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The Rev. Billy brings his anti-shopping message to a hall built on capitalism

A pastor-performance artist brings his spiel to REDCAT, a space built in part by Mickey Mouse.

October 21, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

On a drizzly evening earlier this week, the Rev. Billy, who calls Mickey Mouse "the Antichrist," was denouncing the evils of mindless consumerism at CalArts, the Valencia college partly founded and funded by Walt and Roy Disney.

Thursday night, the Rev. Billy and his Life After Shopping Gospel Choir will be preaching their puckishly anti-capitalist message from the bully pulpit of REDCAT, the multipurpose venue tucked inside Walt Disney Concert Hall. A late-night performance was added after the first one sold out.

Such are the contradictions of what the Rev. Billy might call late-stage, "post-post-modern" society.

But if the joke's on all of us in these economic end times of corporate malfeasance, collapsed housing prices and surging unemployment, the Rev. Billy, the New York-based pastor-performance artist whose real name is Bill Talen, is here to share some good news. Many Americans, whether by necessity or choice, are opting out of the vicious cycles of getting and spending and, he suggests, finding new values and meaning in their lives.

"There's a quiet revolution happening everywhere, of people just rolling up their sleeves," Talen said during a short break Monday night before he and his wife and director, Savitri D., were scheduled to host a CalArts student workshop. Across the country, he continued, people who've realized that corporations have failed them are "de-mediating their lives, they're meeting their neighbors, they're starting new businesses out of their garages and station wagons, farmers markets are booming."

Of course, Talen and Savitri quickly added, "there's a lot of pain" today as millions struggle with financial hardship. But there's also a kind of spiritual revival underway, they say, outside the mass media tent show.

"We get e-mails every day," Savitri said, "from people who are not only changing their life but feel that they are missionaries for a new life, because they were so relieved suddenly. 'I lost my job but then I realized that I hadn't seen my kids in four years,' or, 'Wow, it's so horrible to be so broke, but on the other hand I'm not in my car four hours a day.' "

As Rev. Billy would put it: "Changealujah!"

These glimmers of hope amid the recession's storm clouds gladden the soul of Talen, who made his reputation as an artist-activist in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Dressed in a white suit, clerical collar and a dyed pompadour that would've done Elvis proud, Talen lambasted the sins of sweatshop labor outside the Disney Store in Times Square, burst into Starbucks outlets with a megaphone to denounce the "fake bohemia" and labor practices of the coffee giant, and performed an exorcism on Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. (He has been arrested dozens of times.)

At 60, Talen still has the strapping, square-jawed good looks of his upper Midwestern heritage. He also still has the passion for proselytizing that's a legacy both of his Dutch-Calvinist upbringing and his worship of Lenny Bruce, patron saint of creative subversives. In performance, the Rev. Billy leads his congregants through programs of blazing testimonials, uplifting gospel music and fervid rituals (throwing away credit cards is a favorite) that blur the lines among theater, protest action and religious ceremony.

A couple of decades ago, Talen was a successful San Francisco alternative theater producer and performer, working regularly with artists such as the late seriocomic monologist Spalding Gray. Then one day his friend and mentor the Rev. Sidney Lanier — a Hell's Kitchen vicar as well as the cousin of Tennessee Williams and an avant-garde theater aficionado — began encouraging Talen to study radical theologians and biblical narrative strategies.

"I always loved storytelling and monologue-ing, but never imagined embracing a religious rhetoric," Talen said.

Some time after, the Rev. Billy was born as a "pop-gnostic Jimmy Swaggart." Pounding the pavement and infiltrating strip malls from Manhattan to the San Fernando Valley, the Rev. Billy fused Dada-ist pranksterism and Brechtian fourth-wall demolition tactics with pro-labor, pro-environmentalist sermons that, however satirical, could've been lifted in part from the progressive theological playbook of, say, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (or, for that matter, Thomas Jefferson or John Brown, Talen would argue).

Gradually, there followed an Obie Award and strong reviews from prestige publications. "Reverend Billy may not convert you," a New York Times theater critic once wrote. "But you will think twice about shopping, once the show is over." There was even a sympathetic 2007 documentary, "What Would Jesus Buy?" produced by "Super Size Me" auteur Morgan Spurlock.

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