Arcadian Daze, The Sydney Morning Herald
The Sydney Morning Herald, February, 2005
by Catherine Keenan
Age has not softened the social satirist who was once a member of Andy Warhol's Factory, writes Catherine Keenan.
Asked if she's ever worked as a prostitute, Penny Arcade leans her enormous bosom forward, peers up through her false eyelashes and replies with all the drollery of a drag queen: "I've done everything except beg on the street and kill somebody. Do you think that will interfere with me getting my own sitcom?"
In a world where "bad girl" has become a marketing ploy applied to the likes of Britney Spears, New York performance artist and social satirist Penny Arcade is the real thing. Born Susana Ventura in Connecticut 54 years ago, she was a misfit from the start, a smart girl born into a traditional Italian immigrant family. "I was just very, very, very bright and southern Italians are very frightened by that."
By the age of 13, she'd run away, and then was sent to reform school. Luckily, the judge who heard her case noticed that this young tearaway had a good brain and a large vocabulary, so she wasn't sent to Long Lane Farm ("It's like Norfolk Island for young teenage girls," Arcade explains) but to the nuns at the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (the movie The Magdalene Sisters was based on them). Arcade stayed until she was 16, and wrote her first play.
By 17, she was living on the streets in New York City and had become part of the crowd centred on Andy Warhol and the Factory. She had returned home after reform school, but it didn't work and she moved to Provincetown.
One day she was almost hit by a car. She walked back to the driver and said: "It would be very tacky to be killed by a 1967 Chevy." A man nearby began laughing and asked who wrote her material. He was Jamie Andrews, who went on to work with David Bowie, and when Arcade arrived in New York, he introduced her to the Factory, the radical camp theatre group Playhouse of the Ridiculous, and the underground scene that has been her milieu ever since. She changed her name to Penny Arcade to amuse Andrews.
The name came to her when she was coming down from LSD.
Arcade recounts these stories with polished verve for she has made a career out of talking about herself and the famous people she has known, from Warhol to Quentin Crisp. All her shows cover subjects close to her heart and her latest, Rebellion Cabaret, which has its world premiere at the Opera House Studio next week, includes the branding of queer, the rise of consumerism in the arts, separatism and exclusion in the gay community, the commercialisation of the bohemian lifestyle, the "crazy stuff that's going on in America right now" politically, and her belief that individuality and authenticity are being eroded in America through marketing and a consumer ethic.
This last bothers her particularly, for Arcade is nothing if not authentic. As she says: "The strongest element in my personality is the need for me to express what I think", and even off stage she has the strident intellectualism of the autodidact.
She is, in many ways, her own greatest creation and, in her mid-50s, is still an unmissable figure, a combination of sharp mind, cherubic face and voluptuous body. There have been some terribly low points in Arcade's life: she was raped five times at knife- and gun-point when she was young; she has suffered suicidal depression; there was her time as a sex worker. "I've had a life that very few people have had. I've also had a life that very few people would want to have." But you cannot say it hasn't been interesting.
Rebellion Cabaret is her first collaboration with her husband of seven years, Chris Rael, a musician 10 years her junior. He provides the music and sings; she talks in her trademark rock'n'roll style. He is quite a contrast to her: slight, softly spoken, with a gentle, self-effacing manner. They seem very happy together and though she's been married twice before, "those were adoptions", she dryly explains.
She says it's only now she's discovered how healing love can be. "A lot of men, they might be fascinated by you but when they can't handle it, they want to break the toy. A lot of men would see me as wildly self-confident, but I'm not self-confident at all."
Rael, she says, understands this and wrote a song for the new show that Arcade says taught her more about herself than 14 years of psychoanalysis. Rael says: "It's basically talking about the hardship of her background and how it led her to evolve into this Joan of Arc figure who also has great difficulty having security about being loved herself. So it's like, 'sympathy is what you need, and I'm a person with sympathy for you.' "
Arcade started performing at 17 - she appeared in the Factory film Women in Revolt -but her breakthrough show, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! wasn't until years later. She performed it in Sydney in 1995, when she lived and toured here for three years. She says Australian audiences are her ideal, "because they have the ability to think like the British and the enthusiasm of the Americans. The British can think, but they lack enthusiasm. Americans are enthusiastic but can't think."
She also performed with the late Quentin Crisp, who was a close friend. "He chose me as his anima figure, as the woman he most identified with in the world."
As for Warhol, she didn't like him at first because of his love of rich people. "But, besides that, he was a fantastic assimilator of ideas. I think he's quite misunderstood and misinterpreted. Andy Warhol never said, 'In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.' What he said was, 'In the future, everyone will be on television for 15 minutes.' And actually, that came true."
Arcade and Rael are doing what they can to make this happen, as one of their projects is creating video documentaries, which screen on public access television, of the artists and activists of the Lower East Side. Many are Arcade's friends, who, she says, are being pushed out as New York's bohemia is taken over by the bourgeoisie.
The values she grew up with - individuality, authenticity, self-expression, political engagement - are being pushed out with them and it's hard not to see Arcade as part of a last great stand against a rising tide of commercialism and irony that most gave into long ago. But, then, she was never one to follow the tide.