The performance artist talks bisexuality, feminism and being an outsider.
By Juliet Jacques
Published 27 June 2012
Performance artist Penny Arcade loves talking to her audiences, and wants to be friends with everyone. Her signature show, called Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! (BDFW) after the insults most often thrown at her, was written in response to Senator Jesse Helms’ amendment banning the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) from funding ‘obscene or indecent art’ in 1990. A subjective exploration of identity, feminism and censorship that combines dance, theatre and activism, it remains the closest Penny has come to a mainstream hit, being performed over 1,500 times worldwide and opening for an extended run at Dalston’s Arcola Tent on 27 June.
Its simple message – that “when we feel accepted and included, there’s more room for others to be who they are” – was forged in a life on the margins, amongst people with “hard-won values”. Born Susana Ventura to Italian immigrants in New Britain, a small Connecticut town, Penny went to borstal aged 12 and, on release, fled to New York. There, she negotiated its queer and street culture, closely linked before the Stonewall riots of 1969 (where she joined the fight against the police), and then gay/lesbian and feminist politics in the decade between the rising and the onset of AIDS, always seeking refuge in the city’s artistic and sexual subcultures.
This personal history is crucial to her work, Penny tells me over an hour-long engagement. Delivered backstage at the Soho Theatre, this is less an interview, more an improvised monologue for a one-person crowd, its flow almost unbroken as she answers my questions before I ask them. (It’s not until she stops that I realise I’d left them in the foyer.) “In BDFW, I talk about being mentored by gay men who saw something in me,” she says, discussing her path to John Vaccaro’s avant-garde Theatre of the Ridiculous (so named because “the situation had gone beyond the absurd”) and Andy Warhol’s Factory, and then to her forty-year stage career. “I was raised by queens: there was a real sense of community. We needed that to survive.”
She didn’t become an outsider by choice, though: she came to revel in this position because, like her friend Quentin Crisp, who told the Sunday Telegraph in 1991 that Penny was the person with whom he most identified, she was systematically excluded from an early age. She came to understand process years later, when she ran a show for 26 people from her hometown, including her teacher, Miss McCarthy.
Continue reading at: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/voices/2012/06/penny-arcade-someone-always-queer