Penny Arcade on love, art and the ‘gentrification of the heart’
penny arcade

New York’s sassy, scarlet-haired senior citizen has a lot to talk about in her witty, funny new show, writes Jackie McGlone

PENNY ARCADE is old – and loving it. “I am in the youth of my old age; I’ll be 65 in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait,” the Queen of New York’s Underground and mouthy veteran of the avant-garde, tells me, loud and proud of her advancing years.

The Italian-American performer, writer and graduate of the school of hard knocks, celebrated her 65th birthday on 15 July, so in theory the diminutive Downtown Diva is in possession of a bus pass, but – like Cleopatra – age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

Indeed, she’s an outrageous force of nature, as Edinburgh Fringe audiences will discover when the sassy, scarlet-haired senior citizen returns to the scene of past triumphs, with a new show, Longing Lasts Longer. It’s a piece in which she invests as much subversive energy and intellectual rigour as she’s put into her other work, such as her seminal performance piece, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, which came to the Assembly Rooms in 1993. She returned in 2001 with Sex, Politics, Reality, of which one reviewer wrote: “She combines the anarchy of Lenny Bruce with the pathos of Judy Garland.” Then she brought Bad Reputations, her raunchy late-night revue, to Glasgay! in 2004.

In Longing Lasts Longer – “a hard-hitting, witty comedy about what it means to be human right now in 2015 that will have audiences dancing in their seats to a sound score embracing everything from Al Green to Pulp to John Lennon to Van Morrison to Prince” – Arcade tackles important themes: urban gentrification; the colonisation and infantilisation of culture; ageism; censorship; climate change; the plight of the working poor, subjects she’s touched on in previous works, particularly New York Values, her 2002 “autopsy of the Death of Bohemia and the commodification of rebellion.”

But now she’s confronting them head on. Her message? “Mediocrity is the new black.”

We begin by talking about her beloved Downtown New York, although she quickly points out that what she has to say about the blight of free market, capitalist destruction by corporations and gentrifiers affects cities worldwide. “I am talking about New York and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but it’s Glasgow, it’s Edinburgh, it’s London, it’s everywhere,” she says, speaking from her art-and-memorabilia-filled Lower East Side apartment, where she’s lived since 1981.

“New York!” she rails. “How did it go from being the Big Apple – in other words, Sin City, where you could experience sex, glamour, everything, while reinventing yourself – to being the Big Cupcake? This was the city that never sleeps. Now, it’s the city that can’t wake up. It’s in a sugar coma. People are careening from one cupcake shot to another.

“I’ve lived and loved in this city for four decades but now I’m living in a culture that is so ageist that if you’re over 50, you are not allowed to have an opinion on the present. I grew up watching and learning from a lot of people much older than me and now I’m much older than a lot of people. The media keeps telling people that ageing is some kind of failure, that the last 40 years of your life are inferior. Yet the whole 48 years of my life as a performer come into play when I’m onstage. Art is one of the few things in life where you get better as you get older. Today, though, the high point of a lived life is somewhere between 12 and 25. Old has never been younger. It’s the tyranny of fragility.

“I see a world I once knew becoming homogenised. Developers are destroyers. It’s gentrification of the heart, soul, mind – and of buildings. Sure, the city has always changed, but historically it’s always brought its past with it.”

Certainly, Arcade’s own rackety past is legendary. She was Quentin Crisp’s “soulmate and anima”, knew Robert Graves and Allen Ginsberg, appeared in Andy Warhol’s 1972 film, Women In Revolt, and has been a rural hippie, an Aids activist and thrice-married. She’s separated from but remains close to her third husband, musician Christopher Rael, who fronts the band Church of Betty.

“He had the classic mid-life crisis and decided I was too old for him,” she confides. Now she lives alone and relishes it. “Longing lasts longer, it lasts longer than love,” she believes.

“All those past relationships! I had been torturing hundreds of nice people who couldn’t give me what I needed. Would I leave them? I would torment them until they left me. All those years of romantic drama! I could have learned Chinese; I could even have learned to cook Thai food.”

What she can serve up, though, is an astonishing life story – she’s working on her autobiography. Meanwhile, she’s “done everything except beg on the streets and kill somebody”. Over the years, we have had conversations over dinner and while walking around her ‘hood, with her telling me, “I was coming down off LSD at the time…” or “When I was a whore…”

Born Susanna Carmen Ventura into a working-class family of Italian-American immigrants, with a father who was incarcerated in a mental hospital when she was four years old, she first ran away from their blue-collar, Connecticut factory town when she was 12. At the age of 14, she was sentenced to two years at the Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls. She was, she once told me, the proverbial “Bad Penny,” a name she adopted when coming down off the aforementioned mood-changing chemical.

In Provincetown, the gay Massachusetts seaside resort, she was 17 and homeless and had been sexually abused and raped seven times, when she met Jaime Andrews, who transformed David Bowie into Ziggy Stardust. He introduced her to New York’s downtown drag queens and gay men, who “sheltered and raised and educated” her, feeding her brain.

Her acting career began with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous before she joined Warhol’s Factory, “an ego-amphetamine inflated bubble”. It was boring, she decided, rejecting Warhol’s desire to turn her into his last great Superstar. She knew she could become a star in her own right by creating risk-taking, transformational theatre, full of compassion.

“Through confessional art I’ve learned to forgive myself, to break up my sorrow into small pieces – and I know that audiences love me for it.” She reinvented herself as a risk-taking performance artist.

What does she think of the theatrical crimes now committed in the name of that discipline? “All I can do is apologise,” she responds. “I’m sorry there is so much rubbish around purporting to be ‘performance art’. I was 35 before I called myself a performance artist. Now 20-year-olds do PhDs in it.”

Is Arcade depressed about the human condition? “I don’t trust people who are not depressed and confused. If you’re depressed and confused, you’re on the right track. How can you be alive on this planet and not be depressed and confused?”

One thing’s certain, watch and listen to Arcade, in her polka-dot frock, displaying her magnificent embonpoint and her considerable intelligence and you’ll be more dazzled than confused.

Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer, Underbelly, until 30 August, 8:50pm / listings

Published in The Scotsman on 10 August 2015

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