Penny Arcade on Aging Whores, Warhol & Boobs

11.21.2013

By Jerry Portwood

The legendary actress stars with Mink Stole in Tennessee Williams' The Mutilated

Penny Arcade (left) and Mink Stole | Photography by Scott Wynn

Tennessee Williams's The Mutilated is one of the most demented Christmas plays you'll ever see. A later, lesser-known work, it's set in New Orleans on Christmas Eve and focuses on two aging women who sell whatever they can to survive in their flophouse existence. Director Cosmin Chivu has conceived it as wonderfully absurd vehicle for legendary actresses Penny Arcade and Mink Stole, two ladies known for understanding the marginalized and underappreciated. We hope it gets extended through the holidays (it's currently set to close Dec. 1), so it reaches its meta-theatrical peak by the end of the year.

Both seasoned performers—Arcade, known lately for her B*TCH!DYKE!FAGHAG!WH*RE! performances that have toured the world twice, and Stole (who was in another strange Williams play recently) for being one of the original John Waters film cast—have been confounding audiences in their own distinct ways for decades, but this play seems to capitalize on their best qualities as performers and reintroduces their talents to an entirely new generation.

"It’s all very delightful and interesting to be alive and to be happy and I’m very much enjoying being onstage," Arcade says during a recent interview. "I call on all of the people that I did theater performances with who are dead now. I’m back there calling everybody by name: Jackie Curtis, Ethyl Eichelberger, Charles Ludlam, Rita Red, all the names. I want to celebrate this wonderful way of being that queer people have participated in since time immemorial of getting onstage and entertaining ourselves and entertaining the public." 

We caught up with Arcade to ask about performing with Mink Stole for the first time, why performing nightly in this bizarre experimental Williams play is a perfect fag/faghag relationship, and how she keeps her breasts so well-maintained after all these years. 

The Mutilated plays at the New Ohio Theatre in NYC  through Dec. 1.

Out: I was there on Sunday. I saw the hanger get stuck in your wig.

Arcade: Oh my god! That was so demented.

No, you handled it well. I mean, you knew what to do. I thought at one point you were supposed to snatch Mink’s wig off or something. I kept waiting for it to happen. But then that hanger...

I know what to do. Yeah, it was either that or have the wig come flying off from the end of the hanger. Which would have been very amusing.

First, I kept thinking as I was watching, you’ve been doing Downtown theater since you were like 16, right?

Seventeen. Yep. That’s why it’s so funny that they keep saying, “And now she’s going to be an actress.” That’s what the Times said. Charles Isherwood, who did the rave review in the Times, knows that I’ve been involved in experimental theater for four decades. But the Times, they say: "Oh, she’s a performance artist and now she’s going to be an actress!" So, it’s just funny.

Is this the first time you have been in a Tennessee Williams play?

Yes, it is! And it’s a goody because I was made to play Tennessee Williams characters.

Why do you say that?

Well, I think because Tennessee Williams wrote about a certain kind of outsider and his characters are always people whose lives have pressed them into a certain position where they have to battle for their place in the world. And, I think I understand that very much.

These later plays are very different than the ones that people know him for. Did you approach it as a bit of almost absurd theater? It’s obviously not realism.

Well, I mean, honestly, is The Glass Menagerie realism?

Good point.

I think there’s a real misunderstanding about Tennessee Williams. I think that he was always an experimental playwright. It’s just interesting because you think, there was a real battle going on in the '60s when this play was first done, in 1966. That was the explosion downtown of the Caffe Cino, LaMaMa, all of these playwrights walking away from the Uptown critics saying, “You know what, we’re not part of your world; we don’t care what you think; we’re going to do what we want to do.” And it was very much a queer-based backlash that included—and when I say queer, I mean small “q,” I don’t mean Queer with the brand Queer—all kinds of people. A lot of women were involved in it, along with homosexuals or bisexuals, and then there were heterosexuals who were not heteronormative?

I think that Tennessee Williams was somebody who had been accepted by some kind of freak accident by the Uptown theater world, but he was always, and had a long history of friendships and intimate relationships, a part of the outsider Downtown world. And I think that they really had a bad reaction when Tennessee Williams basically sided with what was going on Downtown. All of a sudden, whatever, 40 years later, they’re saying, “Oh, he took this great departure because of drugs and alcohol.” Well, he was always using drugs and he was always using alcohol, but he was also writing every morning, as he always did. I mean people like Tennessee Williams don’t change up at the end of their lives. But I think that the reaction to his work in the '60s by the Uptown theater scene was as much a reaction to the ground that they were losing with the explosion of the Downtown theater scene.

What is it like after you do your own show for so many years to now take someone else’s text and reinterpret it in your way?

Well, I’ve always done other people’s plays here and there. It’s not a huge departure for me. But what’s fun is to see how people react to seeing me in somebody else’s play. Because I think it’s kind of interesting, like the Times wrote, “She will now be in a scripted play.” And I thought, Well, what do they think those 10 plays I did? That there weren’t any scripts?  

I think because the hallmark of my own work is speaking directly to the audience that, even though I just did 48 shows of B*TCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WH*RE! in London, lots and lots of people think that I’m just making that up as I talk. They don’t realize it’s scripted! The hallmark of good theater is that is whether it sounds like writing or does it sound like talking, you know? And my work sounds like talking. 

I’m surprised you didn’t bump into him before he died. He was always around in his later years, right?

I did! I did! Sure, I did! But the thing was that I met him when I was involved with Warhol and the whole Downtown, Max's Kansas City scene. I was 18, 19 years old. I was talking LSD every other day, I was running around with a troupe of demented drag queens. So I didn't appreciate it at the time.

But I think that it is wonderful to be able to say the words of somebody like Tennessee Williams. I feel like I’m vindicating him. And he’s the one vindicating me, you know? It’s a perfect fag/faghag relationship with Tennessee and me. So I feel that I know what he wants done with that character, and I do it. Tennessee is doing me the favor of having people be able to see my talent and my ability without having the thought to decide whether they like me or not. 

Quentin Crisp once said to me: “Ms. Arcade, people like you and I have to work hard at being accepted.” That "outsider" branding that I have makes it hard for some people to like me. I mean, obviously the general public all over the world has long embraced me and my work and I think in this situation it’s... Well, I think it’s extra fun, because Mink and I are perfect in the roles, you know? She really is Trinket and I really am Celeste. And I think that’s a really big part of the success of the show, the way that Mink and I kind of frame each other.

I wanted to to ask you about that. I think people might assume that you and Mink travel in the same circles just because you both have been identified as outsider artists and that sort of thing. But, you haven’t performed together before, have you?

No, I’ve never met her before and she’d never met me before this year.

But you saw her in Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, the Tennessee Williams play— 

I did!

That was at LaMaMa two years ago, because I think you sat next to me...

I did see her. Absolutely. I went to see it, and I enjoyed her performance very much. I wanted to perform with her. We actually were rubbing shoulders in 1967 in Provincetown, but I didn’t meet her. That’s when I first me John Waters. And so she was in John Waters’ little posse, but I didn’t meet her then, and she didn’t meet me. And for a few years—there’s a few years difference between us, I think like, four years, so, I was 17 and she was 22, and that’s a big difference at that age. So I was just this like, little kid kind of darting in-and-out between people’s legs.

So, what is it like now, finally working together?

Well it’s great because we do share a, it’s not a generational thing, but we both came of age in the '60s and '70s. So there’s that. And then, well she also worked with John Vaccaro who’s the original Theatre of the Ridiculous, which was the original glitter 'n' glam, rock 'n’ roll, queer theater. And she worked with John in the late '70s, which I’ve been completely unaware of because I wasn’t in New York then. She also worked with Charles Ludlam as I did. So we had that in common. And then, there’s just the fact that the kind of hip, Downtown art scene of the late '60s and early '70s, there were abou,t maybe, 800 people in that scene. It was really small, so we’re all drawing from a lifetime of being immersed in the alternative.

As I like to point out, in the famous words of Jonas Mekas, who said to me one day: “Oh, I’m so sick of them calling us the counterculture. We’re not the counterculture! We’re the culture!” And so there is that very strong thing in common of having been doing this for 45 years. It’s a long time.

I think that’s actually one of the most pleasing things for me, personally watching it as well, is knowing that you guys have that connection and seeing that and being able to feel like you’re close to it. I mean, Charles Busch, I know, is also kind of involved and he’s still around but there’s just less and less of that connection.

Yeah, but Charles Busch is an '80s person. You now what I mean? So, this kind of fascinating thing is that those huge '60s people who a) are still alive b) are still working. That’s the phenomenon because the queer Downtown art scene that I came into in the '60s had people of all ages. There was me, 17, but there was Charles Henri Ford who was 58. And we were not ageist! Because at that time, you wanted to be around people who’d really done something and really experienced something. Now we’re living in a mono-generational period. In no time in history of the art world has anyone in an art scene been the same age. So, we have all those really young people in the cast, and I completely understand that—because I was the young person in the chorus in the Ridiculous plays. You can’t really learn a lot about being a performer if you’re just with people your own age. So, it’s very interesting to have been the youngest and now to be the oldest. It’s kind of wild, you know?

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