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The preacher and his Stop Shopping Choir have a new home for their art and activism in the East Village
Reverend Billy is still getting used to his new Church: a glass storefront on Avenue C at the corner of East 3rd Street in the East Village.
During a recent sermon at Joe's Pub, where the Reverend and his cohorts just completed a three-Sunday run, he joked that, "It looks like a bank in mindless suburban Delray Beach."
There's a reason for that: The building used to be a Capital One branch. In a wonderfully ironic twist, after a year of using the spot on an interim basis, it is now the permanent home for the Reverend and his flock of performance proselytizers, known collectively as The Church of Stop Shopping.
"Of course, we've performed hundreds of times in banks," says the Reverend's longtime partner, Savitri D., the cofounder and director of the Church. Indeed, their Stop Shopping Choir has sung in branches of JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Bank of America and others—they were just never invited.
For two decades, the Obie Award-winning Church of Stop Shopping has presented spontaneous performances everywhere from Times Square to the Gap to preach their anti-consumerist, pro-planet gospel. The Choir sings original, politically charged compositions, often written just days before. Then the rockabilly-coiffed and collared Reverend Billy—the alter ego of playwright-performer Billy Talen—delivers a sermon… if they don't get thrown out or arrested first.
Talen's character spoofs the hubris of evangelical preachers, but the Church's brand of spirituality is wholly sincere. Over the years, their core values have remained consistent: fight rampant consumerism, hold financial institutions accountable for their role in climate change, and spread an "ecstatic environmentalism" that strengthens our connection to the Earth.
With their new performance space, dubbed the Earthchxrch, the Choir has a place to gather every Sunday as well as a home base where they can evolve new works and plan their activities, such as providing aid to migrants outside of overpacked shelters or marching for a ceasefire in Gaza.
"There's this moment on Sundays when we coalesce inside the Church," explains Sunder Ganglani, a musician, dramaturg and longtime Choir member. "And then at some point during the week, we find each other on the street in direct action."
Talen first conceived of Reverend Billy in the 1990s. He and Savitri D. both come out of nonprofit theatre management but found themselves disenchanted by the industry's political toothlessness and limited audience reach. The late, legendary monologist Spalding Gray, urged Talen to run with the Reverend character.
"Spalding said: 'Stop producing, just go out there and do that preacher,'" Talen recalls. "'Preach all day long!'"
When he started preaching as Reverend Billy in Times Square, Talen found that people would clap along or even harmonize with him. That impromptu backing inspired the addition of the Choir, which has roughly 50 regular members with a range of musical training and performance backgrounds.
Yi Liu, an Environmental Studies major at NYU, recently joined the Choir despite little singing experience. She had always wanted to perform but never found an easy way to start. Her public debut was joining the ensemble in Times Square.
"I thought it would be scary, but it felt like there was a sense of purpose," she says. "I'm shouting out for a cause that I agree with."
According to Liu, even amidst a world center for shopping, many passersby were nodding along, concurring with the Choir's message. The police were less captivated and eventually moved them along.
Ganglani explains that protesting through song has a disorienting effect on bystanders that differs from a march or a rally. He recalled a performance outside a Monsanto chemical factory in New Orleans where police and security watched the troupe perform their whole set, initially unsure of how to react.
"Had we done anything else—what generally looks like activism or causing trouble—we would have been arrested [immediately]," he says. "The cops were confounded with what to do about this group singing in four-part harmony."
For Ganglani, the Church's modus operandi eschews the frustrating issues he encountered in traditional theatre—the endless development, the constant fundraising and work that lags behind current events.
"The capacity for the theatre as we know it to respond to the present has been completely foreclosed by the processes everyone has to go through," he says. "Direct action is foreclosed, and that's by design."
In a recent sermon at Joe's Pub, though, the Reverend confessed a feeling of doubt, even hopelessness. With the world in constant crisis, he acknowledged, it can be hard to know where to begin—or if anything you are doing is ultimately helping.
"We've been doing this a long time," says Savitri D. "But there are moments when you feel all the boulders have rolled down the hill and are on top of you."
Their Earthchxrch offers a remedy of sorts: not only a place of grounding but also a chance to connect with locals. Starting in mid-January, every Sunday at 5 p.m., they'll be preaching and performing in that huge glass storefront. Hopefully strangers will wander in and join their cause.
"I don't actually know if what we do has an immediate effect," admits Liu. However, "We are spreading a form of consciousness through songs and through art."
The faith of the Church's members keeps them pushing the boulder up the hill. "When you're in a community that's really diverse, you feel resilience in a different way," says Savitri D. "It is an ecosystem. In times like this, you feel strong, you feel the fortitude of that complexity. And that's what sustains us over time."
"Also," she adds with a smile, "Singing in a choir feels really good. It makes you feel better."
Starting January 14, 2024, Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir will perform every Sunday at 5 p.m. at Earthchxrch, 36 Avenue C, aka Loisaida Avenue at the corner of East 3rd Street. Admission is free though donations are accepted when the hat is passed. Families are welcome.
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