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Jeremy Goldstein Speaks Truth To Power with Penny Arcade

PENNY ARCADE: LONGING LASTS LONGER SOHO THEATRE 2 - 21 NOV from Steve Zehentner on Vimeo.

Penny Arcade is unlike any performer I’ve ever met. She has a career spanning almost 50-years, and is recognised as one of a handful of artists who created and continue to define performance art as we know it today. A former Warhol superstar and contemporary of Debbie Harry and Patti Smith, Quentin Crisp named Penny Arcade as the woman he most identified with.  Her history, lineage and ability as a live performer is simply unsurpassable.

We started working together in 2010 but it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally managed to secure the 20th anniversary revival of her legendary sex and censorship show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! for London.  We had originally planned a short month at Arcola Tent as an underground anti-dote to the London Olympics, but excitement among audiences was such that we hit the mainstream and the show transferred twice to the Old Vic Tunnels and The Albany.  It was a transformative experience, not only for everyone who worked on it, but for audiences too, as I witnessed a record 48 consecutive standing ovations for a show the critics hailed as ‘a landmark production’ and the ’show of the decade’.  

Now three years on, Penny and her collaborator Steve Zehentner have come up with another exuberant performance anthem in the form of Longing Lasts Longer.  Developed in front of a live audience in New York, and premiered at Edinburgh Fringe this year, it was the only show in the entire festival to pick up both the Fringe First and Herald Angel Awards. In November the show makes its London debut at Soho Theatre prior to a world tour in 2016 (see the Special Offer for Run Riot readers at the end of this interview). As Penny’s Producer, I had a few questions I wanted to ask her and this is what she said...

Jeremy Goldstein: They Made New York, a recent New York Times feature, acknowledged you, Philip Glass, Susan Sarandon, Larry Kramer, Fab Five Freddy and others as artists who defined NYC’s inimitable and electrifying cultural scene of the 70’s and 80’s. Is a gentrified New York driving the current wave of nostalgia for its downtown art scene of yesteryear?

Penny Arcade: Since the late 70’s and early 1980’s NY had become populated by differing waves, generations of people, who although they had an emotional and aesthetic investment in the culture of ‘Downtown NY’ helped hurry the morphing of what had been a life outside the mainstream into a brand, a simulacrum, cut off from its true lineage of resistance. The minute the Village Voice or Paper Magazine or any other downtown rag in the 1980’s put Madonna on their cover at the same time she was on the cover of Time Magazine, the ‘real’ Downtown was driven further Underground because the entire concept of the alternative culture is in opposition to mainstream culture and values. Many of those people were unconnected to the cultural and political resistance that defined Downtown NY for close to 150 years, they were connected to clubbing or the art scene or the Gay scene or to the fashion scene. In 2015 the reality has come full circle that without the grounding in a political and social resistance, gentrification, while temporarily allowing and tolerating certain cultural and social ‘fetishes’ like night clubs or Gay bars or even an art scene, will eventually erase those too and that is what is being experienced in NY now. People who spent the past 30 years unaware of what was being lost as they were sleep walking thru the culture that was being eradicated outside of their personal comfort zone, are now waking up. A little late.

JG: In 2014 you wrote The Tyranny of Fragility, which you refer to in Longing Lasts Longeras the age we live in. You say that ‘true power comes from knowing the absolute truth ourselves and that takes ruthless honesty’.  If you could ask yourself one question, what would it be and what’s your answer?

Penny: We are all less than we would like to be. Life is about growth, after all if it is about anything. Quentin Crisp used to say to me in the face of my endless questing for a single truth to guide my life. 'The secret of the universe, Miss Arcade is that there isn’t any!' If there is a question I have yet to ask myself and haven’t, I think it is 'What were you really afraid of that kept you from directly pursuing your dreams?' and it happens to be a question I am in process of asking myself, a little bit at a time, everyday, because just as we do not die all at once neither do we live all at once. The answer would be, at least in part, that I had fully absorbed, owned and made true all of the terrible and deeply painful things I was directly told about myself as a child and young teenager from my family and teachers at school and indirectly by society: that I was a deeply and irrefutably flawed and damaged person, perhaps from before birth, fated to live a marginal existence at the edge of society. That any longings or desires I had for my own future were born of grandiose fantasies which were the by product of my flawed and damaged consciousness so that even when there were small moments of proof that my childhood imaginings were not empty dreams such as finding myself onstage or discovering an entire gay world populated by people like me, I still had a deep distrust of my own inner workings and I have spent years trying to unravel this deep insecurity, and that is something  that I share with countless people out there, certainly the audience that come to see my work.

Quentin Crisp and Penny Arcade



JG: What with your long association with the architects of the American counter culture including John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and Warhol’s Factory, you occupy a unique position in the American avant-garde, so I’ve often wondered if money were no object, what would your fantasy show be and where would you stage it?

Penny: Well, I think about this question a lot because up until 2002 my collaborator Steve Zehentner and I flew in the face of convention. With little or no outside financial support, we tried to realize our artistic ambitions, not only in our theatre but in our now long running video project Stemming The Tide Of Cultural Amnesia The Lower East Side Biography Project.  Anyone who sees our work from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s can see what we were able to do with just a little bit of money as in Sisi Sings The Blues (1996 Vienna Festival) or Bad Reputation (1999 PS122), New York Values, (2002 PS122) Old Queen (2006 Dixon Place).

I would adore to stage Longing Lasts Longer in an interactive video and lighting montage, that creates individual ‘frames' for the different sections in collaboration with a lighting designer like Tony Award winner Kevin Adams who I consider an artist in his own right and video montage specialist like Peter Norman with a live a band that would interact with Steve Zehentner’s live DJ’ing! Where? Brooklyn Academy of Music NY. That said I would also like to mount a retrospective of my main theatre pieces much of which has only been seen by very small audiences.

JG: In your book Bad Reputation writer, filmmaker and activist Sarah Schulman says you ‘brought Performance Art to Realism’. What do you think she means by that?  On 11th November at Soho Theatre you’ll be teaming up with Schulman for the very first time for an on stage conversation named after Sarah’s gripping memoir of the AIDS years (1981-1996) - Gentrification of the Mind.  How do you feel about this, and what kind of things might you talk about?

Penny: Sarah Schulman said I brought realism to Performance Art. I agree with Sarah. I think I brought realism to performance art in much the same way as the cinema of post war Italy brought realism to Cinema. This makes sense because I know my work was very influenced by the realism of post war Italian cinema as well as the realism found in 20th century photography, particularly portraiture.

The Playhouse of The Ridiculous in the 1960’s while covered in glitter and steeped in rock 'n’ roll, gender fuck and camp, addressed real issues both politically and humanistically…way beyond only gay issues…so that was a huge influence on me.

Sarah and I have known each other and been colleagues for almost 30 years. Sarah saw my early work in progress for New York Values in 1998 where I spoke of the ‘Gentrification of Ideas', a concept I have been working with since the early 1990’s, and that became a sign post for her that led partially to her writing Gentrification of The Min. I have always appreciated Sarah’s support for my work and her acknowledgement of my ideas. Not everyone would give me credit as she does in her book. Yet the truth is most people are not very clever or thoughtful, so despite Sarah’s acknowledgement of the prescience of my thinking, the extending of the idea of gentrification beyond buildings, cities, bricks and mortar, many, many people still come to me and think that I was influenced by her book on Gentrification! That said, Sarah and I have inhabited the same landscape physically, psychically and culturally for decades. Sarah grew up at the border of NY’s East Village, so I have no doubt that as a 7 year old walking with her grandmother on Second Avenue, Sarah saw me as a 17 year old, carrying on wildly in the street and was warned against me and my ilk. Sarah is one of the theatre artists who has seen pretty much all my work for a solid 25 years. We have worked in different corners of the same vineyard. I believe this conversation between us will be incredibly exciting as it will first of all present Gentrification in cultural and political context, which is all important in the real discussion of any subject. In London people like Ben Walters and others who spear headed the response to the loss of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, know first hand how important the need for context is when we are confronting the erasure of history. George Orwell referred to it so tellingly in his book 1984 - statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets- anything that might throw light upon the past had been systemically altered. Sarah and I have come from different corners on some issues but we have a deep trust and respect for each other which allows for the conversation itself to be a bit dangerous and unexpected which always makes for great viewing. I think a central issue has to be about the gentrification of Gay. How does a culture that was inherently oppositional to society remain relevant as it is being absorbed and in fact institutionalised into the mainstream?

‘Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!’ San Francisco

 

JG: You’ve often said you want to work in TV.  What excites you about the medium and what kind of show could you see yourself in?

Penny: Television provides the widest access to the public. I was naive in my 30’s and I believed that being successful in theatre and performance would lead to being offered work film and television. I had no idea how separate those worlds actually are so instead of going directly for those formats I waited for those worlds to discover me! It has taken me years to understand that you have to knock on the door of the world you want, you can’t just stay in your own doorway and wave. I think I am made for the small screen!  Audiences experience me in a very, very personal way. Audiences always have felt that I am speaking to them directly, that they ‘know’ me.  I feel that they would want me in their homes and after all isn’t that what television is inherently about? I have a lot of experience in interviewing people so a talk show would be quite wonderful. I like to give exposure to other artists, and have been an artist advocate since my 20’s promoting other artists, so a chat variety show with the possibility of longer serious talk specials would be a perfect medium. I am fundamentally an entertainer, a comedienne with an 'honest' core, strongly grounded in physical comedy which makes me a natural for a sit com. I share those qualities held by the most classic sitcom actors from Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French to Jackie Gleason and Bea Arthur, a strong sense of character, timing, and a unique physical comedy.

JG: In 2013 in New York, you starred in Tennessee Williams’ The Mutilated with Mink Stole and had rave reviews.  Do you enjoy portraying other characters and is there a role you’ve always longed to play?

Penny: I have always been an actress since I was a child. I used to act out my favorite comic book characters with the kids in my neighborhood every day after school and I actually convinced myself when I was 7 to 9 years old that I had a role on the TV show Bonanza, and that I was Little Joe’s little sister, a special role, written for me. So I suppose it is best to say I retreated in to my imagination and stayed there! My early work in the 1980’s was all biographical. I became people on stage that not only I knew, but that the audience knew too and my adeptness at becoming these highly individual characters is what created my reputation. While I was busy creating my own work in the 80’s and 90’s, the other reason I didn’t do much theatre in the 80’s was because I was a very ethnic looking Italian. Casting directors would apologize to me saying they were sorry they couldn’t use me because I didn’t ‘read’ as white. I was at least a decade too early for the kind of career other Latino actresses were able to avail themselves of in the 1990’s. That said, it is very relaxing on a lot of levels to act in other people's plays, where I am left to only act not write, direct and produce! I was born to play Tennessee Williams’ roles and I intend to do many of them. He wrote so many great roles for middle aged women! Over the years I have developed great acting skills in timing, subtlety, risk on stage not to mention my ability to memorize!

The most amazing reviews for me for The Mutilated came from two outstanding actresses. Kathleen Turner told me,'You are the most fearless actress I have ever seen on stage' and Zoe Caldwell, the legendary Broadway actress said, 'What you do dear, we did not know how to do.'

‘Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! London

 

JG: This year I’m relaunching my company London Artists Projects with a mission to speak truth to power for audiences who hunger for live and authentic moments of joy, beauty and meaning.  Recently I asked you if you would become our matriarch and to my delight you said yes!  What does speaking truth to power mean to you?

Penny: Without a doubt to speak truth to power always puts one at tremendous risk, personally, socially and career wise. When it comes to success in any medium, the basic rule is Don’t Rock the Boat, tell a White Lie, don’t show up as a trouble maker! Go along to get along! When I hear the phrase truth to power, I immediately think of the Greek concept of Parrhesia, the basis of Michel Foucault’s famous talk Fearless Speech. Parrhesia describes the freedom to speak honestly but also the obligation to speak the truth for the common good, even at personal risk.

According to Foucault, these are the specific elements that accompany true Parrhesia, an ancient ancient Greek concept, first spoken about in Euripides and found in many other Greek texts in the 4th and 5th century. The Parrahesta must tell the truth from their own personal point of view. The act of telling that personal truth must put them at risk of loss. The Parrahesta must tell their truth out of a sense of duty, responsibility and contribution. People always think institutionally when they hear the words Truth to Power, they think of the government, the church, the corporation, academia, yet there is a much more insidious threat that haunts us when it comes to telling the truth in our lives on a daily basis. People love a magnanimous gesture: to tell the truth to the police, to a magistrate, on the radio but when it comes to telling the truth under everyday circumstances most of us lie in order to protect ourselves socially. In Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! I said that what makes censorship so insidious, is that leads to self censorship. I was asked about censorship by Vice magazine this August and the young journalist asked me if B!D!F!W! was received differently now that there was less censorship. My response to her was that there is more censorship now than there was 25 years ago. I said 'the censorship is actually in the culture now. It's not coming just from the government, or from the church, or from some group of right-wing Tories, it's in the drinking water! It's college students themselves who are calling for trigger warnings that started out for books that contain violence, racism, rape but have now have been extended to include class and poverty. Soon it will be impossible to talk about anything!' We see the expression of individual truth suppressed socially as Political Correctness and the language police have infiltrated every corner of our lives. On social media it is possible to set off a witch hunt with just a personal opinion. More than ever, to speak truth to power is to risk our personal comfort zone for what we believe in.

JG: After all is said and done, is love really the answer, what surprises you, and what makes you laugh?

Penny:  Yes! Love really is the answer and it has taken me a long time to understand that we need to love ourselves first. Before we can really extend compassion to others we must be able to extend it to ourselves. What continually surprises me is how much more there is to learn about myself and by extension, other people.

When I used to complain to Quentin Crisp that someone’s behavior was difficult to understand, he would always say 'Why do you think you can understand other people? You can’t understand other people, you can only understand yourself'. It took me forever to grasp the full meaning of that and by extension to realize that I have only understood myself on a very superficial level. Once when I was 45 years old I was walking down the street in NYC and a voice inside my head whispered 'Your relationship to your own life has been largely incidental'. I have spent 20 years trying to understand what I was trying to tell myself and lately I think I have begun to understand. Without real compassion for oneself, it is impossible to unlock the secrets of our own hearts.  Without compassion we remain hapless bystanders in our own lives, unable to understand what we do and why we do it and therefore unable to change anything we don’t want in our lives and our ability to truly support other people’s inner lives is limited. What makes me laugh? Pretty much everything. In 1971 Patti Smith wrote me that she loved me because I could find the laughter loophole in any tragedy and that remains true of me. I laugh at myself a lot. The result of a closely observed life is a great deal of laughter! Now I know why life is referred to as The Human Comedy.

 

Penny does Twitter: @PennyArcadeNYC

 

SPECIAL OFFER
£10 tickets (reduced from £20) for Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer until Sat 14th Nov at Soho Theatre
PROMO CODE: PENNYRR

PLUS…
£3 tickets for Penny Arcade Platform events (listed below) on 11, 12, 13 Nov at Soho Theatre
PROMO CODE: PTALKRR

 

Penny Arcade: Longong Lasts Longer

Soho Theatre

Mon 2 – Sat 21 Nov, 7.30pm (Special £10 Offer available - code: PENNYRR)

 

Penny Arcade and Sarah Schulman: Gentrification of the Mind

Wed 11 Nov, 5.45pm (Special £3 Offer available - code: PTALKRR)

Matthew Todd, Pat Cash and guests: The Rise of ‘CHEMSEX’

Thu 12 Nov, 5.45pm (Special £3 Offer available - code: PTALKRR)

Dan Glass’ de-gentrification happy hour with Sarah Schulman and guests

Fri 13 Nov, 5.45pm (Special £3 Offer available - code: PTALKRR)

Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’ ‘United in Anger: A History of ACT UP’

and Q&A with Sarah Schulman

Sat 14 Nov, 2.45pm, Hackney Attic

 


Patti Smith, Jackie Curtis, Penny Arcade