I’m in a pub in Highgate Village waiting for the performance artist, Penny Arcade to arrive.
I find myself slightly nervous, I’ve rushed up to the interview from a Christmas shopping trip at Whole Foods and Nespresso and I wonder what the self-described anarchist will think about my conspicuous consumption?
Arcade is not a typical interview subject; she is naturally an inquisitive person and she asks almost as many questions about me as I do about her. She seems elated to discover that I am also an Italian-North American and asks me about everything from my education to my personal life. She orders a ginger ale. She explains that she hasn’t eaten yet so she sensibly declines any alcohol.
Born Susana Ventura in a small town in Connecticut, she says she always felt like an outsider. She claims to have been consciously bisexual since she was four years old. “Sexual diversity wasn’t a surprise to me. I didn’t have to discover it, it was inside me already.”
Still a teenager, she moved to the lower eastside of New York City and was taken in by the gay men working in the local art scene. She renamed herself Penny Arcade when she was coming down off an acid trip in 1967. It was during this time that she worked for Andy Warhol’s Factory and was mentored by gay icons John Vaccaro, Jackie Curtis and Jack Smith. In her stage show Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore! she pays tribute to that ”tawdry band of drag queens and their minions” and says, “I am who I am today because of those gay men.”
Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ starts to play in the pub when Arcade explains the impetus for Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore! In 1990, the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) stopped funding performances with homosexual or sexual content in their work and as a response, Arcade presented Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore! as her solo fellowship audit. The show combines burlesque dancing, audience participation and comedic and dramatic monologues. It tackles themes such as AIDS, pornography, sexuality, politics and censorship. “The show is a queer backlash to people forming committees and telling the rest of us what we could say and what we could do. Politically correctness is just rife everywhere. So Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore! comes as a reaction to that.” She pauses and takes a sip of her ginger ale, “Get ready this is not a politically correct show!” The show captured the zeitgeist in 1990, became a huge success and has been performed around the world; and now it opens at the Albany in Deptford on December 15th, 2012 for a limited run.
The show recently played at the Arcola in Hackney and she tells me that London is like a second home to her after living here in the early seventies. “I think as an immigrant displaced creature, I always feel home wherever I am.” So what makes Londoners want more Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore!? “People who saw the show twenty years ago in London, who came expecting to see a nostalgic period of their youth ended up getting mind blown all over again,” says Arcade, “London right now is very much like New York was in 1992. It’s poised on the brink of gentrification but it’s not totally gentrified yet. It has a real sense of class which America has never had and the way the show talks about inclusion and individuality is very, very important to people right now.”
Gavin Barlow, Artistic Director of the Albany and the man responsible for bringing the show to Manchester in 1993, explains why he feels the show still resonates with audiences twenty years after it was first performed. “I think our sense of personal freedom and self-expression is definitely compromised in 2012 as much as ever. I think we’re missing a sense of community as well. There’s an incredible warmth to the show, with a real sense of people coming together, as well as having something to say and just having a great time.” He also counts Penny Arcade as an inspiration. “She cares passionately about what she does and everyone she works with. She makes an incredible connection with each and every audience member as well.”
Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore! is not the only show where Arcade has tackled controversial subjects. We discuss her show Bad Reputation, which is about the failure of feminism and how women betray women. “I was a feminist when I was stripping. I was a feminist when I was a prostitute. I’m always a feminist because as an Italian, working class female, feminism is a necessity. It’s not an intellectual position.”
In Bad Reputation, she talks about the fact that strippers, prostitutes and rape victims are often left out of the public discourse. “I was raped five times before I was eighteen. I’ve always found that the people who get to talk about rape are the people who don’t allow the rest of us to be a part of the conversation,” she says matter of factly. “If you are a stripper or a prostitute or a sex worker, in their eyes you lose your credibility because you have been morally affected. All of the talking about rape is never by the women who have been raped.” She adopts the same tone she so often does in her shows, “We may not all live in the same morality but we do all live in the same economy.”
Despite her storied past, Arcade can come off almost child-like in person. When we have dinner at the Spaniards Inn above Hampstead Heath, she has me read out the Christmas menu to her while she ohs and ahs excitedly over the starters, mains and desserts. She seems genuinely amazed that we are eating in a place with so much history. She takes out some books from her bag about the history of London and it is evident that she has a voracious appetite for knowledge.
She is incredibly well read and very smart. It is easy to see how she formed such a close bond with Quentin Crisp. “He was exactly twice my age. Through him I saw the furthering of individuation. What Quentin and I had in common was that we both wanted to know who would we be if we became exactly who we were.”
Arcade also has an incredible memory for people’s names. She knows the names of all her dancers past and present. In some ways, her relationship with her dancers reminds me of Madonna’s in Truth or Dare. “I’ve always hired dancers locally. We hand pick them.” She’s like their den mother. “This time we have an amazing boy pole dancer, Josh Taylor. It’s going to blow everyone’s mind.”
This is quite different from twenty years ago, when one of her dancers, Cynthia: the Alabama Slammer got so drunk on a flight to Heathrow that she had to be sent back to the US on the next plane. “I needed to find another dancer. This was 1993, I was going to Heaven looking for some cool, fag hags who were super erotic and sexy and it was really hard but we finally found a couple girls to be in the show. This year 200 people wanted to audition for the show.”
For the most part, the dancers are all very hot and wear next to nothing in the show but how does Arcade feel stripping down completely naked at the age of 62? “I’ve been a sex object since I was 12 years old, I would never capitulate to it. I thought I had more to offer. I didn’t take off my clothes until I was 40 in 1990 and when I did it again in 1992 I ate whatever I wanted in the run up to the show because I didn’t want a perfect body.”
I recall that when I saw the show at the Arcola, she had a personal trainer in the audience. “Now, I’m nude at 62 but I want to give the very best show and a lot of that is about making sure that I have the energy. In that nude scene, I’m proving that if you have something to say the audience will forget you are nude and I prove it every single night.”
Shortly after entering the Spaniards Inn, Arcade is recognized by a couple who saw her in Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore! They buy her a drink and while it is obvious that they are star struck, Arcade seems genuinely interested in finding out about them. She gives them her email address and offers to show them around New York City. On her website, Penny Arcade says she wants to be friends with everyone and this is clear in her interactions with her many fans.
She is also a very loyal friend and tells me about taking care of singer Rufus Wainwright while he was a teenager in New York City. “I knew Rufus was gay since he was eleven years old,” she claims. She introduced him to her friends in the city and acted as a “gay” mother to him while his parents adjusted to his sexuality.
It is clear that she enjoys performing and she says that when she is on stage, “I’m there to be with the audience, that’s what makes me happy.” She is enthusiastic about the performances at the Albany. “This is the perfect space. For the audience it will be like sitting in a carousel. It’s just the best place that we have ever done the show.” However, it will be the last run of Bitch! Dyke! Fag hag! Whore! in London. “It’s been too many years,” she says.
We leave the pub and I walk her to her bus stop while she lights a cigarette. We talk about several other projects that she has in the works. First up, a show called Old Queen: The Girl Who Knew Too Much about her life her in the sixties, how she came into the gay world and the whole Warhol scene. The show celebrates the fierceness of old queens and flaming faggots. Denial of Death is another show about death and her time spent with Jack Smith when he was dying of AIDS. Finally, the show Aftermath is about spiritual awakening during the AIDS crisis in the eighties. It’s taken from interviews with men who have survived AIDS and who are now between the ages of forty and eighty.
Following her performances at the Albany, Arcade is off to Thailand. “I’m going to make a big jump on my memoirs.” She won’t be holding back on any details in the book either. “I always say I’m an ordinary person with an extraordinary life.” I have to agree. And with that Penny Arcade puts out her cigarette and jumps on her bus home.