my sermon. We're faced with an East Village which has become the Sea of Identical Details! The Paucity of Variation is overtaking us! That story will undoubtedly influence our Monsanto is the Devil
run because what's the rural version of urban gentrification? Monsanto. It's farms with no wildflowers, just straight rows drenched with pesticides, the bees and the birds all dead. Like I said, everything is connected.
Raven Snook is TDF's associate editor of online content