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Bad Reputation: Interview with Penny Arcade

PennyArcade2The work of Warhol superstar and queen of performance art Penny Arcade is now available in a new book, Bad Reputation. The straight-talking political, comedic artist spoke with Katrina Fox.

Please say a bit about how the book came about and also why the particular format ie a mixture of interviews and scripts of your shows. 

Chris Kraus, the editor of The Native Agent Series for semiotext(e) books, has wanted to do a book on my work for some time.

In the early 1990s with my play La Miseria about growing up as a girl in immigrant working-class America, I began an autobiographical trilogy that would include Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! and Bad Reputation.

These plays all dealth with my early life, La Miseria and Bad Reputation more specifically than B!D!F!W! Since my work is always about my direct lived experience all my work is autobiographical and it was from the idea of autobiographic trilogy that Chris Kraus devised the idea for this book. 

Your shows are all improvised (although audiences may not realize it unless they see a particular show on more than one night or occasion). Many performers would find it terrifying to improvise and seek safety in scripts. Why is improvisation so important to you as a performer? 

Every new work I create is developed from its first moment of life in front of a live audience. The relationship between myself and the public is critical to my work because my work is grounded in parrhesia, truth telling.

Parrhesia from the ancient Greek denotes a truth teller who 1. Speaks from their personal experince 2. Is at risk because they tell their own truth 3. Speaks their truth from a sense of responsibility and duty.

I feel an obligation in front of a live audience that would not exist sitting in my room writing. My work also derives from a storytelling tradition of my peasant immigrant southern Italian family as well as the kind of storytelling that is part of street life and the criminal world, the demi monde.

There is an alchemy involved in speaking freely in front of a live audience that creates shared experience that is in some ways a shared act of creation, as I feel the audience as I speak.

I am also ADDH and for anyone who is or knows people who are, improvisation is a gift that comes from ADDH. You know that if you have ever been fascinated by a mad person ranting in the street. 

You say in the book that you ‘break out’ into improv when you ‘realize something’. Please elaborate on this. 

Well this goes back to a certain psychic energy that exists between the performer and the audience. I am an empathic. I often feel things from the audience that trigger me to speak about things I hadn’t considered bringing in to the performance.

I have a million examples of this but I will give you one. In LA recently I did an impromptu performance for a club night called Wildness. The audience was really young, most people there were under 25.

I don’t plan those kinds of performances at all and decide when I arrive at the venue what I will perform. The place was quite primitive as far as theatre goes, someone stood on a chair and aimed a light on me for instance.

I found myself doing monologue after monologue after spoken word piece and they were all about drugs, addiction, etc. I was internally a bit mortified because it certainly wasn’t a smorgasborg of my work but I went with it.

After the performance a young man came up to me who had spoken to me briefly before the performance, telling me he had no idea what I did.

After the performance he came up to me and seemed very agitated. He said “Why did you do all that stuff about heroin?” I replied “I don’t know.”

He became more agitated and angily said “Well, you just kept talking about drugs and addiction. Why would you do that?” I was a bit taken back because I had no answer.

Finally I looked at him and I said “I did what I was being prompted to do from inside myself and I do not know why but I feel I have to honor that because there may be someone in the audience for whom it is very important to hear that.”

The boy burst into tears and said “I have been clean from heroin one day. What you were saying was very hard for me take. I am at the edge of my breaking point. I felt like you were speaking directly to me and now I believe it.”  

What role does the audience play for you as performer? How much are they ‘part of the show’? 

I have always said that the audience holds one end of the tightrope that I walk between myself and the audience. I have a career largely because of the general public. They need me and I need them. I do not think I am superior to the audience and the audience knows this. My work is about gathering us together to hear what must be said in among ourselves.

There are two kinds of performers. The ones who want to be worshipped and adored and the ones who just want to be friends with everyone. Unfortunately that is settled by the time you are 10 years old. Obviously I am in the latter category.

You’ve been performing Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! since the 90s. Can you say something about how the show has changed in terms of content over the years?  

My last shows of B!D!F!W! occured in Australia in 1995. In 2007 I was asked to reprise the show for OUTFEST , the LA film festival. I improvised around the ideas that no one wants to be gay or lesbian now; they all want to be Queer, but while queer has become a brand, to be queer means that one has experienced a period of isolation, rejection and ostracization so profound that they could never exclude anyone based on the petty reasons of gender, sexual preference, ethnicity or color of the skin.

I then did the show one night in NY and finally last year I ran it for the first time in San Francisco. The sad reality is that the public thinks the show is totally contemporary.

Sadly the issues that B!D!F!W!reveals have not been dealt with. In some ways things are worse. I suppose because my work comes from my personal point of view I am always years ahead of the curve. 

Quentin Crisp once told you that ‘time is kind to the non-conformist’.  When did he say this and in the years since then, have you found it to start coming true? 

During the years that Quentin was under attack by certain elements of the so called gay community, that wanted him to fall into line with a certain gay agenda which he did not wish to follow, my own work, while popular with the public, was largely ignored by the academic and art press in NY and when I complained to Quentin about this he replied, “Not to worry Miss Arcade, Time is kind to the non-conformist.” Which I take to mean that one plods away at one’s own destiny, if one honors one’s own course, one’s own work, eventually there is a recognition of those efforts. It may not come during one’s lifetime as we have seen in the history of art. 

On the subject of Quentin, the film about him An Englishman in New York, has been released, with Cynthia Nixon playing you. What did you think about the film and Cynthia’s portrayal of you? 

I think that Cynthia Nixon was very sweet in the film. I myself am very kind but I don’t think I am sweet. Cynthia Nixon was never given the opportunity (nor was John hurt) to see any of the extensive video of Quentin crisp and I performing on stage together.

The director was opposed to them seeing it and in his own words to me at the Frameline Festival screening in San Francisco in June 2009 said, ”I didn’t want to meet any of the real people the film is based on and I didn’t want my actors to. I only met Sting.”

At which point I laughed and said “Well, of course you wanted to meet Sting!” The reality is very few people have a rigorous inquiry into anything.

The Naked Civil Servant, the first film made on QC’s life will always be a great movie because it was made from the true elements of QC’s life. It is a great screen play and a great film.

I almost didn’t make it into the new film as a character because the people who did the research and the people they initially interviewed did not tell them about me and QC. It was only because my name came up so often that the screenwriter asked to meet me and when he saw video of QC and me he wrote my character into the story.

It would be impossible to tell the story of the last 10 years of QC’s life and leave me out of it. We were a quintessential gay male-faghag relationship. 

It is a pity because it would have been a much better film. Cynthia Nixon is a good actress and she certainly portrayed the level of love and care I had for Quentin but the dynamic represented was all wrong.

Quentin and I had a very intense back and forth rapport on stage that was highly intelligent and irreverent. Also the clothes they made Cynthia wear in the film were hideous. I never dressed that way; only people in malls in New jersey dress that way.

The staged performance segments showing me were boring. I am never boring on stage or anywhere else. I stay at home when I don’t have anything to offer the world around me.

It is a pity that the true relationship between QC and I was not shown because I think the reality of the two of us would be very touching for people. We were two outsiders, drawn together by their intelligent questioning of the world around them.

In the past you’ve been critical of people going to art school and expecting that alone meant they were artists. However I note a couple of times in the book you mention you’ve been teaching including at NYU. What part (if any) in your opinion do universities and art colleges play in helping to produce talented, inspiring performers? 

I am brought in to lecture at art schools and I lecture a class a few times a year called Preparing For The Profession. I tell the truth. That the arts are not a profession. They are a vocation.

Being a plumber, an electrician, a doctor, a nurse is a profession. If you study these things you will be paid to do them. You can study theatre, art music etc and be excellent and still not get paid.

School, whether it is art or theatre or music school, is a jumping off place. You then enter the real world and try to make your way.

Certainly it can help to forge a life’s direction but art and it’s development is a lifelong pursuit not something that starts to pay because you studied it for 4 years.

I think the saddest thing is that talented students believing that art is a profession, give up after a few years of not getting paid - something that they would have not done if they were told the truth about earning a living  as an artist. 

To date you’ve been very much known for being a live performer, on a stage or in a theatre-type setting. What role do you think multimedia and the advancements in technology have had in shaping artists?

Well, you can put someone in a Youtube video for two minutes and create a splash! It is a lot harder to keep a live audience involved over a two hour period.

The multimedia tends to be a component in hype. I have always used video and music in my work so I am certainly a multi-media performer.

There are new forms much like the old forms; the use of mixed media is not new even if people want to act like it is. I think the new forms of internet, phone media etc more shapes how art is distributed rather than shaping the work of artists. 

What about your own work – how important are other forms of media in presenting your work (video, online, mobile etc) and in what ways (if any) have you embraced these forms? 

Now that I have been creating my own work for over 20 years I am of course interested in more ways to distribute it.

I have lots of content, video of all my work spanning 25 years. I am interested now in making films as well as continuing to do live work. 2010 is dedicated to getting all of my work on the internet as well as investigating ways to do short works for mobile devices and to getting all my work available for DVD sales. 

PennyArcade1You’ve always been the outsider. What are the key differences between you and other performance artists who are perhaps better known in mainstream and academic circles, such as Karen Finley? 

I think Karen and I are not dissimilar at all, we are like all hard working committed artists. Access has to do with the gate keepers, be they academic or commercial. Is there any reason why Margaret Cho’s work is better known than mine? Or Karen Finley’s for that matter?

It is certainly not a matter of the quality of the work. It is a matter who from academia, art administration or commercial channels sees it and brings it forward to the world.

I would have to say I have been pretty lucky in that regard. My work has been presented all over the world despite the fact that I am an outsider. Many great outsider artists don’t even get that much.

The key difference between me and performance artists who are championed like Karen Finley is that many, many curators and arts administrators have no idea what I do and they don’t have the the wherewithal to find out. Most people in those positions just book what everyone else in their position is booking.

Just read the roster of any international theatre or performance festival; they all have the same names performing at every festival. It is like the music business only with less reason to lack artistic curiosity since there is so little money involved in art compared to commercial music. Think of this: are we supposed to believe that there are only 20 great bands playing music in the whole world?  

Is it ever possible for someone who is truly an outsider to be accepted and appreciated by the mainstream, without ‘selling out’? What are your thoughts on this dilemma that many ‘outsider artists’ consider? 

First of all artists don’t sell out. The industry and the media buy in. If an artist could sell out we would all do it.

Humans are pack animals, herd animals and they distrust and even hate outsiders. On the other side of the coin, cultures and sub-cultures worship outsiders but only when they are dead. Look what being dead did for that most famous outsider Jesus!

Internationally the world appreciates my work. I get emails constantly from everywhere I have ever performed asking me when I will return. Full blown exposure for me as for anyone is simply a matter of access. It is simply the question of a crack in the glass presided over by the gatekeepers.

It happened for Bitch!Dyke!faghag!Whore! Karen Finley played 4 shows in Australia in the mid 1990s I performed 140 shows of B!D!F!W! over a 14-month period then. B!D!F!W! and I stayed in the Australian mainstream for three years between documentary shows and my appearances on the Andrew Denton show. The Melbourne PR firm said I had more sustained publicity during that period than Madonna or Elizabeth Taylor. 

You are considered controversial because you speak your mind and don’t pander to commercial concerns or dilute your views/message to be popular with the in-crowd. What do you personally get from doing a show? 

I am considered controversial because I have a career despite never having had a manager or an agent. Because the public demands to see me and will come to see me if they know I am performing. I consider my work to be highly commercial because the essence of something being commercial is that the general public wants to see it.

I am successful with my work because I believe the public is a lot smarter than they are ever given credit for. They will always choose good entertainment if they know it is available.

Will I ever get the same amount of audience as someone playing with their penis in public or someone shoving a knife up their nose? Probably not but get me some good television producers who can make a sitcom as good as The Golden Girls and I will be a household name. 

What do you want/hope audiences will get from your shows? 

I want them to give themselves the room to be themselves. I want to support their individuality and humaneness. 

On the back of the book you are described as a professional life coach. Tell us a bit about that. 

The truth is most people have no support for what they want in their lives. Professional coaching is about asking questions and supporting people to find their own answers.

It is action and goal based. I do coaching on a certain level in my performances. A lot of people come to me for one on one consultation because they trust my integrity and intelligence and kindness.

Thinking is a very hard activity which is why most people do so little of it. Coaching is supported thinking. We all know it is easier to see outside ourselves than inside ourselves.

Good coaching can move people toward their goals. It is not a panacea for emotional ills. How many people ever get someone to sit and think with them about their goals and then support them in going after them? 

What will people get from a life coaching session from you that they would be very unlikely to get from other coaches? 

I think any good coach would give people the same results. It is not an advice kind of thing.

For people in the performing arts obviously I have a great deal of experience. However mmy coaching is not only geared to artists but to people who want to be pro-active in their own lives.

People who understand that they need support in attempting to cross great hurdles in their own expectations of what is possible in their own lives. It is spiritual and intellectual and transformative. I am at a stage in my life where mentoring and giving back is very important to me.

I was never mentored. I had very little support in my life to achieve my goals. I see the benefit of having the support offered by coaching techniques.

The only difference between me and other coaches is that I am not only in it for the money, which is a downfall of many coaches. Coaching is another aspect of my creativity and activism. 

What are your latest projects and what’s coming up in the future? 

I am working on my newest show Old Queen a solo work that focuses on how I was drawn to old queens as a young girl because of their fierce and unapologetic wit and intelligence and unbeknownst to myself I was on a trajectory to become an old queen and now I am but in a world that has lost the means of measuring the value of old queens.

I am also developing a new project Denial of Death. I did the first work in progress in Berlin in late 2009. I am directing two theatre projects that are secret at this time, I am acting in films and television this coming year and doing more standup comedy.

I continue to work on my documentary series The Lower East Side Biography Project: Stemming The Tide of Cultural Amnesia. It is about highly self-individualed people. I am working on a book about my experience of Hepatitis C. I am working on a documentary of myself with Australian filmmaker Jasmine Hirst.

I am beginning work on my memoir The Broken Genius Girl Must always be Sacrificed along with a new musical project and I am cleaning out my closets.

bad_reputationBad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews by Penny Arcade is published by Semiotext (e). For more information on Penny Arcade including latest and upcoming projects and to book a coaching session, visit her website. The Lower East Side Biography Project screens on Manhattan cable television (Tuesdays at 9pm, Time-Warner Channel 34).

Photos courtesy of Jasmine Hirst. Copyright Jasmine Hirst 2010. Jasmine is on Facebook, blogs here  and is on Myspace.  


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