Penny Arcade sprung out of New York City’s “Playhouse of the Ridiculous,” which had close ties to her mentor Jaimie Andrews and the director John Vaccaro. Andy Warhol was impressed by her high energy and quick whit, and casted her in Paul Morrissey’s “Women In Revolt.” Recently, Penny has toured the world twice for her production “BITCH!DYKE!FAGHAG!WHORE!,” and creates art that show her political/housing/pirate radio/independent art/AIDS activism.
BRASHcore: How old were you when you ran away from home?
Penny Arcade: I ran away from home at 13, ended up in Juvenile Court, and was sentenced to two years in a Catholic Reform School. Semi contemplative nuns, The Sisters Of The Good Shepherd, ran Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls in Hartford, Connecticut. What would have been a tragedy for other girls was a miracle for me because my life in my factory town of New Britain was a nightmare at school and difficult within my immigrant Italian family. I was bullied at school for being different, stigmatized as a “slut” (without having sex with anyone), martyred, and shunned. I was considered to have shamed my family.
My propensity for intellectuality was scorned in my town but encouraged among the nuns, and that formed the basis of my life long inquiry. Within two weeks of arrival I wrote my first play at the bequest of one Mother Mark, and through her I was introduced to many books and ideas (including feminism). I also did my first activism and tutored younger black children in reading in the North Hartford Black Ghetto under the auspices of a social activist named Ned Coll.
BRASHcore: 1967 is about when the Hippie Movement happened in San
Francisco, CA, USA. 1967 is also when you named yourself Penny Arcade during an acid trip. Was taking acid in the East Coast as hippie as it was in San Francisco? Was there a Hippie aesthetics to the name Penny Arcade?
Penny Arcade: Hmmm. Actual hippies were older than me at that time by 5 to 20 years! We younger ones were more politically radical, and considered ourselves “Freaks” as opposed to “Hippies.” I had just turned 13 when JFK was assassinated in 1963. I was 16 during the 1967 Summer of Love. “Death of The Hippie” was in October 1967. It was already well understood that the Hippie Movement had been co-opted by the media and advertisings. In 1967 I was part of Yippie (Youth International Party), which created a more active political presence for the youth. The Hippies were rarely political.
Naming myself Penny Arcade was pretty much an intuitive moment not connected to anything except my own desire for self- definition, and to amuse Jaimie Andrews. I had used other nonsense names before that like Holly Golightly (I took that from Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
BRASHcore: Being so young and from such a small town, when you left home do you remember your understanding of an Underground lifestyle (art/culture)?
Penny Arcade: Frankly I had very little understanding of art. As a young person, I loved reading and wanted to be a writer, but I had no concept that one could go to school to learn how to write. I truly believed that art was an innate skill that you could either do or you couldn’t. I would be 36 before I wrote anything, except a few poems that I thought were bad and diary entries. All my ideas of theater, for instance, stemmed solely from my imagination. Having quit school I never participated in high school plays, and in 7th grade when I had asked the teacher who ran the drama group if I could participate she said, “No, you would be an over actor.” It was crushing to be rejected out of hand, but in keeping with my deal with the universe where I get to see everything full circle when I was 45 years old this same teacher saw me perform! Afterward she said to me, “I had no idea you were so intelligent!” and I said, “How would you have known? You dismissed me out of hand.” Then I reminded her of my asking to be allowed to participate in the Drama Club and how she had said I would be an “over actor” when she said “NO.” Her response was very acknowledging of my theatrical ability as a 45-year-old, she said, “Over actor indeed!” This particular experience in my own youth has made me very sensitive to the public and to people who contact me for help. I know the impact out of hand rejection has on people. It is also the reason I am scrupulously honest on stage. We never know the impact we may be making on someone else.
What the Underground meant to me at 17 was basically the criminal world… Everyone who I met who made art was also either a drug addict or a criminal. In 1967 at 17 I met Jaimie Andrews in Provincetown, and through him I was exposed to people who went to art school. Then I started modeling in Art Schools, and saw the students as very different from me; I was working and they were studying. There was a privilege there that I didn’t have that shamed me in some ways. Later as I got to know Jackie Curtis I started to get a different view of making art, and at 18 I started to work with John Vaccaro of The Playhouse of The Ridiculous (which also had many criminal elements).
BRASHcore: When and how did underground art gain validity as a genre?
Penny Arcade: Well certainly underground art meant underground commix in the 1960’s. I think that the idea of Underground Art came about in the 1970’s post Warhol because of underground films and the glamour attached to them. The theatre of The Playhouse of The Ridiculous (while being very radical) was still reviewed in the NY Times and Newsweek Magazine so it wasn’t only underground.
BRASHcore: Can you talk about the press’ role, or lack there of, for establishing an underground movements as political or artistic? When do you remember first getting press?
Penny Arcade: The 1960’s were the hey day of underground newspapers that covered everything from culture to politics. Actually they covered everything that was not covered by mainstream media including culture and politics. Since the late 1980’s the alternative press, which had done much to support underground theatre etc., simply stopped covering it. The first review I got was in Screw Magazine, a famous sex newspaper that also covered culture. It was in a review for Jackie Curtis’s play “Femme Fatale.” I was 19.
BRASHcore: Can you talk about the venues you first started performing in?
Penny Arcade: The first venue was in 1967, or it might have been 1968 with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm at The Electric Circus. The Hog Farm (which became famous at Woodstock for feeding people and having medical tents) was hired to be in-house “Freaks” at the Electric Circus nightclub in the East Village. It was populated by what used to be called “Bridge and Tunnel” people who came in to experience the Hippie East Village, and see rock bands on weekends. Wavy passed me over the heads of the audience, no doubt because I was charismatic and more because I was small! I was one of the very first crowd surfers. I was moved through the audience by the crowd and onto the stage where Sly and The Family Stone were playing. I got there and started dancing till Sly gave me a look that said “Get Off The Stage” and I dove into the crowd (perhaps one of the very first stage dives) and got sailed back across the room. Later that evening an older man who was a well-known lighting designer came up to me and said, “You know, you should do theatre. You have great timing.”
Shortly after Jaimie Andrews, a 27-year-old gay man who basically rescued me off the street and took me in to live with him, brought me to John Vaccaro (of The Playhouse of The Ridiculous), and I joined that company. We performed at Gotham Art Theater, LaMama, etc. The first was a rental that Vaccaro engaged to do Ken Bernard’s play “The Moke Eater.” The rest of plays we did were at LaMama, etc. were run by Ellen Stewart.
BRASHcore: Can you talk about the Stone Wall Riots? How many people participated? Do you remember thinking, ‘This will be in every history book across America?
Penny Arcade: The Stonewall Rebellion happened in the Spring of 1969 at a time where fighting against the police was rampant in NYC. It was notable in that it was a demonstration at a Gay Bar. Many people, not just gays and lesbians, attended it because people who were political showed up for any demonstration then as it was a time of coalition. So at the time it was not unusual if you were a political participant in the culture of resistance. People went to the Stonewall Rebellion each of the three or four nights. Pretty much anyone who was around NY at that time went down, but I think it was never more that 50-100 people.
BRASHcore: Have you ever been really conscious of your accomplishments? Were there ever moments when you thought, “Now this will be remembered?”
Penny Arcade: My own self-acceptance of my talent and originality has been very slowly acknowledged by myself, as I have had to teach myself how to do everything I do from performing to writing to directing to producing. I never had much self-confidence in the usual sense. That is to say “emotional” self-confidence. I had intellectual self-confidence because I have stringent standards of what is good, and I have a standard for excellence that I hold myself to. I have never been an artist who was showered with praise, except by the general public and occasionally by the press (but always outside of America). I have had to work very, very hard for everything I have gotten in my career. I was never a curator’s darling, or for that matter have I never had a champion for my work except the general public who for 30 years has continued to pay to see my work. I am still waiting for my “Big Break” in America, which I think is kind of great because I have endured in an industry that eats people up. I know I have done brilliant work, but the funny thing is one cannot both be a channeler of genius and a witness to it at the same time; but twice, while on stage for a few brief moments in recent years, I have been aware of how the people who are watching me experience my abilities.
BRASHcore: Besides now, what year was the best (most financially successful) for performance art?
Penny Arcade: For myself or for everyone? Performance art was very popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and there were a lot of people who were able to get paid something while they made work. For me personally the best financial time was in the mid 1990’s. I toured a lot between 1993 and 1996, and actually earned real money because of the commercial success of “Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!” in Europe, The UK, and Australia. We worked a lot! We did 140 shows in Australia alone!
BRASHcore: …What year were you able to reach the largest audiences?
Penny Arcade: Well between 1985 and 1995 I did the most performances I ever did because I worked all the time in NYC and was able to do many different plays of my own in a short time. Comparatively between 1997 and 2002 I did fewer performances. From 2006 to 2012 I toured a lot and did many shows in LA and SF, and then in 2012 I did 48 shows in London. I also performed for the first time ever in Scandinavia (Denmark/Sweden/Norway), Croatia, and Portugal. 2015 to 2017 will be a very busy time as I have already booked 7 weeks of shows in the UK for fall 2015. I have many requests to bring my work to different countries like Poland and Holland where I have never presented work.
BRASHcore: How many venues are left for underground performances in New York City? Is it easy to get a play up and performed, or are there numerous/ overwhelming formalities that need to be addressed first?
Penny Arcade: It is more difficult than ever between the reality of the real estate situation killing alternative spaces, and the emerging arts movement, which are ageist and tend to only want to book young artists. Almost every venue has a mission statement to present “emerging arts,” but none have a mission statement to present the work of mid-career artists. They just dump young artists when they age out of the funding category, but no one notices them till they hit that age! Emerging Arts funding is the short-term reward for going to school and getting an MFA!
BRASHcore: Have you ever thought that you would break free from Underground Art, or was that never a goal or thought?
Penny Arcade: Well I didn’t start out thinking of myself as an “Underground Artist.” I was a young person who found themselves in an experimental mileur at an avante-garde moment in art in 1968. At one time in history the avant-garde was still connected to the mainstream entertainment world (from the 1920’s thru to the 1960’s). There had been the possibility to create work at the frontiers of art that would be recognized for excellence and get a wider audience, but I think the flooding of people into the alternative art scene after the 70’s made that less possible. Let’s face it one can make really mediocre work and still be considered an artist in the not for profit world. In 1981 when I started to create my own work the underground and avant-garde momentum of the 60’s was no longer informing the East Village/ Downtown Art Scene (not for profit scene) nor was it a dominant force in the NY Downtown Art Scene, which at that point
had been already gentrified by both a more commercial and more academic presence. In creating my own work I had hoped to get the attention of filmmakers and theater makers beyond my own neophyte abilities. I was then as now interested in expanding both my opportunities and abilities. Being someone who did not read as “white” to the mainstream television and film industry, being quite ethnic looking (Southern Italian) my opportunities were very limited unless I wanted to make a career of playing street whores and homeless women, which was all I was offered because of my coloring! Instead, through the success of my work, I was able to drag East Village performance art and experimental theatre into the mainstream as one can witness by my commercial success at different periods of my career first in 1992 when I began to tour a bit to Tampa, Florida. It was embraced by the local theatre press; and then with my year-long run off-Broadway with “Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!” and then again with 3 solid years of touring “Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!” as a commercial hit on three continents. Since 2012 I have had another opportunity to have my work evaluated in the mainstream.
BRASHcore: Besides gaining notoriety for your theatric performances, you also made your motion picture debut early in your career. Can you talk about filming “Women In Revolt?” Was Andy Warhol’s contribution strictly financial? Was he on set? Did him and Paul Morrissey ever disagree? Why do you think his name always overshadows Paul Morrissey’s even though Paul was director?
Penny Arcade: I found working with Warhol and Morrissey empty and underwhelming after my experiences doing Ensemble Theater with John Vaccaro and The Playhouse of The Ridiculous. The Warhol set was chaotic and filled with a combination of disciplined and undisciplined performers. There was no rehearsal and no script so it turned into a battle of people talking over each other, which was annoying and frustrating.
To be honest I was surprised that my scenes were even in “Women In Revolt.” I shot only for three days, and didn’t see it until 1996! It was in contention for many years between Warhol and Morrissey, and when it was shown in 1972 I was living in Spain. Although Warhol told me that many Europeans who saw the film were taken by my performance. I was sent a clipping from NY columnist Earl Wilson who quoted Warhol as saying, “Penny Arcade is my latest Superstar.” “Women In Revolt” was the last film with Andy behind the camera, so yes he was at each shoot. Paul Morrissey started out almost as an agent for Warhol, and Warhol deferred to him a great deal. Morrissey was actually a filmmaker and understood filmmaking more than Andy. Andy had the glamour…
BRASHcore: Do you remember the last time you saw Andy Warhol?
Penny Arcade: I think the last time I saw Andy was at Chinese Chance, Mickey Ruskin’s boîte at 15th Avenue [NYC]. It was 1984 at Jackie Curtis’ 5th wedding.
BRASHcore: Who were you casted to be in “Pork,” and why didn’t you perform in it in London?
Penny Arcade: Tony Ingrassia put together “Pork” from audiotapes of phone calls by Andy Warhol. I assume, since Cherry Vanilla replaced me, that I would have played the character based on Bridget Berlin. I had a falling out with the director Tony Ingrassia because I wanted to play Andrea Whips on stage; I was completely unaware that the role was of Bridget Berlin!
BRASHcore: Having been involved in the arts for so long, can you describe America’s evolution in taste?
Penny Arcade: If we are speaking about America I don’t think we can talk about an evolution in taste! Rather we are speaking about a de-evolution! Connoisseurship, which is so critical in the evolution of both taste and art, has been all but erased! You can see Warhol’s lasting influence in Reality TV, so many hours about nothing! It is cheap to make because one needs neither actors nor writers! Just an editor!
BRASHcore: Can you describe times and places when other countries or “scenes” have gotten your message more than back home?
Penny Arcade: Well, the prophet is always welcomed outside their homeland. Since my work has always critiqued American politics and culture, I have been widely welcomed outside of America by people who would ignore their own
media. Paul did not. Europe has always had a smarter and broader public dialogue so my ideas sound fresh and not as radical, as they seem in the USA. I was greeted very warmly in Britain, Europe particularly Austria and Germany, Australia, Mexico, and Brazil. All of these countries do not equate investigation of cultural and political ideas with treason as America tends to.
BRASHcore: What specific social change have you been able to stir up through your art?
Penny Arcade: My work has always focused on supporting individuality, coalition, community building, tolerance, and inclusion. Therefore in supporting individuals I think I have supported the social change many of us want in a myriad of directions I would be unable to participate in on my own.
BRASHcore: Pardon the ignorance, but on your site it says you have entered mainstream media but without your name attached. How? What have you coined that we don’t realize?
Penny Arcade: Oh different things I have said have gone into the mainstream. In the 60’s I used the word “demented” as an adjective for something outrageously good and it is often heard. I said “I went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back” and that entered public usage, I coined the term “cultural amnesia” in 1993 and by the 2000’s it was in common usage.There are also elements in my work that have entered contemporary entertainment like speaking directly to the audience, and speaking directly to my tech people during my shows.
BRASHcore: When did being a politician interest you, and what would you have liked to accomplish?
Penny Arcade: I actually have had very little interest in being a politician. I took the Green Party candidacy because they were in danger of losing their position in the election if I did not. I am mainly an anarchist, I believe in small local rule by everyone making themselves responsible for the good of all.
BRASHcore: Can you talk about your music? What causes you to pick the subjects you do?
Penny Arcade: I have always expressed myself in spontaneous songs, and it is always improvisational. I have written quite a few songs over the past 30 years, but they were always spontaneous and connected to personal events. A lot of my spoken word pieces are categorized as songs because they are very rhythmic and my delivery is very musical. In the 1980’s I always sang in my shows and had full bands. I have been thinking a great deal about returning to music in the past year. Several people have approached me to record a CD, and I probably will in the next year. I also will release a book of my poems, and a spoken word CD too.
BRASHcore: Can you talk about the different impact theatre and music has had in your life?
Penny Arcade: I have always mediated my life through music. Most people do when they are young, but I never stopped.
I stopped singing in my 30’s because I couldn’t stand the attention. People are obsessive about singers in a way they are not about performers. I think I also am too vulnerable when I sing which frightens me. It was one area where I was not willing to be brave, that is probably why I feel I have to do it eventually.
BRASHcore: Do you think New York City is “progressive?”
Penny Arcade: NY was once very progressive for over 150 years, but that ended in the 1980’s. NY is a marketing capitol now, not the cultural or philosophical capitol it once was.
BRASHcore: When was the last time you saw Jackie Curtis?
Penny Arcade: The last time I saw Jackie Curtis was at a performance I did at the nightclub 8BC, two months before he died . He came up on stage while I was lying there waiting for the curtain to rise on my band. He laid down beside me, and had the photographer he was with take photos
of us. Then he went into the audience and shouted over and over, “Penny is the most valuable coin in my collection!” He was pretty high. Afterwards he told me how proud he was of the work I was making. He was pretty lost at that time. His death was a terrible, terrible loss for me, but so was his self-destruction.
BRASHcore: What do you think about the documentaries out on Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling?
Penny Arcade: Well first of all I am happy that they were both made. “Beautiful Darling” and “Superstar in a Housedress” were both labors of love, but I think I would have made a documentary on Jackie that focused less on him as a drag queen and more on him as a poet.
BRASHcore: What was the longest residency for one of your plays?
Penny Arcade: “Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!” ran from July 1992 at Performance Space 122 till September 5th 1992, and transferred to the Village Gate September 11th 1992 and ran till July 30th 1993.
BRASHcore: Why do you think the Cockettes’ San Francisco Theatre didn’t translate to NYC audiences?
Penny Arcade: Perhaps because what the Cockettes did was more of a “happening” than an actual “theatre” piece. Culture in SF was much more easy-going than culture in NY at that time.
BRASHcore: What was your involvement with the Angels of Light? Can you talk Hibiscus, and his concept of “free” shows? Did you guys get paid?
Penny Arcade: Jackie Curtis brought me to Hibiscus to be in “Tinsel Town Tirade,” Hibiscus’s last play. For Jackie during rehearsal breaks I would imitate Andrea Whips (the Warhol Star), and because the role I was playing in “Tinsel Town Tirade” was of a Warhol star Hibiscus loved it. Since Hibiscus hadn’t been in NY for the Warhol Scene the character he wrote was more like a Hollywood starlette and he preferred what I was doing and said so. He asked me to do it in his play instead of what he had written. Jackie told me I had to ask him for a writing credit which I did with great trepidation. He said “yes” and that was the beginning of me writing my own work. I think the days of his Free Plays were over by the time I met Hibiscus in 1981. We were not paid, but Hibiscus paid for everything on the show. Eventually Hibiscus fired Jackie for continual drunkenness, and replaced Jackie with Holly Woodlawn.
BRASHcore: Do you remember when Hibiscus was sick? What did you, and your colleagues think of “gay cancer?” How devastating was AIDS to your audience and colleagues?
Penny Arcade: After two months of rehearsing with Hibiscus it was clear something was wrong with him. He had a sore on his mouth that would not heal and it was covered with a kind of mossy mold. Hibiscus was frightened, but his overdrive was in place and he would not slow down. He also got a huge shock at that time when his boyfriend who was paying for everything dropped dead on a tennis court in Puerto Rico leaving Hibiscus high and dry; and I think that the trauma quickened his illness. At Christmas time Amy Engelberg, who was playing the ingénue, told her brother, a resident doctor at Bellevue Hospital, Hibiscus’s symptoms and he said he could help him but Hibiscus was in denial. He continued to get sicker but refused to go the hospital. He went forward with the play untill he could hardly stand upright. By the time he was brought to the hospital he was unconscious and never regained consciousness. He was the first “official” AIDS death in NY.
The only way to explain AIDS from 1981-1995 is for you to imagine that every other person you know right now died. Now imagine that in the midst of this suffering and death that society at large and the government not only ignores what is happening but blames
the dying people. It changed everything, especially the future. The world today artistically, culturally, and even politically would be very different if AIDS had not happened. Most of us are still suffering from the Post Traumatic Stress.
BRASHcore: If you could live anywhere where would it be?
Penny Arcade: NY in the 1970’s, Formentera in the 1970’s, and Paris in the 1920’s. As for now? I guess it is still NY.
BRASHcore: Can you talk about cultural significance? San Francisco, like New York, is under mass-gentrification. Why do we need history? Why do we need to keep the arts alive?
Penny Arcade: History teaches us what we can use in the present. Not everyone needs art in their life, but for those of us who do it is important like water. We are living in an age of cultural amnesia, the erasure of history, and the death of language. Don’t be a killer.
BRASHcore: What is one thing you deal with everyday that you would like to change?
Penny Arcade: Hmmm. Self-loathing, and useless self-criticism.
BRASHcore: What is the best way for the world to keep up with you?
Penny Arcade: I use my Facebook page as a diary, and as a way to promote both artists I love and myself. My page is open, anyone can go there and follow me and read my page like a magazine (pennyarcadesuperstar). I use twitter a great deal (pennyarcadeny) and there is my website (www.pennyarcade.tv).
BRASHcore: Can you offer some advice to the 21st century youth?
Penny Arcade: Try to get an understanding of the values that are being sold to you, and make sure you truly agree with them before being absorbed by them. Resist the impulse to be an expert. Be a beginner. Be young. Embrace being a young person, and make observation your most hallowed practice. Try everything that interests you no matter how unlikely. Be a beginner. Be open to learning, and respect your own development. Try to learn from everyone you meet. Remember this: When you are old you end up with what you gave other people not what you got from them.
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Post by August Bernadicou