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Chances are, unless you are a devoted follower of the New York underground performing arts scene, you will have never heard of Penny Arcade. Born to an Italian immigrant family in the south, raised in a working class neighborhood in Connecticut, Arcade (Susana Ventura) was sent to a Catholic all-girls reformatory school at the age of fourteen by a judge who charged her with “manifesting the danger of falling into the hands of vice” –she was a “bad girl” who hadn’t committed a crime, but was likely to in the future. After her two-year sentence, she ran away to New York City where, as she recalls, she was raised by gay men and drag queens.
There, in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side during the 1960s, Penny Arcade became an active member of the burgeoning performing arts scene. She was a company member of John Vaccaro’s infamous Play-house of the Ridiculous, starred in Paul Morrissey’s 1972 film Women in Revolt, and befriended the legendary avant-garde theatre and film artist Jack Smith. By the mid-1980s, she began writing and starring in her own performance pieces at PS 122 and La Mama in front of packed houses, before beginning an international tour that took her from Edinburgh to Sydney.
Yet, you won’t find her reviewed in the New York Times. You’ll rarely see her in the pages of the Village Voice or Time Out. A search of academic journals over the past several decades will only find fleeting secondary references to Arcade’s work.
Indeed, if you haven’t heard of Penny Arcade, you wouldn’t be the only one. For years, as a scholar of the queer New York theatre, I have often wondered why more hadn’t been written about her. The answer can be found in the recently published anthology of Arcade’s performances, essays and interviews.
In short, she has a bad reputation — a reputation that keeps her off many people’s radar.
She’s a working-class artist, working in a genre geared toward middle-class audiences by middle-class artists.
She is an impassioned advocate of women’s rights at the same time that she has infuriated countless feminists for her frequent inclusion of erotic dancing in her performances.
She’s a self-proclaimed bisexual, often promoted in queer performing arts festivals to audiences of gays and lesbians who feel bisexuality shows a lack of commitment.
She speaks her mind without regard to others’ feelings or her own career. One instance is when she felt she was being intentionally overlooked by PS 122 director Mark Russell as a performer in the venue’s benefit performances that included over 60 artists. Arcade recounts that she called him on the phone and said, “Mark, you know, in case you think that I haven’t figured out that you don’t think that I fit into the Downtown art scene – I just want you to know that I hope you’re saying a novena to St. Jude that I’m never gonna be successful, because I’m gonna fuck with you.” For Arcade, it is more important to express her truth than to promote her career.
She’s highly critical of the academy who might write about her work. Yet scholars are put off by her frequent attacks on those performing arts schools churning out students incapable of thinking for themselves, or of queer theorists who live too much in the mind and not enough in their body.
Because of all of this, and likely more, Penny Arcade has become one of New York theatre’s most paradoxically venerated and ignored artists. For all of these reasons, we should be paying more attention to her.
Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews (Semiotexte: 2009) is Arcade’s self-proclaimed invitation for more people to talk about her work – to recognize and deal with her presence in the face of intentional avoidance. The anthology includes transcripts of three never-before-published performances: La Miseria (1991), Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!: The Penny Arcade Sex and Censorship Show (1992), and Bad Reputation (1991-99). Arcade’s plays are deeply personal performances culled from her memories of a deeply complex past. Placed side-by-side in the anthology, this book reads in some ways like a dramatic memoir.
Yet, lest you believe her work to be purely self-indulgent, dear reader, I assure you, these plays are more about the relationship between artist and audience than about any one person’s fantasies. This is not the Performance Art of the cultural elite. Arcade’s work is invested in shared experiences and the generation of energy. She does this frequently through improvisation, which is clearly lost once it is set down on the page. Yet there are enough glimmers of that magic that will allow the reader who has never seen Penny Arcade in performance to appreciate what she is trying to do.
La Miseria is Arcade’s surprisingly loving portrait of her Italian immigrant family, who violently criticize her imagination in favor of darker broodings on misery. This is, Arcade argues, typical of the southern Italian working class. The extended scenes taking place in the re-created dining room of Arcade’s youth offer one of the most brutally honest depictions of the kind of racism that is still all too common in America today.
Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! is a direct response to the deplorable lack of funding for the arts in the United States, the blatant censorship of creative work, and the hypocrisy of criticizing sexuality when it is used so frequently in advertising and popular entertainment. The play begins with Arcade embodying several different characters who work in a conservative brothel, offering thoughts on sex and politics that reveal the sharp, intelligent, biting observations she is known for. “I think it’s all interconnected,” she says in the character of Charlene, one of the brothel’s prostitutes. “The sexual suppression going on this country, the sexual exploitation, the anti-abortion backlash, the denial of the AIDS situation, the corporate control of the media, the censorship in the arts, the decline of journalism. I think it’s a political thing, I think it’s a control thing… because the Right Wing doesn’t want people to fuck! Because people who fuck – think! And people who don’t fuck, don’t think. Because they’re scared that if they think, they’re going to think about fucking!”
Throughout Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, Penny slowly strips away the personas of the characters she embodies until she is just herself, literally and figuratively naked in front of the audience. In what is one of the most talked about moments of her performance career – where it is talked about – she performs a striptease with a see-through American flag to the sounds of “sexy music” and Lenny Bruce’s famous rant on obscenity and the arts. It is an understatement to say there is a lot happening in this moment. Not simply playing for shock, Arcade’s dance is a seduction of the kind of freedoms the flag is meant to represent, while also embodying the kind of performances that were being shut down across the country under the label of “obscenity” (Google the NEA Four, for example).
The last play of the anthology, Bad Reputation, is described by Arcade as “my all-girl revenge show” where she tackles subjects ranging from rape to women who betray other women. The play takes to task the theoretical feminists who don’t put into practice the ideals they believe in. “We’re run by our biology,” Arcade argues. “Biologically, women are programmed to compete with women for protection.” Of the three plays, Bad Reputation is the most disturbing in terms of the physical strain put on Arcade (the ending, in particular, which I won’t give away except to say it involves a dozen eggs), and at the same time it is the play which hits all of its marks in all the right places. Reading these plays together, spanning only a decade of a very productive career, reveals the developed voice of one of America’s finest performance artists.
I would be remiss not to mention the accompanying interview with Penny Arcade conducted by Chris Kraus as well as essays by playwrights Sarah Schulman and Ken Bernard, Arcade-collaborator Steve Zehentner, and performance scholar Stephen Bottoms. Together with the plays, these pieces flesh out the experience of seeing a Penny Arcade production, and offer further insight into the artist herself. Indeed, they succeed in the book’s mission of creating a context for others to view her work in.
Penny Arcade describes her productions as another kind of “drag” show. Since you won’t likely read about it in the papers, you’ll likely end up in the audience because a friend dragged you there after experiencing it themselves. In this tradition, run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore and pick up Bad Reputation. And drag a friend. It’s high time more people experience the world of Penny Arcade.