Penny Arcade made me dance. In a theater. On the stage. It was 1993, and everyone else in the audience was doing it too. The song was Prince's "Sexy M.F.," and the show was Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! -- still, all these years later, the most exhilarating two hours I have ever spent in a theater, so exhilarating that I went back to see it a second time. And a third and a fourth. That dance never got old. How often does theater do that for you? B! D! F! W! was about sex and censorship and self-expression, but most of all it was about love. At the end of a powerful monologue in which Arcade recounted her education at the hands of gay men and drag queens in 1970s New York City, only to watch them die one by one of AIDS, she surveyed the faces of her stunned, teary audience and summed up her mantra with a simple call to arms: 'Love someone and let someone love you back, it's the most political thing you can do."
It is 18 years later, and Penny Arcade is at the beginning of her life. Last year she turned 60. "I am just coming into my own now," she says. "What I've realized is that at 60, if you had a rigorous inquiry into your life, then you get to start all over again, as if you were 20, but this time raised by you -- your values, your ideals, you!" Arcade talks in italics, her words punctuating the air like artillery fire. Words are how she makes her living -- brilliant torrents of words that rush and flow and settle, eventually, into illuminating inquisitions on the world in which we live. "I'm a truth-teller, which is problematic in a world of hypocrisy," she says. "People think I'm going to be mean, but I'm absolutely the most opposite thing from mean. I'm a kind person."
We are in a small caf' in New York City's Lower East Side, where Arcade has lived off and on since 1967 when she set up home with a band of wild drag queens -- a runaway from reform school looking for a new family, hell, any family. Back then, before bankers and real estate prices and Rudolph Giuliani intervened, you didn't have to look hard. Arcade found it, and a lot more besides. "My life was saved by gay men," she says. 'Gay men recognized me. They taught me how to think. Everything that had made me wrong in the world made me just perfect." She dropped her birth name, Susanna Carmen Ventura, in favor of the tr's drag queeny Penny Arcade after a night on LSD, shortly after Jamie Andrews -- who would later help turn David Bowie into Ziggy Stardust -- rescued her off the streets, aferr a series of brutal rapes.
By 17, Arcade was a performer in New York City's seminal Playhouse of the Ridiculous. She met the experimental filmmaker Jack Smith, whose 1963 movie, Flaming Creatures, is a landmark of queer cinema. She met the prolific playwright Harry Koutoukas who dubbed her "the little sister of the avant-garde." She met Andy Warhol, who turned her into one of his "superstars" and gave her a part in Paul Morrissey's 1971 satire, Women in Revolt with Candy Darling. By 20, she was done with the city, temporarily at least. She went to Europe for the better part of a decade. (In a Facebook message, she described her European adventures as fodder for a "great and scandalous memoir...drinking with sailors as a bargirl, starting a school for the children of drug smugglers, befriending and being befriended by Robert Graves at the end of his life... well, it goes on.")
When she returned to New York City at the age of 30 it was obvious that Arcade had found her "vocation," as she likes to put it. She was a performance artist, a teller of stories (mainly her own), and a wit. She has been at the heart of the downtown art scene ever since. "It's almost 50 years that I've been hanging out," she says. "People are always saying, 'Oh, Penny Arcade is a legend.' But you're a legend not only because of what you do, but because of what you participate in." And there is, too, that all-important qualifier: underground. Arcade's legend has yet to percolate through to mainstream America (in London, by contrast, she has performed at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall, frankly too big a space for so intimate a performer). She likes to joke that fame is something she has always managed to skirt, but there's frustration, too. It's a sore point, for example, that she has never been covered in The New York Times. She takes some comfort from the late Quentin Crisp, who once advised her not to worry because "time is kind to the nonconformist," but thinks certain women will always lack for cheerleaders. Attending Elaine Stritch's one-woman show, for instance, Arcade was stunned to discover that she'd never won a Tony. "All those years of singing those original Broadway hits! They didn't like her -- women who speak for themselves, who have opinions."
Presenting at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards a few years ago, Arcade distilled her complex feelings about art and the marketplace into a tart two-minute monologue condensed from her anti-Giuliani play, New York Values:
I built my reputation on integrity -- what a mistake! Because when people hear that an artist has integrity they think it means that she doesn't want to make any money. And that makes them really nervous. And when they hear that an artist has a lot of integrity, like me, then they think it means the artist doesn't want them to make any money, and that makes them angry. And that is where the corrupted idea that artists sell out comes from, because no artist has ever sold out. If an artist could sell out, every artist would. Artists don't sell out -- the media and the industry buy in.
Afterward, the playwright John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, came up to congratulate her. "He said, 'My god, that was so brilliant,' " Arcade recalls. "And I said, 'You should see one of my shows!' What can I say? Whether it's Woody Allen or Mike Nichols or John Guare or Gore Vidal -- all those people would love my work, but they don't know I exist." There's a little self-aggrandizement in all this, to be sure ("I have an ego like everyone else," she admits) but also keen insight into the complex relationship between marketing, money, and success. And here she thinks that gay men have been suckered liked everyone else by the phony, shiny world of celebrity.
"The gay world always used to know who was good, and they would elevate them from the underground to the mainstream," she says. 'It was driven by a certain meritocracy rather than who was the most famous, or who got the most exposure.' She thinks the gay men she grew up with in the '70s and '80s -- when wit was still a currency in that world -- would be mortified by what has come since. "Now we're in this monoculture with this pathetic need of some gay people to have the approbation of heterosexual celebrities. When I look at people who are stars in the gay world -- Margaret Cho or Kathy Griffin or even my most beloved Joan Rivers, who I adore -- all these people are always talking about their gays. And gay people accept that? When Kathy Griffin says "my gays" I want to kick in the television. When Margaret Cho says "my gays" I want to take an ax and smash the TV set. When someone positions herself alongside, and not with, I don't understand that. Nina Simone was with. Judy Garland was with. Barbra Streisand was not saying 'my gays.' "
Of course, one could argue that Nina Simone and Judy Garland probably didn't think much about gays at all, but Arcade's point is that gays are part of, not separate from, everyone else. It's why she says there is no such thing as gay rights, only human rights. "Being gay is not special -- we need to cut that shit out."
Susana Carmen Ventura was born in 1950 in New Britain, Conn., a manufacturing town and birthplace of the wire coat hanger. It was not a happy childhood. Her working class Italian mother was abusive; her father was committed to a mental institution when she was four, and died there a quarter century later. For much of her life she believed her father was criminally insane; her mother told Arcade he had plotted to drive her to California and drown her. It's only since her mother's death seven years ago that she has figured out that this was probably a lie. Such things have a tendency to weigh on one. "Every time I say the word daddy, I feel like a liar; every time I say the word mommy, it has a question mark," Arcade says. "My mother was the Marlon Brando of Italian mothers. My charisma reminded her of my father, so she sought to suppress it."
As a child, Arcade says, she was the kind of girl who was talked about in town. "I was perceived to be this girl that everyone had slept with when I was 12 -- no one anyone knew, but they had heard," she recalls. At 13, she was sent to Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls, where she met a girl who had actually posed as her "and went out and used to have all these things with groups of guys and stuff." A lot of this would be explored later in her "all-girl revenge show" Bad Reputation (also the title of an anthology of her work published by Semiotext(e) in 2009) in which she eviscerates the men who abused her, and those who stood by and let it happen. It took her six years to write.
"The definition of sanity is how you deal with terrible things that happen to you," Arcade says. Her solution has been to write about those things, and share them. Like her old friend Crisp, her life has become her own great subject, but one that resonates with her audience. In her shows there's a camaraderie between performer and audience, an old-fashioned sense of communion that is increasingly absent in our impatient culture. "That was the thing that was so incredible about the 1960s, about that whole gay world," says Arcade. "We were all together and we'd all suffered, and we all recognized the beauty of each other. We didn't need middle class approbation. I don't want anyone of the cultural level of Sarah Palin to approve of me."