Penny Arcade on Aging Whores, Warhol & Boobs

Penny Arcade on Aging Whores, Warhol & Boobs

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?

But you look so fit. You look like you take care of yourself, right?

I’m 63, it’s so crazy! Everybody in the audience and people after the shows, they all come up to me and they go, “But you’re aging in reverse!” And I think, yeah, way better than like, fast-forwarding. I’m so glad you came to see it!

Yeah! I really wanted to. OK, and after seeing it, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was your bosom, if you don’t mind.

Oh, not at all. Let me speak about it.

Well, it’s quite ample and you get to touch it and fondle it and other people do as well. How does that feel, doing that on stage each night?

[Laughs] Well, it’s just really funny because I’m such a prude on a lot of levels. I hate vulgarity; I really dislike vulgarity. And yet, I’ve used my body. I’ve been nude onstage several times, to good effect. In one of the plays, I take off my clothes and I keep talking. The thing that's been kind of fascinating is—it’s been my joke, honestly, since I was in my thirties—I would always say, “Penny Arcade: Famous For Tits Since 1968.” And in the '60s when I was young, everybody wanted me to show my breasts. I mean, everybody wanted them: Warhol! Andy’s big thing was that he wanted me to go to Hollywood and become an international sex symbol because my big breasts and my beautiful face. And I thought I had more to offer. I was like, really offended. I think because I had been sexualized from such an early age, and objectified.

I was that girl, that 12-year-old girl, actually flat-chested. I didn’t spring my 34 double-D breasts until I was 17. But I got to be both the flat-chested scag, and then the girl with the big tits. I never really lived either identity, in a way. But I was that girl who everyone said they had sex with when I was 13 but who had never had sex with anybody. I had that Aphrodite energy my whole life, and that meant they focused on me as a sexual being. So as a 19-year-old, I was really railing against that. Now I’m always joking about it, saying, “Shit, if I had shown my breasts when I was 19, they would have wanted to see them every 10 years, and I’d be making a fortune!”

I have breasts like a 25-year-old woman, which is crazy. When I was working with my dancers in London, they were all under 27, and we’d be in the dressing room and they’d come up to me and they’d go, “It’s impossible! How could your breasts be that great?” And I thought, Geez, I really missed out here. Because, well, maybe they would have paid me $150,000 every 10 years to see how my breasts are doing.

So, the thing is that I am—and this is, it goes with my training, I could tell you, honestly it's ridiculous—I will do whatever it takes to serve the work. And in this character, this character is different than me in that, when you have breasts like mine, even a slightly low-cut dress becomes really low-cut because I have a lot of cleavage, you know? But I never—you would love this. In 1988 the great Ethyl Eichelberger, the great drag artist, said to me at a party: “Penny Arcade, if I had your breasts, I would rule the world!” And I looked at Ethyl and I said, “It never occurred to me.” I was alienated form my own sexual presence because of being tortured and tormented and attacked and raped and, I never thought of myself as a victim, but I was a target, you know?

So it’s interesting to be in this play because the character does flaunt her breasts. She’s not above her breasts to get along and get by and promote herself. So, it’s really fun to do that, and if you think about the fact that I’m 63, if there is any time to get comfortable with your sexuality in public, I think it would be at 63. I kind of like that it’s taken me a really long time to grow up. I think that’s part of the reason why I’m perceived as being so young onstage and in person.

The thing that’s really funny is that when I’m doing a scene with the sailor, and I’m putting his hands on my breasts, every night I can really feel his discomfort. Because I am totally in the play. If it was me, just me in real life and somebody grabbed me—I mean, I’ve been known to deck somebody who reached out and touched my breasts.

Well, I loved seeing you having a good time with them onstage too.

Isn’t that funny that gay men really like big breasts! They’re into it as an aesthetic. Which, as this long-term faghag who had a lot of sexual energy, that was something that I had to kind of surf with my gay male friends, and still have to surf that. Because I’m a real faghag—the kind that doesn’t try to have sex with gay men, but who has happened to have a lot of sex with gay men. But I’ve never been confused about that. I certainly have never been predatory. And I’ve always said that gay men and faghags, it’s not that we don’t have sexual energy—we have lots of sexual energy—we just don’t use it for sex. We use it for other things, like dancing and carrying on and madness in the streets—that’s all still sexual energy. 

The play is called The Mutilated, and there are obviously clues to certain physical things we can interpret it to mean, but also there are more emotional and symbolic ways to interpret that title, and I wondered what you’ve come to think about it in that way.

Well, I think that isolation is a terrible thing. And I have been very isolated at times in my life, especially in my early life, as most people of a certain age who are gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, non-heteronormative kind of experience, and this is a play about family. Trinket and Celeste are partners. And this is very, very common in the criminal world that Tennessee Williams participated in. The gay world, pre-1990, the gay world and the criminal world intersected. The demi-world, you know? So, we were always in and out of dicey dives and crossing paths with all kinds of people who were also outside society. I think that when you’re part of that kind of a world, you form alliances—for survival, for entertainment, for comfort. 

I think that in this play, long before Trinket has a mastectomy—which is the actual "mutilation" in the play—that she was isolated and a loner/outsider, living already in that fleabag hotel. So, the mutilation is not her mastectomy, the mutilation is her loneliness and her isolation.

I think that at this later time in Tennessee Williams’ life, he was doing a real evaluation of what his life had been. And his life had been creating family relationships with people in nontraditional ways, as gay/queer people have always done and have always had to do. So, I think that this is a really super important element in the show. And I feel that we are really vindicating Tennessee Williams with this production by bringing that really to the form of what he would have really wanted. I think he would go mad over Mink and I in the play and all these young people and the singing.

It's also one of the more bizarre Christmas plays ever produced.

The fact that it takes place at Christmas is very telling because Christmas is one of those holidays that pushes everybody’s buttons. It really delineates the haves and the have-nots. I’ve had many solo Christmases that I’ve chosen to just be by myself and have my fabulous Christmas breakfast with my house decorated for Christmas all by myself. I don’t mind going to my family’s—especially after my marriage broke up. The first two Christmases, I just didn’t really feel like celebrating the way people do. For people who are estranged from their families as many of us have been, having this play take place at Christmas is a part of the sorrow. It's one of the things that has long been an element in gay culture: When we were really outside of the heart of the world, we could have unconquerable spirit. And that’s very much what this play is about. You know you’re at a Penny Arcade show because some weirdo is winning.

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