Penny Arcade: "Someone is always queer"

The performance artist talks bisexuality, feminism and being an outsider.

Performance artist Penny Arcade loves talking to her audiences, and wants to be friends with everyone. Her signature show, called Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! (BDFW) after the insults most often thrown at her, was written in response to Senator Jesse Helms’ amendment banning the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) from funding ‘obscene or indecent art’ in 1990. A subjective exploration of identity, feminism and censorship that combines dance, theatre and activism, it remains the closest Penny has come to a mainstream hit, being performed over 1,500 times worldwide and opening for an extended run at Dalston’s Arcola Tent on 27 June.

Its simple message – that “when we feel accepted and included, there’s more room for others to be who they are” – was forged in a life on the margins, amongst people with “hard-won values”. Born Susana Ventura to Italian immigrants in New Britain, a small Connecticut town, Penny went to borstal aged 12 and, on release, fled to New York. There, she negotiated its queer and street culture, closely linked before the Stonewall riots of 1969 (where she joined the fight against the police), and then gay/lesbian and feminist politics in the decade between the rising and the onset of AIDS, always seeking refuge in the city’s artistic and sexual subcultures.

This personal history is crucial to her work, Penny tells me over an hour-long engagement. Delivered backstage at the Soho Theatre, this is less an interview, more an improvised monologue for a one-person crowd, its flow almost unbroken as she answers my questions before I ask them. (It’s not until she stops that I realise I’d left them in the foyer.) “In BDFW, I talk about being mentored by gay men who saw something in me,” she says, discussing her path to John Vaccaro’s avant-garde Theatre of the Ridiculous (so named because “the situation had gone beyond the absurd”) and Andy Warhol’s Factory, and then to her forty-year stage career. “I was raised by queens: there was a real sense of community. We needed that to survive.”

She didn’t become an outsider by choice, though: she came to revel in this position because, like her friend Quentin Crisp, who told the Sunday Telegraph in 1991 that Penny was the person with whom he most identified, she was systematically excluded from an early age. She came to understand process years later, when she ran a show for 26 people from her hometown, including her teacher, Miss McCarthy.

“I’ve spent my entire life trying not to be perceived as a bitch,” she says. “I lasted 18 months at junior high school [before borstal]. Miss McCarthy had a salon in our homeroom after class – I wasn’t allowed in as the kids there were older. They also had a drama club, but wouldn’t let me audition because, they said, I’d be an ‘over-actor’. They assumed I’d had sex with everyone in town. I was a virgin but I’d already been branded as queer. It turned out McCarthy was a lesbian and all the salon kids were gay.

“People worldwide laughed at the line: ‘Nobody who was popular at high school could ever be hip. If you were popular at high school: that was your peak.’ Here, no one laughed – they were the popular kids. After the show, McCarthy said “I had no idea you were so intelligent.” I mentioned the drama club and she just said “Over-actor indeed!” It was then that I realised there were certain types of gay people who always wanted to distance themselves from me.”

Fighting the misogyny that she found came with voicing her strong opinions, Penny had a problematic relationship with American feminism’s second wave.  Her first film role was in Women in Revolt (1971), a satire of the movement starring the Factory’s transgender trio of Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, made after SCUM Manifesto author Valerie Solanas attempted to murder Warhol. “When I was 16, Robin Morgan wanted me in her Women’s Liberation group – I was bisexual but mainly lesbian, emotionally and romantically attracted to men, sexually to women. I didn’t choose that. They all hated men but went out with the most prominent left-wing organisers in New York. I said all the men I knew were gay – this didn’t go down well at a tea party for the wives and girlfriends of the leftist political pigs. I was there when Morgan suggested they be lesbians – I said ‘You want to be lesbians because you hate men!’”

Leaving the group and alienated by the gay and lesbian activists who “put out the idea that bisexual people were just trying to double their chances”, Penny followed Crisp’s advice to “look inside, develop who you are, polish it and sell it”, turning her experiences into humorous (and often self-deprecating) performances. Some were intimate discussions with crowds, others incorporated larger casts: BDFW features locally recruited go-go dancers, with those appearing in Dalston chosen from eighty auditioned at Soho’s Madame JoJo’s.

Despite its success, and the fact that Penny did not deliberately resist assimilation, BDFW did not make her as popular as it might, with mainstream theatre-goers or academics. This, she says, was because the AIDS epidemic which informed the show had killed “over 300 friends” and thousands of audience members. It was one of the first works to consider how AIDS had changed the nature of gay history: it had been orally passed down until HIV destroyed a generation, with the gap being filled by “gay marketing” and queer studies.

Pro-scholarship but non-academic, Penny is baffled that until Bad Reputation was published in 2009, there was no such writing on her work to preserve this history, but continues offering her take on the people she knew. Moving beyond the “strangely socialist” performance art world, where “talent is perceived as an unfair advantage”, BDFW has barely changed since 1990 – it was revived in 2006 with six new lines – but Penny is surprised by which aspects have remained relevant.

“One of the most transgressive things when I first performed BDFW was speaking openly about being bisexual – I was sorry to see that nothing had changed. We’re still looked down upon, along with effeminate men, butch dykes and transsexual people. The sad truth is that someone is always ‘queer’. That’s why Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! is championing new language – to remind us that we’re much more similar than we are different.”


Penny Arcade and her London dancers. Photograph: Theodoulos Polyviou

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide