REVEREND BILLY'S Starbucks Invasion
PERHAPS PORTLAND SHOULD REQUEST A VISIT FROM REVEREND BILLY....
"In his stentorian wail, his well-enunciated words, his talent for self-publicity, he will treat the assembled customers to a sermon on the evils of 'Frankenbucks'. He will tell them about the genetically modified, Monsanto-brand bovine growth hormones in Starbucks' milk. He will tell them about the battles the company has engaged in to prevent its workers joining trades unions. He will tell them about Starbucks' corporate policy of 'clustering' many outlets at once in parts of town where there are local cafés, and expanding the clusters until only Starbucks is left. He will tell them about the company's use of prison labour to package its products."
Starbucks hates the Reverend Billy. The Reverend Billy has an uncanny ability to empty out Starbucks branches in a very short time. Such is Starbucks' loathing of the reverend that it sent a memo to all its staff entitled 'What to do if the Reverend Billy is in your store'. Read
it, along with suggested scripts for your own Starbucks performance, at http://www.revbilly.com .
The gospel according to Billy
Date Published: 25 September 2003
Author: Paul Kingsnorth
... Or how the Church of Stop Shopping spreads the holy word of anticonsumerism throughout the Starbucks, Disney stores and Shopping malls of uptown New York by Paul Kingsnorth.
It's the hair that does it. The hair is visible three blocks away, a vast golden skyscraper of a bouffant glinting in Manhattan's winter sunshine. The hair and the teeth. The teeth are like sarsen stones, and the grin which they collectively form is wide, friendly, deeply cheesy and pointing in my direction. This could be no one else. He rides a bicycle, its chain lock slung around his neck.
'Paul?' says the Reverend Billy, grasping my hand very firmly indeed. 'Bill. So sorry I'm late.' He looks down at the paper cup in my hand, in the bottom of which are the cold dregs of a Starbucks latte.
'Now, you didn't pay for that, did you?' he says.
The Reverend is displeased, and decides that what we both need is some 'real coffee'. I dispose of my paper cup and we make our way across Astor Place, away from the biggest Starbucks in Manhattan and towards a battered green coffee truck, owned by a friend of Billy's, which is blasting out jazz from a couple of rickety speakers and serving what is, indeed, much better coffee than Starbucks have ever dreamed of.
'My man,' says the coffee truck owner to Billy, 'how goes it?'
'Well,' says Billy, 'very well. One of your finest cappuccinos, I think. No, wait - make that two.'
The Reverend Billy is the founder and spiritual leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, and he is on a mission from God. His mission is to save New York, to save America, to save the world from the scourge of consumerism. A scourge visited upon the unbelievers like the plagues of Egypt; sent down from on high to homogenise their neighbourhoods, destroy their small shops and cafés, substitute independence for dependence and hand control of their streets to a buccaneering gang of multinational corporations who will decide what they buy and take their money for doing so. The Reverend Billy has come to save them - to save us - from all this, and I have come, today, to Astor Place, to have my sins absolved (specifically, the purchase of that latte) and to listen to the Reverend explain to me how he intends to do it.
We wander a few blocks downtown, the Reverend pushing his bicycle and pointing out, every few yards, this or that local landmark which stood proudly independent for years and which is now a McDonald's, a Disney Store, a Borders, another Starbucks. We seek refuge in one of the few places in midtown Manhattan that is not yet owned by a multinational chain - Jones Diner, a sixty-year-old American classic, all chrome, steel, neon, plastic, hamburgers and grits (whatever they are). It exudes James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen. I've seen this kind of thing in films, so I know.
'This is one of the last human-scale places in the neighbourhood,' says Billy. 'They want to knock it down. They want to build an "executive development".
'Hey, you!' says the diner's owner, popping up from behind the stainless steel counter. He wears a striped apron and a little white hat. He is pure diner, pure New York, pure America. This is my first time in this country, and everything already looks terribly familiar.
'Hey you!' repeats the owner, waving at Billy. 'We don't like your sort in here. You look like trouble.' Both of them are grinning. This is obviously a well practised ritual.
'Fine,' says Billy. 'We'll go and eat in Starbucks instead. They have little shrink-wrapped biscuits. We don't need character in our neighbourhood anyway, we'd rather have corporate cool.'
'Turkey's the special,' says the diner man.
'Then bring us turkey, please, my good friend,' says the Reverend. The diner man disappears into the kitchen, and Billy turns back to me, teeth flashing like homing beacons.
'Let's talk,' he says.
(Star)Bucking the system
Since he first took his vows, the Reverend Billy has been waging a one-man crusade against consumerism, in a style that is all his own. Others who object to the rash of Starbucks, and other such corporate chains, from bookshops to burger bars, spreading across their town, destroying local competition and bleaching the character out of their neighbourhoods, might perhaps choose to boycott the chains. Might write a letter to someone, may even go so far as to stand outside the store holding placards and shouting 'no more Starbucks', or something similar. Billy doesn't think any of this works, and he's probably right. Billy thinks that in a new world - a world of wall-to-wall consumerism, mass advertising, information overload - in a world like this, protest must be as new, as shiny, as reinvented, as the economy itself.
Billy wants people to understand that when they buy a Starbucks coffee they are buying a lot more than a drink, and he wants to get the message across in a way that people cannot possibly ignore; in a way, indeed, that they might even find amusing. And so, on a chosen day, at a chosen time, Billy will enter Starbucks, his hair towering and magnificent, his teeth gleaming, his body encased in a dog collar and white tuxedo, and he will begin to preach.
In his stentorian wail, his well-enunciated words, his talent for self-publicity, he will treat the assembled customers to a sermon on the evils of 'Frankenbucks'. He will tell them about the genetically modified, Monsanto-brand bovine growth hormones in Starbucks' milk. He will tell them about the battles the company has engaged in to prevent its workers joining trades unions. He will tell them about Starbucks' corporate policy of 'clustering' many outlets at once in parts of town where there are local cafés, and expanding the clusters until only Starbucks is left. He will tell them about the company's use of prison labour to package its products.
Most of all, he will preach the gospel of anti-consumerism; will tell tales of devastated neighbourhoods, cannibalised by chainstores and left out in the sun to die. He will amuse and infuriate, the Starbucks employees will shuffle their feet, the branch will begin to empty and, if he's lucky, Billy will be thrown out, still preaching. He loves being thrown out.
This is just one - the most basic - of the tools in the Reverend's armoury. He will also, on occasion, initiate 'cellphone operas', in which members of his congregation will wander the store shouting loudly into cellphones about anything from slave labour on coffee plantations to low-paid employees, their conversations rising to a co-ordinated crescendo. Billy has also written a number of scripts for suggested 'spat theatre', which anyone, anywhere, can perform - loudly, of course - in their local Starbucks with a friend.
One features a couple loudly discussing their imminent sex in the Starbucks toilet. In another, an ex-prisoner pops in for a coffee and discovers that the packaging he's just bought was glued by him while he was inside. Another, entitled 'Where My Latte Gets Its Bovine Growth Hormones', features two lovers whose relationship has been sponsored by Monsanto.
All this explains quite adequately why Starbucks hates and fears the Reverend - so much so that they distributed a memo to all their New York employees entitled 'What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store?' Hide, perhaps.
Baptism of ire
The Reverend Billy, in his more sober moments, is plain old Bill Talen, an actor and writer who, after many years treading the boards, decided that he needed a new direction. Bill had always wanted his art to change the society it reflected, but it took the birth of the Reverend to really begin to have the effect he wanted. His alter ego was inspired by a number of factors - an old friend who was himself a priest, his own Calvinist childhood, America's television-evangelist tradition, and what was happening to New York's Times Square.
This was in the mid-1990s, when mayor Rudolph Giuliani was at the height of his campaign to clean up New York - part of which involved a scheme to transform Times Square from a haunt of 'low lifes' to a playground for tourists and consumers.
'Anyone who looked like they had character was out,' says Bill, plunging into his freshly delivered plate of turkey, 'because they were creating a mall in Times Square. It had been full of preachers, ranters - a place where all sorts of people would come and shout at each other about their beliefs, and nobody asked why. The end of that was the start of a very deliberate process, and we see the results today. Places like Times Square and SoHo are now very commodified, and the streets are not really public spaces any more.'
Bill believed that the community, and the city, he valued was being sold - sold to some of the biggest retail corporations on the planet. From this belief, the Reverend was conceived; and at the Disney Store in Times Square, he was born.
'I decided to don my uniform,' he says. 'Dinner jacket like a televangelist, and the collar. I created a theology based on standing up outside the Disney Store.' He morphs into the Reverend mid-sermon: 'MICKEY MOUSE IS THE ANTI-CHRIST, CHILD! DON'T GO INTO THAT STORE! DON'T GIVE YOUR MONEY TO THE PEOPLE WHO PAY THEIR SWEATSHOP WORKERS A DOLLAR FOR AN EIGHTEEN-HOUR DAY! SAVE YOUR SOUL!' A middle-aged man eating his lunch quietly in the stall behind us looks round to check he's not in any danger from this shouting lunatic.
Before long, the Reverend was inside the store, co-ordinating cellphone operas about anorexia and Barbie dolls and being regularly evicted by large, unamused security guards. He press-released all the theatre critics in New York - 'A new play is opening at the Church of Stop Shopping, starring the Reverend Billy and friends, opening in the Disney Store, Times Square.' Hundreds of people came to watch. It was part of the play that Billy and friends would jump up on to the counter and stop the cash registers; bodyguards shouting at him from both sides - 'they were my proscenium arch' - would be incorporated into the performance.
Bill, it is clear, loves every minute of this. He is loving just telling me about it. But it should go without saying that this is not mere entertainment. This is politics.
'The corporations are pushing into public space so thoroughly that it's not public space any more,' he repeats. 'It's an amazing privatisation process going on in New York at the moment - the streets, the very fundamental of public space, are no longer ours. I moved from the Disney Store to Starbucks for a reason. Starbucks believe they're selling a lifestyle, they're selling meaning, they're selling community, they're involving us in a consensus about what it means to be a neighbourhood - it's completely delusional. The opposite is happening; we have fluorescent, hushed, centrally planned chainstores all over New York now, and gradually, the sassy verbosity that you love about this place, the ability of regular people to tell amazing stories - all that is considered a market, and that "market" is having so many brands pushed on to it that it is being murdered.'
In the wrath of the Reverend Billy, global interests are assailed by a very local sensibility. It is, says Bill, the neighbourhood striking back.
'I take my cue from what is happening in my neighbourhood,' he says. 'Is it a healthy neighbourhood? Are people looking each other in the eye, telling stories, circling each other with playful insults? Do they feel they belong there, will they rise up and defend each other? That's a healthy neighbourhood. The transnationals need us not to have neighbourhoods. They want to mall-ise us. They want our relationship with each other to basically happen through a credit card. The transnationals are a totalising presence - their major market is to persuade the individual that they will not enjoy direct access to their own lives - their dreams, their desires, will be mediated through their presence, their image, through what they sell.' He soaks up the last of his gravy with a slice of flimsy white bread.
'That's where I get my politics,' he says. 'I am defending my neighbourhood's right to not be mediated.'
Paul Kingnsorth is the former Deputy Editor of the Ecologist and author of One No Many Yeses (Simon and Schuster 2003), from which this article was extracted.
Learn more about the Reverend billy at http://www.revbilly.com
A perfect '10'? Life in the US today
1. The United States of America, with just 5 per cent of the world's population, consumes 30 per cent of the world's resources, including 25 per cent of the world's fossil fuels - the cause of global climate change.
2. By the time a baby born in the US in the 1990s reaches the age of seventy-five, he or she will have produced 52 tons of rubbish, consumed 43 million gallons of water and used 3,375 barrels of oil. The waste generated each year in the US would fill a convoy of ten-ton rubbish trucks, which would stretch over halfway to the moon.
3. The amount of energy used by 1 American is equivalent to that used by 6 Mexicans, 38 Indians or 531 Ethiopians.
4. Almost 60 million adult Americans - over a third of the population - are overweight, and there has been a 42 per cent increase in childhood obesity in just twenty years - a pandemic which has been blamed on overconsumption of both fast food and television.
5. American teenagers are typically exposed to 360,000 adverts by the time they graduate from high school, which seems to have the desired effect: 93 per cent of American teenage girls say that their favourite hobby is shopping.
6. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have branded entire schools, paying them up to $20 per pupil in exchange for selling a set number of drinks on campus, and banning the products of their competitors. Channel One, a commercial TV company, beams daily 'educational' programmes into 12,000 American schools on free, donated equipment - on condition that the pupils watch adverts aimed at their target demographic. Procter & Gamble sponsors school lessons on oral hygiene. Campbell's Soup created a science 'lesson' where pupils compared the viscosity of one of their sauces to that of a rival. Kellogg's created an art project where sculptures were made out of Rice Krispies.
7. Children in the US directly spend $24.4 billion a year, and adults spend a further $300 billion a year on their behalf. 'If you own this child at an early age,' said the former president of the clothing chain Kids R Us, apparently with no sense of rising horror, 'you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, "Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger."' The head of the Prism Communications company said much the same: 'They aren't children so much as what I like to call "evolving consumers",' he explained delicately.
8. There is barely a foot of space in the USA that has not been bought up by corporations trying to flog their goods to the increasingly overspent American. Even the Empire State Building was lit up in August 2002 in 'Snapple Yellow' to celebrate the drinks company's thirtieth anniversary.
9. Pizza Hut recently succeeded in getting its logo pasted on to the side of a Russian space rocket, and then topped even this achievement by delivering 'the world's first space-consumable pizza' to cosmonauts on the International Space Station. 'Wherever there is life, there will be Pizza Hut pizza!' declared the company's chief marketing officer, who had perhaps been watching a little too much Star Trek. Pizza Hut is not alone; Radio Shack, Lego and Popular Mechanics all paid to have astronauts promote their products on the space station.
10. Per capita consumption in the USA increased by 45 per cent between the 1970s and the 1990s. Unfortunately, and perhaps not coincidentally, so did rates of obesity, depression, eating disorders, family breakdown, crime and income inequality. The proportion of the population describing themselves as 'very happy', meanwhile, failed to increase at all - in fact, it fell by 4 per cent.
Date Published: 22/5/2002
Author: Paul Kingsnorth
The Reverend Billy, spiritual leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, is a man on a mission. He spreads a gospel of anti-consumerism where angels fear to sip latté.
It is a cold winter afternoon, and I am sitting outside the biggest Starbucks in Manhattan, drinking - for reasons of camouflage - the cheapest coffee it sells. Ten minutes late, a man with a vast bouffant of bottle -blonde hair, and a grin so toothy you can see your face in it, pulls up on a bicycle and greets me with a large outstretched hand. 'You must be Paul,' he says. 'You didn't pay for that, did you?'
The Reverend Billy (for it is he) escorts me across the square to a truck where a friend of his sells much better coffee. Billy will not drink in Starbucks. He is, however, quite happy to hang around on the premises. Usually, though, he is not a valued customer. For when the Reverend Billy, spiritual leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, visits Starbucks, he is on a mission: to convert the heathen.
He enters the premises and begins to spread a gospel of anti-consumerism. Sometimes he will stand and - in his booming voice, his dog collar and white tuxedo - deliver a sermon on the evils of consumerism and sweatshops and the perils faced by New York's independent coffee houses. On other occasions he will organise performances. Fellow participants will: pose as customers and talk excitedly about how they're about to have sex in the toilets; pretend to be recently -released prisoners discovering they glued the Starbucks packaging themselves while inside; discuss loudly the bovine growth hormones in the milk; and say things like 'we have global logo tattoos on our genitals because we are good Americans'.
Starbucks hates the Reverend Billy. The Reverend Billy has an uncanny ability to empty out Starbucks branches in a very short time. Such is Starbucks' loathing of the reverend that it sent a memo to all its staff entitled 'What to do if the Reverend Billy is in your store'. Read
it, along with suggested scripts for your own Starbucks performance, at www.revbilly.com.
The point of all this, Billy explains as we sip our non-Starbucks coffee, is to take on this monster coffee chain in a way that will make people sit up and think. You could write letters to Starbucks, or hold demos which no-one would attend. Or you could drink coffee elsewhere. But it wouldn't make much of an impact. Billy does make an impact, because he has an entirely different approach, one that is creative, cunning and thespian - he used to be an actor. In a society saturated by adverts, marketing and wall-to-wall consumerism, new approaches are needed to get alternative messages across. This, in a nutshell, is culture jamming.
A mile or so away from Billy's 'favourite' Starbucks is Times Square. Here, a group calling themselves the Surveillance Camera Players is performing subversive street theatre into the lens of a surveillance camera. The point is to make people think about how they are being watched. Meanwhile, over in San Francisco, the Billboard Liberation Front and the California Department of Corrections are smoothly altering the billboard ads that corporations pay through the nose for, and putting out an anti-consumerist message instead. Elsewhere, the Biotic Baking Brigade is throwing pies in the face of the powerful. And a scurrilous bunch known as the Yes Men is posing as WTO executives - giving speeches at business gatherings in favour of slavery and the punishment of idle employees by electric shocks. These are just the tip of a very subversive iceberg.
This is activism for and by the consumer generation. How can such a modern phenomenon as mass consumerism be tackled with traditional methods of protest like banners, marches and letters to the editor? It can't, say the culture jammers. They say the way forward is to take on the purveyors of the buy-it-all, buy-it-now culture on their own turf. Subvert their message by stealing their methods. Could Starbucks' profit margins ever be threatened by a crusader in a dog collar? Who knows? But even if the reverend fails in his mission, at least he can say: 'Whatever else happens, I'm having a lot of fun.'
FILM & MEDIA APPEARANCES
Reverend Billy &
The Church of Stop Shopping
Documentary Film USA/Germany/Spain '02
60 min - Digital Video
directed by Dietmar Post
produced by Lucia Palacios
Read the press release (pdf)
"Like Michael Moore, Reverend Billy puts himself on the line,
exposing corporate pomposity wherever he finds it."
-- San Francisco Independent Film Festival
"The film is a fine piece of not only political and social commentary, but also of cinema verite."
-- University of California, School of Humanities
"A rebellious film."
-- ZITTY-Stadtmagazin Berlin, Germany
Reverend Billy, a.k.a. Bill Talen, is an actor/performance artist and a leading figure in the anti-globalization movement. His work combines the forces of social and political change with the means of theater arts to counteract our media culture. His artistic and political work is influenced by various concepts of "street theater." His disruptions or "shopping interventions" in public spaces are in the tradition of the Living Theater, José Bové, Lenny Bruce, The Yippies.
2nd Winner Best Documentary at
Melbourne Underground Film Festival, Australia, July 2003
REVIEWS | Boston Herald | Boston Globe | Chicago Tribune
Bookings / Sales
The film is available on the following formats: DVD codefree
NTSC w/Spanish&German subtitles, Digibeta PAL, BetaSP PAL, BetaSP NTSC.
Movie theatres interested in screening the film should contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
June 28, 2003 at 18:30 (filmmakers attending) July 1, 2003 at 18:30 (+ screening of a 30 min interview with Bill Talen) Lichtblick Kino, Kastanienallee 77 Tel +49 30 44 05 81 79
July 3-13, 2003 at Melbourne Underground Film Festival, at George Cinemas, Loop, Bughouse Omniplex (the Loft). Exact screening dates TBA
bet Aug 19 and Sept 3, 2003
several dates TBA at Kommunales Kino Freiburg
CLEVELAND, OHIO PREMIERE
at Cleveland Museum of Art, August 27 & 29, 2003
at Aurora Picture Show, 2 screenings on National Buy Nothing Day in November 2003 (the day after Thanksgiving)
Iceland, Spain, Andorra, France, New York, Irvine (CA), Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, more German cities
(additional screenings & more information)
Reverend Billy's Starbucks Invasion
Web Specials Archives
By Bill Talen,
Special to Utne Reader Online
The Church of Stop Shopping takes a stand
Bill Talen, whose alter-ego Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping have been preaching the anti-corporatism gospel to New Yorkers for the past several years, recently launched an "invisible comedy" invasion of local Starbucks shops to educate patrons about the social, environmental, and economic practices of the international coffee giant. This is his report.
On Saturday, April 6, we announced the NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL THEATER FESTIVAL INSIDE STARBUCKS. This was timed as a part of Citizenwork's "National Big Business Day." By "We" I mean Reverend Billy, the character I inhabit, and The Church of Stop Shopping, a New York group opposed to neighborhood destruction by transnational chain stores. We performed in a number of Starbucks on Saturday, but as a public gesture, to kick off the festival, we invaded the devil's cafes in the Astor Place area, the historic intersection in downtown New York. A heated rally followed immediately by a march on the three Starbucks that sit there staring at each other across Lafayette Street -this was our afternoon's work. Meanwhile folks were downloading our "invisible comedies" from REVBILLY.COM and performing, Augusto Boal style, in other cities as well. I hope the readers of this journal will consider using Starbucks as a theater and consider joining us inside Starbucks in Washington on the weekend of April 20-22.
The idea is to re-narrate these watering holes of low-level amphetamines, to introduce new rhetoric into the suffocating environment of 80 or 90 graphics/decorating decisions and appropriated Bob Marley muzak. Posing as customers, we are in fact actors who improvise along the plot lines of such classics as "Starbucks Correctional Facility (a play about Starbucks' use of prison labor)," or "Sex in the Bathroom (fake Bohemia)," or "My Love is a Monsanto Product," and so forth. We have called these short two-or-three actor comedies "Spat Theater" because they come in the form of a high-volume argument.
New York police agencies have privatized our parks and sidewalks. We are forced into fake communities like $tarbucks, where our activities could never have political impact. Then, with the marketing plan of creating a romantic connection to the cafe culture of Paris in the '30s or Zurich or Vienna back at the birth of the avant garde, they let people just sit there. Well, OK, thanks, we'll hang out. But while I'm here you don't mind if I decline to buy that $5 latte with the bovine growth hormone in it, do you? And while I'm at it, let me find a way to get everyone to leave and re-create real public space again.
We started out well enough. Some of us just got there from the march in support of Palestine, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on a sunny spring day. We had a battery operated organ with the gospel vibrato and a great singer in Brother Derrick McGinty. He roused passersby and suddenly we had a crowd. We handed out our signs--the Mermaid logo with the diagonal red slash. I began to preach in the character of Reverend Billy, at a portable white enamel pulpit. I ticked off the Starbucks issues: the union-busting, the mono-culture farms, the hiding of the Fair Trade coffee, the real estate practices, the "DROWNING US IN A SEA OF IDENTICAL DETAILS!!! Can somebody give me an AMEN!!!"
But we wanted to make common cause with the violence of the last half year. We believe that mall-izing IS bombing. NO SHOPPING TILL THE BOMBS STOP DROPPING!! One overlooked characteristic of bombing is that it makes us stupid. We die, or we become damaged, or we become beaten psychically like consumers. The explosive statement is only useable in the most brutish conversation, like the great belch of a murderer that invites a return belch from the adversary. Language outside of violent nation states or corporations, with that complex tenderness that is the individual human, is rendered mute by bombing. In the Church of Stop Shopping we have always explained the invasions of chain stores, with the fluorescent boxes full of products and the listless, alienated workers, as a kind of violence.
New York City, like all great cities, is great because of its neighborhoods. You can argue that George Gershwin and Duke Ellington and Babe Ruth and all the other heroes make New York special, but really, it's the neighborhoods. And that's about unmediated talking. Talking and listening. Three people talking on a streetcorner is the essence of original this-moment culture. Completely surprising stuff rises out of our laughter, the way we cuff each other affectionately. As Jello Biafra says, "We become The media." We are our own entertainment.
When Starbucks' scouts enter a new neighborhood, they listen for the laughter. They find where culture is still original, not corporatized, and that is their opponent and prey, for Starbucks is a jealous God. They approach the landlords of the community, whether it's a diner or a restaurant or a bar. They offer far more than the traditional tenant can afford, because Starbucks arrives with its Nasdaq funny money. They arrive from a completely different economy, and evict the business that native residents have built for years. This is a famous Starbucks tactic and has been repeated throughout the country and abroad. It is a kind of bombing. It is violent. READERS. DO I HAVE A WITNESS? STOP THE BOMBING!!
Now suddenly we had the police with us. They were surrounding my pulpit and started asking me about my intentions. I couldn't tell them that at this moment our invisible comedies were going forward, that voices were rising, in the three Starbucks surrounding the traffic island on which we stood.
We try not to judge them. They listen as a the head deacon of the church, Bishop Basem Aly, explains National Big Business Day ("Ralph Nader, huh?") The New York International Theater Festival Inside Starbucks drew screwed up faces behind the badges.
We walked to the Cooper Union Starbucks, on 8th Street and 3rd Avenue. We had a special customized action designed just for this place. Several years ago, Cooper Union lawyers (CU is an old art and design college) had persuaded the city to let them lease to Starbucks a bit of property that had been stipulated could only be used for "educational purposes." Once again, privitizing the public commons took place. The lawyers agreed that the Starbucks would be considered "educational" --- how?
The lawyers agreed that since Starbucks paid rent money to Cooper Union, an educational institution, activities there could be called "educational," regardless of what anybody did there. It could have been a whorehouse, but it would have been educational if the rent was going to CU.
So we devised a mock graduation ceremony, with the robes and square hats and diplomas. We had done this graduation ceremony from "Espresso U" - with "Pomp and Circumstance" accompanying the formalities, four times previously, marching to the cafe from the performance of The Church of Stop Shopping at the nearby Culture Project Theater. On this occasion, though, we were too public.
We were hustled out immediately by the police. I preached as I was pushed, and tried to earn my congregation's love. But our plans were definitely abridged. Performing on the slippery stage of transnational private property is more easily done with the "invisible comedy," off the radar.
Meanwhile "invisible comedies" were already in rehearsal at two other coffee shops, the Astor Place Starbucks, the biggest one in Manhattan, and the second floor sippery at Barnes and Noble. I was interviewing Brother Derrick as we entered Astor Place. We were wearing lapel microphones, being recorded for a radio show we are hoping to syndicate. A radio show that takes places inside transnationals. The idea was to have our interview near a roaring bit of invisible comedy, and in this case the play was "Sex in the Bathroom." I DIDN'T KNOW THAT STARBUCKS WAS THE HOTTEST PICKUP PLACE IN TOWN!!!" But once again the police encircled us, and the moment the spat became operatic, the actors were surrounded by the Buckheads in green aprons. It was interesting to be surrounded by uniforms of two kinds; the spectacle of their synchronized enforcement became a vivid drama. The green of the Mermaid and the blue of the killers of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, working in a kind of choreographed dance. They became the visible comedy, and I have to say, children, you did a good job.
We pretended to break up. I took the 6 train down to Bleecker and ran up the east side of Broadway to sneak into Barnes and Noble the back way, but plainclothes cops were with us the whole way. When we got there they said, "Billy there ain't any episode of Law and Order that don't feature that move, for chrissake. What are we, chopped liver? You insultin' us." The play at the cafe in the anchor store of so many malls across the country, Barnes and Noble, was "The Neo-Liberal and the Happy Fetus." The actors in this case, Ben and Sara, really did a great job. Quite a nice gradual rise to a stand-up opera of an argument. It's a great moment when Sara belted out I AM THE MERMAID AND I WANT MY NIPPLES BACK!!!
This was the one that worked best. The actors were clearly in the zone. Shamanism amidst the tchotchkes. We were all smiling -- so proud of them. They had broken through. Then, at the right moment in the script, I walked up to them and tried to pastor to them, like a kind of public couples counseling. Our audience was all turned in their chairs now. But I was having trouble giving pastoral care.
The neo-liberal boyfriend kept shouting, "We need more Starbucks; one on every corner, one in every home, one in every mind!! Give the shareholders their value!!! Expand!!! Expand!!" while, of course, his girlfriend was losing the frappuccino habit before his astonished eyes. Then all of us, the radio people and anyone who laughed and applauded too much-- we were all ushered to the streets by the Barnes and Noble security. That bookstore must have as big a private police force as Disney.
In our follow-up e-mail salon, we decided that the persona of the Reverend cannot enter a store surrounded by cops and expect to not become the dominating narrative. This is interesting -- a good lesson for us, because subverting the dominant narrative is the idea, and I'd become one. So we are learning that people having an experience together must be framed and cared for. Reverend Billy with bad timing can resemble just another product. The irony isn't lost on me, that's for sure. I'm humbled before the God of Stop Shopping.
But also, the participants in the plays in the three Starbucks were excited to try it again. In Washington on April 20, and back in New York in May. We're planning to march down Broadway, from Columbas Circle to Times Square, hitting each of the 10 Starbucks. Inside each coffeeshop a play will be raging. Ten Starbucks, Ten Comedies. Leave a trail of flyers with information about what the fastest-growing brand name in the world is doing to us.
The Oprah hordes say "Follow your Bliss." We say "Follow your Embarrassment." Learn to be a fool. The transnational planners have no idea what to do with the politicized Fool. That is something they all have in common, they are humorless. They know that our humor is their market. When the Starbucks scouts enter a neighborhood they cock their ear to the wind to listen for our laughter. That's where they try to set up shop. But our laughter will escape them and return to sour their milk and re-nipple the Mermaid in the window. Will someone say "FREE THE MERMAID!!. Amen
link to www.utne.com
An Introduction to Reverend Billy
View a 15-minute introduction to the Rev's work inside and outside multinational chain stores.
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