Erotic Review Magazine

Penny Arcade: interview

by Robyn Sluis-Cremer / 7th December 2012

Penny Arcade, Andy Warhol's Factory Girl and Quentin Crisp's Darling, tells Erotic Review about her show at The Albany; it starts on the 15th December.

(You can listen to our PODCAST of this interview HERE)

It’s bloody freezing when Penny arrives for her interview at Erotic Towers. We stoke the roaring hearth (‘How Byzantine’, Penny declares) and it’s cups of tea all round. It might be edging towards cocktail hour but we’re consumate professionals with a legend in our midst so we’ve limited ourselves to nothing stronger than a spoonful of sugar.  And we’re soon appreciative that we have been so restrained as Penny leads us helter-skelter through the intellectual minefields of  sexuality, censorship and eroticism.

Penny Arcade has been a Downtown NYC legend for decades. A teen runaway, Warhol Factory Girl and bff to the late gay icon Quentin Crisp, she is considered one of the creators of performance art. And after a hugely successful summer run of her renowned show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! She’s back to in London for a Christmas run for the Albany’s 30th Birthday celebrations, more than twenty years since it was first performed New York. We ask her to tell us about her show.

PENNY:
It’s a runaway hit with real people… which is an interesting element because it’s supposedly this really radical show with this very queer based outlook. It’s about prostitution, it’s about individuality, it’s about what I believe is our natural sexual energy which is our life force which is the only energy we have. I don’t think that sexual energy is different from life force.

EROTIC REVIEW:
Perhaps at this point we should just ask you about the structure of the show.

PENNY:
First you need to understand the philosophy behind the show. When I created this show – it was 1990. We were at the height of the AIDS epidemic, there was a very strong anti-sex bias everywhere. The feminist movement was very anti-sex and I decided to do a show with strippers. Because I thought and do think still that erotic dance is the most powerful feminist art form. It’s the only thing designed by women that controls men. unlike the millions of things that men have designed to control women.

The real enemies of the show for the first eight years were white-collar feminists. They were incredibly annoyed by it. And it’s very, very funny to have seen the lesbian contingent. They used to run around in all the cities I performed at,  tearing the posters down, ripping them or scrawling ‘this offends women’, but without ever going to see what the show was about. Because of those four words: bitch, dyke, faghag, whore. Now all these years later lesbians love the show.

ER:
Do you think there has been a process of education?

PENNY:
What’s gone on for lesbians over the past 20 years is extraordinary. But one of the messages of the show is that somebody’s always queer. Somebody’s always targeted, somebody is always left out.

The whole point of the show is that censorship is such a terrible thing because it only leads to self-censorship. And self-censorship leads to silence. And we have far too many examples in our collective history of what silence leads to.

ER:
Do you think censorship now is as bad as it was when the show first came out? Or is it now more subtle and devious?

PENNY:
It is stronger, subtle and more devious. Twenty years ago when I came out  to England I was in every single mainstream paper. No one had a problem printing Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! They all thought it was very strange that America couldn’t print it. I went on the radio many times to be interviewed about B!D!F!W! I came back this summer and went on Joanne Good’s show on BBC1. Her producer took me aside and said, “We can’t say the title of your show.” Joanne and I spent the entire hour not mentioning the title while talking about what had changed in Britain for such a thing to occur, because one would see that as going backwards.

ER:
Now lets go back to the structure of the show. How does it physically work?

PENNY:
Well when I decided to make this show, I wanted to use strippers. Because in that time in New York in the downtown art scene you could pretend somebody was a stripper in a play, but they couldn’t actually be a stripper –  that was just absolutely verboten.

You walk in and the show is already in progress. There’s never a ba-da-da-da-da-dum (makes opening credits music) moment. And the show is a full-tilt erotic dance bar, basically, with men and women dancers. And I’m very pleased to say, whereas  twenty years ago when I needed to find an erotic dancer in London it was really hard and I couldn’t find any, because the ones who were working in gentleman bars weren’t interested in working for so little money in an art piece. This summer I had two teams of eight of the very best erotic dancers that I have had. I have hired dancers in cities around the world and B!D!F!W! is the reason why there is in existence a neo-burlesque performance movement. My dancers in those cities are now burlesque stars of the next ten, fifteen years.

So the atmosphere is  a very curious atmosphere which is it’s very friendly and feels dangerous. Which is unusual.

ER:
How does it feel dangerous?

PENNY:
I think it feels dangerous because I’m using erotica, not burlesque. I don’t have people traipsing around in Victoria’s Secret who can’t do anything. I have people who are erotic dancers.

ER:
That’s being a little bit harsh on burlesque.

PENNY:
I’m not being harsh, I’m being honest. Burlesque is what it’s always been: acceptable, sexualised female dance. It’s not actual sexual movement. There is no actual sexuality. There is eroticism And I can be erotic just by… (slowly slides her sleeve up her arm). So it’s a very big difference when what I want to present is a real erotic environment. The dancers are trained by me that the number one rule is: they cannot be seductive. There is no seduction. They are there to express their personal sexuality and eroticism. The dancers represent the audience, so you’ll have people who come in and they might say,  ’oh I could never do that’, ‘that’s disgusting, I would just never do that’. Or, ‘my body is just not that good’. Or,  ’I could do that’. Then, by the middle of the show there is a huge audience dance break, where the audience takes over the stage, it’s bacchanalian, dionysian. That’s what you can expect.

ER:
Do you feel that we are all in a state of self doubt and flux, and have slightly lost the plot when it comes to knowing where we are sexually?

PENNY:
I just think that there is very little support in the world for individuality. And there is very little support for people to really be comfortable with themselves. None of us are. And people think it’s just them.

ER:
I was going to ask you about the time you were part of Andy Warhol’s Factory: If he’d come to this show do you think he would have liked it?

PENNY:
Oh yes, I think he would have loved it. I think he would have loved the experiential part of it and the erotic dancers. Someone recently wrote to me asking if Andy would have loved the renaissance of the cabaret scene and I was like “No – I can’t see Andy sitting down and listening to anything,” but I do think that the kind of performance that I do was something that I had discussed with Andy when I was very young. I’d had this idea for doing what I do now – I didn’t know how to do it – I didn’t know how one would construct it or do it but I wanted to ‘be’ other people – I wanted to be people I knew. And everyone that I knew was against it – except Andy. Andy thought that was a brilliant idea.

For instance when… in the section on prostitution, I do it through the voice of a woman I worked with named Charlene, who’s a prostitute from New Orleans, and she talks like this… and jes whatever she sayez – she can say anythin’ she wants – because you just cayen’t get mad at her… so when ah start talkin’ ‘bout separation of Church and State – I can get all of this stuff out there… that most people wouldn’t be able to stand listening to for two minutes, but in that voice and in that personality, you can do it – you can present these ideas. So I have always used the voices of real people that I knew to present ideas. I think Andy would have very much liked that – because it’s a magic trick – it’s metaphysical – and I think that’s what the audience feels when they’re in the show… And people leave the theatre feeling really uplifted – energised, uplifted and kind of reconnected with their own individuality – because, you know, that’s all anybody has.

ER:
But the content of the show – the ‘script’ for want of a better word – has changed, surely.

PENNY:
No. Not at all.

ER:
So what we’ve got here is a piece of living history?

PENNY:
What you have is the terrible reality that human nature doesn’t change and that social change comes at a glacial pace… And I feel a responsibility – I’m a parrhesiastes – it’s an old Greek word for a truth-teller who tells their personal truth at risk to themselves out of a sense of duty and responsibility. So I’m that much more honest than I would normally be because I’m being honest for the audience as well. If not I could do harm. So I’m sort of a religious figure, I suppose. A religious figure in a g-string.

And with that image burned into our psyche, Penny wraps herself up in her coat and heads for the door. Her hugs are dispensed liberally and she’s gone – to educate and entertain.

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! runs from15 December – 23 December (not 17 Dec) 7.30pm;
18 yrs + only; tickets £10-£18; promotions: £10 earlybird tickets, Sat 15 & Sun 16 Dec;
The Albany. Douglas Way. Deptford. London SE8 4AG.
Box Office: 020 8692 4446

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Penny Arcade, Andy Warhol's Factory Girl and Quentin Crisp's Darling, tells Erotic Review about her show at The Albany; it starts on the 15th December.

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