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Interview: 'very sexual, very dirty, very erotic' - Penny Arcade talks to Run Riot about her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

[Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders]

'This is a very sexy, very sexual, very dirty, very erotic show with a lot of laughing - you can't get this everywhere!' - Penny Arcade on her show, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! - showing in London from 27 June - 22 July at the Arcola Tent, and then from 8 August - 1 September at the Old Vic Tunnels! She's seen it all. Penny's the 62 year old performance artist from downtown New York who's inspired generations of creative activists. At 18 she flung herself into the art world with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jackie Curtis, Quentin Crisp (Sex In The City's Cynthia Nixon played Penny in the film An Englishman in New York), as well as being involved with the notorious and influential The Play-House of the Ridiculous (think Rocky Horror). John Waters is a big fan. She now returns to London to present her 'sex and censorship' show - Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! - with a cast of hot, local talent from our own club scene, sex industry, and all round exhibitionists. The show tackles censorship head on. How does she define her style? 'Super smart, take the piss, camp, glam, hard edged punk, working class intellectualism that judges others on their VALUES not their CLASS.' Punchy stuff! Loving it! Run Riot caught up with Penny to ask those crucial questions, including - can she save us from becoming the 51st state, and tell us a dirty London story? Penny Arcade, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! at the Arcola Tent, 27 June - 22 July, and then at the Old Vic Tunnels from 8 August - 1 September. pennyarcadenyc.net

RR: Penny Arcade - you've seen it all! What's at the heart of your story?
Penny Arcade: I think we're at a critical point right now on this planet. Our situation is beyond the absurd. It's ridiculous. We're in an emergency wishing it would go back to being a crisis! It's a question of us all waking up at the same time. Me? I prefer to wake up by laughing at our human condition - and I still hold fast to the belief we can all come together. Yet it's more than this - it's that all of us coming together in clarity about what it means to be alive - is the only hope for a more pleasant few decades till we run out of drinking water!

RR: One of your motivations to create Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! in the 1990s was to retort censorship in the arts - has censorship changed?
PA:
B!D!F!W! was my response to the way the art scene in 1990 New York bowed down to fear of loss of art funding from the federal level, which was initiated by Senator Helms against the National Endowment for The Arts. Works that had homosexual or sexual themes were defunded. The art scene tried to use censorship as a marketing angle while disregarding the censorship that was occurring at the corner newsstand. Totally ignoring things like the removal of Playboy Magazine from the corner shop and the censorship going on in Libraries. In other words the art scene per se didn't care about CENSORSHIP. They only cared about censorship regarding art funding. My work has pretty much NEVER received public funding which has left me a lot freer (and poorer) - enabling me to to tell my truth and to criticise the government, the funding bodies and the politics of art - which are, after all, ELITEST!

Reality is, not much has changed which is why B!D!F!W! still kicks major ass. The press in the UK in 1993 was in shock that major mainstream American Press could not publish the title of my show. But frankly, The New York Times still won't print 'Tis a Pity She's a W----'! Remember, you Brit's exported the Puritans to America.

Last April, when I went on the divine Jo Goode's BBC1 Radio show I was told we couldn't say the full title of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! on air. The culprit at that moment was Russell Brand. He'd called someone a 'Bitch' and now no one can use the word. One must remember that George Orwell warned as much about the erasure of history and the LOSS OF LANGUAGE as he did about surveillance - but few think about that. I guess that's my job!

RR: What's your definition of 'obscene or indecent'?
PA:
My definition of obscene tends towards the material and practical: violence, starvation, homelessness, oppression.

If you think it's offensive [sexuality] - turn the channel, don't go to the show or film - but to stop public inquiry because you're squeamish - is narcissistic. Last time I looked nothing new had been added to the human body. Still two of everything except the nose and mouth. Same number of holes as 10,000 years ago. What is obscene to me is the self righteousness that practitioners of fundamentalist religions are armed with. The club of self righteousness that leaves no freedom for people who think differently.

Granted - it is a biological fact that humans are herd animals and mainly want to be with their own kind. But when this tendency is institutionalised by sexual, religious or even governmental politics it is sick and obscene and indecent.

RR: Creatively speaking, does Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! give a nod to Jackie Curtis (Warhol Superstar), as well as The Play-House of the Ridiculous (infamously attributed for the origins of the Rocky Horror phenomenon)?
PA:
I debuted at eighteen years old in John Vaccaro’s Play-House of The Ridiculous. That's the original queer, political, glitter-glam, rock-and-roll theatre - that if you read Please Kill Me, The Oral History of Punk -  spawned the NY Glam and Punk movement. Certainly The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Jayne (Wayne County), Blondie and many, many others were influenced by The Play-House. Jackie Curtis was part of that company as was Charles Ludlam, whose much more benign theatre is always obscuring Vaccaro’s. That said, Danny Fields who later created The Ramones brought Iggy Pop to see me and The Play-House and I was throwing myself into the audience with a hard core rock band on stage. So yes, that is the core aesthetic. Super smart, take the piss, camp, glam, hard edged punk, working class intellectualism that judges others on their VALUES not their CLASS. The music is ultra important to the show - really wide variety - we ask only one thing of the music: that it be great and MOVE all of us!

[Meet the dancers: Leslie Deere, Richard Causer, Thanasis Petroyiannis, Lydia Darling, Andrea Carruccio, Andrea Pelone, Emily Barnett-Salter, Gede Foster, Rob Beach, Gemma Sanchez, and - Fabulous Russella, Ryan Styles, Bianca, Eirini, and Sasha.]

 

RR: Tell us about the dancers.
PA:
Twenty years ago it was impossible to find erotic dancers in London who would be in the show. Erotic dancers who worked in mens' clubs had no interest in art and they didn't audition for us. We brought all our dancers from NY and occasionally hired a few wild people from Heaven. Twenty years ago there was no burlesque scene in Britain, just a very, very small performance art scene - and they would not have crossed over into either burlesque or theatre. To be honest, it was Lois Keidan (then Artistic Director of the ICA, now of Live Art Development Agency) who specifically brought me and other NY artists to kick off a more radical live art practice in the UK - and she succeeded. This year over 160 people wanted to audition. We culled it down and auditioned 80. We brought that down to 30 and we ended up with an A list of fourteen phenomenal dancers - EROTIC dancers!

B!D!F!W! creates an entirely different atmosphere than anything you have ever seen - it's both dangerous AND inclusive - not exclusive. My work attracts open minded people who want to be more open minded - who want to be supported in their own personal development as independent eclectic humans. That is my audience description! People who like my work are independent, eclectic, like to make up their own minds, don't want to be told what to think but want to be exposed to new ways of thinking and observing.

The thirty people we ended up with - The A team and B team - are all amazing: open minded, great performers, big life force, great entertainers. The difference between the A and B team is erotic dancing ability. This is a very sexy, very sexual, very dirty, very erotic show with a lot of laughing - you can't get this everywhere!

RR: Do you think the UK has become the 51st 'Politically Correct' state?
PA:
Without a doubt. America has been exporting its religious and economic right wing agenda for nearly thirty years and it's frightening to see the inroads it has made in Britain - where frankly a lot of people still have the capacity to think for themselves. Unlike America, for the masses, that capacity to think was lost thirty years ago between the Vietnam war, Jerry Springer and Home Shopping Network. Not to say that you don't have your own large looming stupid masses here in Britain - but frankly people are still reading here - unlike America. The only thing to avoid totalitarianism - and perhaps I should say delay - is for people to wake-up and join forces. B!D!F!W! is about creating community and coalition and showing by experience - that when people do not feel excluded or judged they suddenly have more space for other people's ways of life.

RR: Tell us about your three new works in progress?
PA:
Longing Lasts Longer. This is about love and relationships. How we join sex and love despite the biological reality that they have little to do with one another. It has lots of video, is very poetic, and hardcore on the topic of emotional pain, being alone and humiliation and rejection! Yet, like all tragedy it's still pretty funny!

Old Queen. This is about my years from 1963-1969. It's a psychedelic road trip thru my life as a teenage Faghag. It shows how - unbeknownst to me - I was on a trajectory to become an Old Queen - which now I am, in a world that has lost the means of measuring the value of Old Queens.

Denial of Death. This is pretty much what it sounds like. It's an homage to the artist Jack Smith, a work he wanted to collaborate on before he died in 1989. It's about ageing, dying and living. After all, you haven't lived till you have died!

RR: Give us a unadulterated, uncensored, 'Parrhesiast' Penny Arcade London anecdote.
PA:
In 1973 I was living in Mallorca working with a political puppet theatre group by day and drinking with sailors for money by night. The local police mixed me up with an American woman in her late thirties who was dealing hashish to the USS Forrestal (a 5,000 sailor strong air craft carrier). I was 23 at the time. The Spanish Police investigated me and on the strength that I knew the English poet Robert Graves (who they still considered a dissident because of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the fact that although he was then 78 years old, was rumoured to have smoked Hashish in 1936!). To make a long story short - I ran off to a rather mad eclectic commune in Richmond, London that was an uneasy mix of  semi-hippie do-gooders and bonafide nutters - and I fitted somewhere between the two!

One evening I was walking down a long road in Nottinghill Gate or Portobello or somewhere I was drawn to. As I walked along, I noticed people looking back up the hill behind me. I stopped and looked. There was a man running down the hill very fast shouting 'Wait! Wait!'. I stood still and watched him run, as if he was running his own private marathon. When he got to me he stopped, dead still, very out of breath - panting. He was very good looking but with a palpable edge. He caught his breath and said, 'Oh I thought you were someone else.'  I replied 'I am.'  We started to laugh and immediately formed a connection of some kind that is hard to explain in words.  We walked down the hill and straight to where he was staying. He'd just gotten out of prison. I don’t recall what for, but there was a sense of danger in him - but I think it was more about his own vulnerability to society than anything he might do to me. We had non-stop sex for 24 hours. He gave me two strands of red coral necklaces. I never saw him again. It wasn’t about that. I still have the coral. I always remember him when I walk down long London hills at dusk.

Jeremy Goldstein and Time Out Live present
PENNY ARCADE: BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE!
Created, performed and written by Penny Arcade
Co-directed with Steve Zehentner
27 June - 22 July at the Arcola Tent

8 August - 1 September at the Old Vic Tunnels
pennyarcadenyc.net

Queen of the underground and New York performance legend Penny Arcade invites you to celebrate sex, freedom and art as she returns to London with her internationally infamous sex and censorship show where literally anything goes at London's alternative pre-Olympic bash!

BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE! is a multi-media spectacle that re-creates the atmosphere of a club in a theatre setting. Blending outrageous humour, and razor sharp satire with an exuberant audience dance break, monologues performed by Penny Arcade are punctuated with male and female erotic go-go dancing. Arcade’s infamous monologues feature the daily life of a receptionist in a brothel, the upbringing and rearing of a ‘faghag’, the evolution of the New York gay scene, and the heartbreak of HIV and AIDS.

When first produced in New York, BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE! was a runaway success, propelling the anarchic into the mainstream and wowing critics along the way. In New York the show featured guest performers including Quentin Crisp, Marianne Faithfull and Debbie Harry. Since then, the show has gone on to be an international hit in 25 cities, kicking off the ‘neo-burlesque’ movement, and picking up a loyal fan base including Joan Rivers, The Edge, and John Waters.

Originally created as a brilliant retort to censorship in the arts, and now celebrating its official 20th anniversary, BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE! retains much of its satirical impetus and political clout, never more so than in a climate where debates over government funding cuts, gay marriage, sexual freedom and reproductive rights rage on both sides of the Atlantic.

Erotic go-go dancing and drinks from 7:30pm for 8pm start Wed-Sat, and 5pm for 5:30pm start Sun so get there early!

Contains adult themes and content

Presented as part of CREATE – a festival for the five London Boroughs hosting the 2012 Games; and World Pride 2012.

 

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! from Penny Arcade on Vimeo.