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Brief Encounter with ... Penny Arcade

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Penny Arcade has been causing a stir on the performance art scene since the 1960s. She began performing in live theatre events and films in New York when still a teenager and has been performing solo monologues since the 1980s.

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, which was first created in New York in 1990 and has toured all around the world, is Penny Arcade's best known work. It runs at the Arcola Tent from 27 June to 22 July.

Here we talk to the legendary performance artist about her iconic show.

You began your career working with individuals such as Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. What was it like working with such influential and iconic directors?
Remember we are talking about the sixties and there was a very different approach to artists like Jack Smith and Andy Warhol which wouldn't be recognised today as 'directing' as it was very, very, very, collaborative. In fact, one was pretty much left at all times to improvise in a context that they provided. They were, as was John Vaccaro, the painter Larry Rivers, the painter Kusama, Abby Hoffman and others who I worked with, looking for input from younger artists. In fact, they wanted to use the originality and uniqueness of the younger artists who worked with them.

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! mixes character comedy with radical satire and memoir. Which parts of the show are taken from your life?
Everything is taken from my life. However, I use information I have derived from other sources as well. My history of my life in the gay world, my experience of coming of age among gay men and drag queens is all from my life, as are the over 300 friends of mine who died of AIDS. When I speak about my childhood, my family, all of it is from my life. Even in the monologue by the prostitute Charlene, a woman I worked with, much of what she says is from my observation of prostitution.

Your show deals with sex, politics and self-censorship, all of which can be somewhat controversial themes. How do you deal with the opposition that must come with a performance that pushes so many boundaries?

Part of the success of my effect on and relationship with the public is that people think I am speaking directly to them. When people feel supported by my values, they love me; when they feel criticized by my values, they hate me; and so it goes. People often write to me many times years later to tell me that they have thought about what I had said that made them angry and that they have changed their mind (or rather that life changed their mind). I am a bit of an odd duck, like most actors and comedians, in that I am both very bold and very shy so when people dislike me, it is hard on me.

You make it a point to hire local erotic dancers for your shows in each city you tour to. Why is this so important to you?
Originally the point in hiring local erotic dancers was to redeem these amazing and talented dancers in the eyes of their own community because erotic dancing is a beautiful art form that very very few people ever see as it is limited to men's clubs etc. The neo-burlesque performance movement came out of B!D!F!W! yet neo-burlesque didn't take on the skills of the erotic dance that it originally came out of in the early nineties. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere me and the dancers create...very exciting, very different from burlesque which is simply not very exciting.

The show has run since 1990 and is continuously evolving. Where do you see the show going in the future? Do you have anything new in the works?
I have done many other shows. However, most of them have not toured to London. Bad Reputation, my all-girl revenge show with a few gay boys who can't believe they can't be in the show and want their own dance number, was performed in both Manchester and Glasgow with an all British cast of dancers. That would be a great show to do with my London dancers! New York Values is a big show of mine with dancers that would be fun to do in London as well.

B!D!F!W! is considered by people who see it to be absolutely cutting edge. Because nothing I was writing about 20 years ago has changed very much. People are still deeply inspired and uplifted by the message of the show about individuality and freedom.

I also have four new works in progress: Old Queen; Longing Lasts Longer; Denial Of Death; and the newest, Aftermath, about survivorship after the AIDS.

What are you most looking forward to in bringing the show to London?
I am very excited about the new material that comes from the show being done here. I always improvise a great deal. I know there is more for me to learn from this show as well and I am very excited about this particular group of dancers. Doing the show in Dalston at the Arcola at this point in history...it feels pivotal to me.

Single tickets are available for 50% off the advertised price for performances on 27-28 and 30 June and 1 July subject to availability. For details of the Time Out Live offer, click here.


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