By Andrew Fraley
When he’s not busy protesting the Disneyfication of Times Square, saving the Poe House from destruction or working to prevent the private development of Union Square and Coney Island, Reverend Billy likes to celebrate the holidays with friends and family in a more traditional way. The Christmas revival series are the Sunday sermons of the Church of Stop Shopping.
In addition to activism in the New York Area and around the world, Reverend Billy has been performing these shows throughout the city for nearly a decade. These “sermons,” as they are called, are one of the many ways in which Billy spreads his anti-consumerism message. Focusing many of his efforts on the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which he calls, “an orgy of consumerism,” Billy started the Christmas revival series. Accompanied by a seven-piece band and a 35-member gospel choir, the revival series run on the three Sundays after Thanksgiving, the last being on December 21.
The sermons themselves have humble origins. Started in 1999 in St. Clement’s Playhouse, the theatre of St. Clement’s Church in Hell’s Kitchen, the group has since moved on to bigger venues. In late 2001, the group began performing at the Bleecker Street Theatre, a venue that houses over 200 audience members. “That was a step up,” described Billy. “Before that, we were performing in a church basement.” The show on December 14 was at the newly $5.2 million renovated Dixon Place Theatre. Dixon Place, which houses and supports performing artists in the heart of the city, was still finishing renovations. The 60 or so people that filled the theatre (the show sold out) were asked to donate money for amenities, and a construction hat was passed around.
“The songs and service are shaped around the subject,” said Billy, describing each sermon’s development. What starts as discussion between the choir evolves into that week’s sermon. Thematic and current, the sermons always preach the same message, but in an ever changing way. The communal development of the show is what drew Stefani Peikin, a former solo performer, to join the choir. Miz Stefani (her stage name) lived in the same building as Billy before a friend recommended she audition for the choir. “Billy usually has an idea of where the sermon’s going to start and end,” described Stefani. “The middle of the show is very organic…you’ll never see the same show twice.” As an improv actor by trade, Billy will improvise each sermon and let it flow naturally, but the topics themselves usually stem from this organic process. Because of this, the show will see many recurring audience members. “I look out and see the same people a lot,” said Stefani. One audience member, Tom Wallace, has been attending the shows for eight years. “I love these shows because it contains laughter and deeper meaning…It shows that protesting can be fun,” said the East Village resident.
The show also features organizations or events around the city that Billy and the Church feel ought to be spotlighted. At the December 14 show, a choir member detailed the organization of Street Memorial Project, a movement to create memorials and awareness of pedestrian and bicycle deaths throughout the city. Rasha Shamoon, the choir member’s late friend, had a ghost bike placed in her honor after her death at the intersection of Bowery and Delancey. After the show, the audience and church all walked a block to visit the painted white bicycle memorial. A moment of silence was followed by a boisterous cheer for Rasha’s memory.
The show over the years has also evolved. The choir is in constant flux, but also has many devotees to the cause. “Some people audition. Some people come up and say, ‘Oh, I’m in your choir now,’” explained Savitri Durkee, the show’s director and wife of Reverend Billy. Ages of the choir members range from 14 to 67, according to The Reverend, and their backgrounds are just as diverse. One choir member, a grandmother and New York City teacher, was with the group everywhere they went, even to this year’s Burning Man. She abruptly left earlier this year after four years of service. “Some people just jump into the performance,” said The Reverend. “They just leap into the choir, and then they never leave.” Ben Cerf, a French-American and Bowery resident, did just that. “I joined about five years ago…it was right after the first show I saw,” he explained. Cerf also moonlights as a Billionaire For Bush, another activist performance group.
A mixture of professionals and volunteers, the not-for-profit theatre company maintains its equilibrium this way. “It’s a funny checks and balances system,” described Durkee. The professionals are usually activist performers and artists who can work full time on the shows, while the volunteers are often equally talented but maintain outside jobs and can only commit their free time to the show. The show features solos from volunteers and professionals alike.
The choir is also involved in activism around the world. Whether protesting Victoria’s Secret’s forest clear cutting practices to produce their catalogs, helping Ethiopian farmers gain a fair share of profits from Starbuck’s Corporation or singing in a parodical gospel choir in the heart of New York City, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping have consistently spread the message of conscious, informed and sustainable consumption.
“We talk a lot. And we rehearse a lot. Well, maybe we don’t rehearse that much,” said Durkee about preparation for each show. The show on December 14 was performed brilliantly, so perhaps she’s just being modest.