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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses