Edinburgh Forest Fringe 2014 interview: Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

This article is from 2014

Reverend Billy

Theatremaker Bill Talen takes an anti-consumerist view at the fringe-of-the-Fringe festival

Watch out Starbucks: Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are in town. Kaite Welsh catches up with the anti-consumerist performance artists ahead of their Forest Fringe dates

He's been banned from every Starbucks in the US, performs exorcisms in Tesco, and now he's in Edinburgh, on a mission to save bees from the agriculture industry. Reverend Billy is a pastor with a difference – he's more interested in saving the planet than in saving souls. Along with his choir, the Church of Stop Shopping, he protests in banks, shopping centres and yes, outlets of a certain coffee chain, to raise awareness of environmental issues and to tackle capitalism at source.

‘We're coming with something more compelling than your average show,’ says Reverend Billy. ‘It's about the Earth, about the world that my four-year-old is going to grow up and live in.’ This year's show – Honeybeelujah! – promises a mix of comedy, music and an attack on modern culture.

As you may have guessed, this isn't a religious organisation. Although the good Reverend – real name Bill Talen – was raised in a strict evangelical household, his distaste for big business extends to organised religion. He describes his Church – ‘an immigrant New York choir’ – as being ‘in recovery from fundamentalism’ of all stripes: ‘We're helping each other work free of fundamentalism, and where we're going together is towards a spiritual regard for life on Earth.’ Although he describes his supporters as ‘over-cultured, ironised, agnostic, urbanised people who have a tremendously negative response to religion’, he emphasises that people of all faiths and those with none at all are welcome in the Church of Stop Shopping, provided you support your local and global community and are willing to fight the good fight against consumerism. 

So why the humble honeybee? Bees, the Reverend explains, are the oldest partners of humans. ‘We've always been partnering with these miraculous animals,’ he says. ‘They give us the extra honey they don't need, which is really beautiful. And now their population is half gone.’ The problem lies with neonicotinoid pesticides, and it's the companies that produce them – like Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto – that he is targeting. With Harvard scientists working on a ‘robobee' – a pesticide-resistant pollinator that is, just like it sounds, a tiny robot bee – Reverend Billy is concerned that people will be unconcerned about the declining bee population if something else is doing its job just as well. 

Since Monsanto's CEO Hugh Grant (probably no relation) hails from Larkhall in South Lanarkshire, Reverend Billy and his acolytes are planning a field trip to his childhood home to exorcise whatever demons set Grant on his current path. ‘Something in his home went terribly wrong in his youth,’ the Reverend says. He's not entirely sure what this particular exorcism will entail, but cheerfully offers up an anecdote about ‘going to Maggie Thatcher's childhood home in Grantham and performing the Michael Jackson "Thriller" dance outside’ as an example.

Along with their Forest Fringe show, directed by activist and longtime Church member Savitri D, Reverend Billy is bringing his trademark pop-up protests – think guerilla activism with theatre – to selected locations around Edinburgh. To protect his group, he's not giving away much about who he'll be targeting, but they'll see the full force of his righteous anger. 

Big corporations of Edinburgh, beware – Reverend Billy is coming to get you.

Honeybeelujah, Forest Fringe, Out of the Blue Drill Hall, 15–16 Aug, 9.15pm, free.


Theatrical performance in honour of International Honeybee Day.