Queer roots are often overlooked in the UK history of…
Penny Arcade Aka Susana Ventura is a performance artist, author and experimental theatre practitioner. She’s been kicking against conformity since the ’60s. Penny’s kept her radical roots, refused to censor herself and consequently, she’s lively company, says Stewart Who?
After a performance of Penny Arcade’s show at Soho Theatre, we joined the controversial performance artist for drinks in the bar. At the table were a swathe of her old friends, including playwright Tim Fountain and actress Dillie Keane.
The conversation was dominated by memories of Quentin Crisp, but also anecdotes about much loved mutual friends, such as trans pioneer Adele Anderson and GLF activist and drag legend, Bette Bourne. The lively banter was theatrical, tender, raw, hilarious and crackling with admiration.
Cocksure and fragile
Following this colourful flash-back down memory’s back alley, we retired to Penny’s Soho residence for an interview. In fact, interview be damned, the ensuing two hours were a closer to a spontaneous soliloquy, or a prompted stream of consciousness. The printed word can’t really do her justice. The page will always miss her essential charm, force of nature and rippling, ribbing subtleties.
Anyone who’s met her, or seen a Penny Arcade performance would almost certainly confirm this challenging blend of attributes. For while she can be abrasive, cocksure even, there’s also a fragility running through her hard-core. She wants you to understand and feel her perspective, but she also wants you to like her, maybe even love her.
Junkies and drag queens
At times, she’s Susan Ventura, rebellious teen from a working class Italian immigrant family. Occasionally, she’s hard-faced New York fighter, champion of sex workers, junkies and drag queens.
When rattled, she’s defiantly old school, resistant to critique and exasperated by the modern world. Given a chance, she’s a well-read professor and a verbose bohemian. She’s all those people, but you know what she isn’t? Dull. Penny Arcade is never boring.
New York knocks
Has she noticed a change in London since she last performed here?
“Yes, the hyper gentrification has really kicked in- and of course I really recognise it from New York, where hyper gentrification kicked in, around 1997. Things just started to close. By 2000 we’d lost 90% of our performance spaces. So, I’m very sensitive to it.”
Penny’s noticed the “money pressure on the working people” in London following a visit to her fave market near Holloway Road. She was staggered by the “stark contrast with the yummy mummy land” of Primrose Hill, which she remembers as the epicentre of queer rock and roll in the ‘70s.
Never give up
Asked if there’s anything we can do to halt gentrification, Penny sighs and admits that she asked Fran Leibowitz the same question. So, what did Fran say?
‘It’s a done deal. It’s not gonna change.’
Thanks Fran. Penny flings a glimpse of optimism into the gloom, by highlighting the success of the community campaign to secure the Royal Vauxhall Tavern with a grade II listing. She discusses a visit she made to John Privett, owner of Word on the Water, the London Book Barge. It was docked at Kings Cross, an area she didn’t warm to.
“As soon as you go there, that Granary Square is just abysmal. What a waste of space! It’s all glass. And sterile. And towers. And cranes for new buildings. Really? Aren’t there enough buildings? And then you see the book barge- and it’s wooden. And painted green and at night, it’s lit with candles and kerosene lamps. People of all ages are lolling around, looking at books. You SEE the alternative! You look at the Book Barge and you look at the glass towers and you go, ‘Hey, I wanna be there with Book Barge.’”
Dystopia and despair
Penny quotes some George Orwell, sips on her ginger beer and picks up the pace.
“The bigger problem, is there are many people for whom, if all of Soho was turned into a simulacrum, they couldn’t care less. If Camden just turns into a mall and was no longer a place of cultural resistance, they wouldn’t care. This is the problem. How can we get people to think about that? By the time people mourn, it’s too late. This is what happened in New York.“
Penny goes on to celebrate the sincere power of #BlackLivesMatter, while simultaneously despairing of modern ‘activism’ where people pay lip service on social media “but don’t show up”.
“I usually say to people, ‘They’re gonna take away your glitter, okay?’ This is just step one. They’re gonna take away your ability to go out and party. There’ll be no places to do that. We’re rolling into totalitarianism. People have been tricked.
“It’s not popular for me to say, but while gay marriage was being made the law of the land and the White House bathed in the rainbow flag, they were passing some of the most draconian laws regarding corporations and the Pacific Trade Agreement. Nobody noticed, ‘cause everybody was celebrating gay marriage.”
Penny’s material has often riled the very people she might be likely to have on side; feminists, gay men, trans activists, lesbians, Italians and students. Asked if she’s changed her material or modified her stance following feedback from the offended, she deadpans, with a touch of sadness “No”.
“I have tried to educate myself,” she concedes. It’s as if she’s torn between being a tough rock and a clever sponge.
“For instance, in the show, when I’m talking about the biological imperative, I have to say, ‘I’m not talking about gender, I’m not talking about sex, I’m talking about chemistry.’
“I also say, ‘If biology didn’t exist, then people wouldn’t need to transition’. But then I started thinking, if there’s epigenetics, which I believe in, because I’ve experienced it, where we carry the trauma and joys of our ancestors, then perhaps it’s more complex. The (trans) people I’ve known my whole life, I consider them real women, but I don’t consider them biological women. To me, that’s semantics. But my (trans) friends don’t consider themselves biological women, they consider themselves transgendered women.”
Queers and Greer
Penny admits there are values and beliefs held by people in their 20s or 30s which don’t chime with her understanding and experiences. Some might argue she’s out of touch with contemporary mores, but Penny insists this eventually amounts to censorship. She complains of being “frequently witch hunted” on Facebook. This assessment leads us somewhat worryingly to Germaine Greer.
“I think Germaine Greer is incredibly offensive. She was offensive in 1971, when I met her in Max’s Kansas City. She wasn’t the friendliest. She has more testosterone than most people. Some people just have it- and she’s one of them.
“She’s like a bulldozer. She’s had a lot of intellectual privilege, so she’s kinda like a white man in that sense, ‘cause she’s such an early academic. She’s always been allowed to say what she thinks. She’s always been a controversial figure. But when I heard she was being no-platformed, I was furious, because that’s censorship.”
Warhol and Stonewall
Unsurprisingly, Penny’s stance on Greer led to some lively discussions on social media. Herein lays the troubling nuances of Penny Arcade’s queer history. She’s had a long, fraught relationship with academic feminism, hardly helped by her role in Warhol’s film Women in Revolt (1971).
The film’s a satire of the feminist movement starring the Factory’s trans superstars, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis. She threw rocks at the cops during the Stonewall riot and rails against ‘white-collar gays’ who reference that event with misplaced nostalgia and lack of context.
Femme dreams and radical heels
In her shows, she’s bracingly frank about the occasions where she’s been raped and sexually abused. She’s against the censorship of pornography and celebrates erotic dancing. She feels drag is a radical act.
She’s infuriated by gay culture’s obsession with sex and its rejection of effeminacy. Her views are born of personal experience and carry that complexity. There’s no black and white with Penny Arcade, she’s a thorny storm of hues, a bumpy ride and a challenging cocktail of chronicles.
“Fundamentally my life was shaped and saved by gay men. Everything that made me wrong in straight society, made me right in the gay world- that I was outspoken, that I had an opinion. This was demanded of me.”
Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!
Does she not think that she’s more than a ‘fag hag’? The word is so offensive.
“No. It’s just one aspect of me. None of these things define us. I define myself as a human being.”
I tell Penny how I suggested to friend that she change her Twitter profile from ‘fag hag’ to ‘LGBT advocate’.
“Oh, GOD!” she splutters, declaring this act a prime example of a political correctness she has no time for. Penny insists that we’re all tethered to the values of the generation we grow up with. She turns her assessment on me and makes an accurate observation based on my age and attitude.
“Quite clearly, you straddle certain values.”
The wisdom of old queens
Penny Arcade got her queer chops under the tutelage of older gay men. They were verbally brutal, difficult characters who demanded you earn their respect. She suggests that LGBT youth who’re troubled by her language, but celebrate queer icons such as Quentin Crisp, Jack Smith and Jayne County wouldn’t last two minutes in their company.
She should know, she collaborated and worked with all of them.
“Those people were harsh, but you learned. With the queens that I came of age with, you had to meet them where they were. These people had lived a long exile at the edge of society. They weren’t going to capitulate to your understanding. I know that I’m hard-core, but I’m a radical queer and a lot of people don’t understand what that means.”
Now and Zen
I suggest to Penny that hanging out with those old queens is comparable to schooling by a Zen master who hits you with a stick every day for years.
“The analogy to being a Zen monk is so important. It was that thing. It was about lineage. They were passing on a history. Unbeknownst to me, I was on a trajectory to being an old queen.”
So, how would she describe herself, is she a punk?
“I don’t consider myself a punk at all. I’m part of what the pre-punk scene was. A punk is someone who doesn’t show up for a fight. I’m not a hippy. I’m a radical, queer, psychedelic freak- a rock and roll creature”
AIDS ain’t gone
Penny’s show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! was in many ways an improvisational postscript to the AIDS crisis. She admits to losing over 300 friends during that time and states that in the early days of the epidemic, “we were in a silent war with bombs falling on the people we loved”.
Quite rightly, Penny’s pleased at the medical progress, but wary of careless optimism.
“I don’t know about you, but I know very many people where (HIV) is not manageable. Okay, people aren’t dying in six weeks in the way they used to. That was a horrific experience for those who died, who were suddenly overcome and for all of us who had to watch over them. Over and over again.”
Lady and the Trump
When asked about the rise of Donald Trump, Penny coughs, sighs and splutters, all in one response.
“Look, we’re living in the golden age of stupidity. What more can you say? What do I think about the rise of Donald Trump? What do I think about the fact that we’re living in a Kardashian world- and that anybody’s interested in them? Nobody’s interested in the Kardashians. Okay, there are some incredibly stupid people who are waiting for something of interest to happen on one of those shows. Those reality shows are like processed cheese. Somewhere there’s a hint of cheddar. You just keep eating it, hoping to grasp the full cheddar experience, right?”
Dashing from the Kardashians
Would Andy Warhol would have been interested in the Kardashians?
“No, I don’t. I mean- this is a difficult question. Andy liked wealth. He never said, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes’. What he actually said was ‘Everybody will be on television for fifteen minutes’.
“The films that he made were prescient for reality television. He thought he was doing cinema verite. Sadly, he wasn’t.”
Gays gone Gaga
Asked if she’s ever played to an audience who weren’t on her side, Penny cites a performance at Duckie three years ago. After a rapturous reception to her demented entrance, a dig at Lady Gaga prompted a ripple of booing that swelled to a cacophony. Taken aback, she reflected, then turned on the audience and suggested their allegiance to Gaga was an affront to the memory of Leigh Bowery.
“Lady Gaga and her people have stolen EVERYTHING from Leigh Bowery and never given him any credit and he’s DEAD.”
In a life-saving move, she shamed the audience into jumping back on her side, by proving her underground roots and avant garde cred.
“This is really scary. I can’t make a joke about Lady Gaga ‘cause she’s seen as an ally of gay people? Well, I come from a world where gay people don’t need role models. We don’t need allies. So, it’s a very different world.”
The last word
Asked what gives her hope, Penny punctures the question.
“Hope is a killer. I don’t like hope. I’m not into hope.”
She smiles, glances across the room at George, a Greek orthodox priest and adds, somewhat surprisingly.
“I’m not into hope, I’m an anarchist, but I am into faith.”