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Reverend Billy Talen

Reverend Billy Talen shows

The character of Reverend Billy, host of EARTH RIOT RADIO was developed in the mid 1990s by actor and playwright, William Talen.

Talen grew up in small towns throughout Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. He left home at 16, moving east with Charles and Patricia Gaines, a writer and painter who encouraged him as an artist. Talen began to perform his poems and stories, hitch-hiking from Philadelphia to New York to San Francisco.

Talen’s chief collaborator in developing the Reverend Billy character was the Reverend Sidney Lanier,  vicar of  St. Clement’s in the 1960s, an Episcopal Church in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. In an effort to increase attendance at St. Clement’s, Lanier had torn out the altar and pews, inviting actors to perform scenes from plays by his cousin Tennessee Williams and Terrence McNally, and founding the American Place Theater. Lanier described Talen as “more of a preacher with a gift for social prophecy than an actor.” In the early 1990s Talen moved with Lanier to New York City from the San Francisco Bay Area, branding his act as a “new kind of American preacher”

The Reverend Billy character debuted on the sidewalk at Times Square in 1998, outside the Disney Store, where he proclaimed Mickey Mouse to be the anti-Christ. He was arrested multiple times outside the Disney Store, where he duct-tapped Mickey Mouse to a cross. Reverend Billy’s sermons decried the evils of consumerism and the racism of sweatshop labor, and what Talen saw as the loss of neighborhood spirit in Rudolph Giuliani‘s New York.

The Reverend Billy character isn’t so much a parody of a preacher, as a preacher motif used to blur the lines between performance and religious experience. “It’s definitely a church service,” Talen explained but, he added, it’s “a political rally, it’s theater, it’s all three, it’s none of them.” Alisa Solomon, the theater critic at the Village Voice, said of Reverend Billy’s persona, “The collar is fake, the calling is real.” Along with the Church of Stop Shopping, they have been referred to by academics as “performance activism,” “carnivalesque protest,” and “artivists”.