Longing Lasts Longer and Here’s Why: the Penny Arcade interview

Eileen Dover is a deviant, performance artist, writer and artist living in New York City. He’s currently working on a one man show and a memoir about growing up Catholic in Boston’s famed Southie. 

Eileen’s also becoming a cherished guest contributor to stevepafford.com. On Madonna’s birthday in August he authored a slightly controversial review of her divisive Madame X project, and now we’re bringing things closer to home, with his exclusive interview with the absolutely fabulous Penny Arcade. For the uninitiated, Penny Arcade (born Susana Carmen Ventura) is an internationally respected writer, poet, actress and theatre maker, and one of a handful of artists who created and continue to define performance art, occupying a unique position in the American avant-garde for over 50 years.

Penny’s debut came in 1967 with John Vaccaro’s explosive Playhouse of the Ridiculous (above) at age 17, and by 19 she was a Warhol Factory Superstar. In other words, she’s been speaking her mind – forcefully – and incorporating activism, politics and pop culture into her groundbreaking shows for as long as I’ve been on the planet. Longer in fact.

She says a lot of things that might be on your mind or the minds of many, and does so fearlessly. She often opens herself up to the scorn of people who disagree with her. She tackles issues like freedom of speech, assimilation, political correctness and censorship and does so with a razor sharp wit and intelligence that packs Joe’s Pub in the East Village, and in any venue every time she plays. Her groundbreaking show Longing Lasts Longer has been all over the world and if you’re lucky may play in a city near you. 

Over to Dover…

My first exposure to Ms. Arcade was in the Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol satire Women In Revolt which starred the legendary trio Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. Arcade has endured, while so many of her friends and associates perished to drugs and AIDS. She’s a bisexual gal who has sought the support of other women both gay and straight. That she often finds herself shortchanged hasn’t let that stop her and doubtless won’t in the future.

She collaborated with one of the most legendary gay icons of all time, the Englishman in New York that was Quentin Crisp (hi Sting!), with Crisp even naming her his anima figure and soul mate. More recently with the amazing Steve Zehetner, who is in my opinion one of the coolest straight guys on earth. 

I later saw Ms. Arcade in a powerful show back in the ‘90s called Bitch Dyke Faghag Whore! You do the maths. 

Bringing things bang up to date, the first time I saw Longing Lasts Longer I was still drinking heavily (I’m sober now, yay). Penny had graciously come to one of my shows the week prior and we began to hang out briefly until my drinking got in the way. I went to Longing Lasts Longer, got drunk and disrupted the show several times. When I sobered up the next day I saw a missed call from her and a Facebook message from Steve Zehetner himself. I was expecting to be lambasted: instead both of them asked if I was ok and pleaded with me to seek help. 

Most big time entertainers would’ve banned me or cussed me out on social media (many did). Not Arcade or Zehetner. They had a deeply honest concern that was genuine and surprising. Never had I encountered such kindness in this industry. It speaks to the character of both Penny and Steve, they are not typical or average in any way! Needless to say I cleaned up my act and while doing that Penny took Longing Lasts Longer across the pond to rave reviews. 

Penny has used her celebrity to raise money for her friends in need, for strangers in need, to shed light on often ignored topics and after all she’s been through she never stops! When most entertainers are drifting into the shadows after decades of being in the spotlight Arcade is turning up the volume. She has more material now than ever looking at the world we’re living in. She never backs down. Someone who didn’t agree with her this past year tossed a drink on her during her show and like a trouper she put that person in their place and resumed without missing a beat. She has the kind of class and professionalism not often found in the art world.

I sat down with Penny for my second interview with her and fortunately we were joined by her longtime collaborator Steve this time. Here’s what they had to say.

Penny with Steve bringing up the rear. Photo by Jasmine Hirst

ED: You’ve worked with literal icons like Quentin Crisp. Quentin Crisp was one of a kind and like you, he pushed buttons and often said things that angered people in the LGBT community (I flash to the whole “AIDS is a fad” comment, meant to take away the power and fear of the virus but vastly misinterpreted…. ALSO an aside…If you don’t know who Quintin Crisp is, please Google him now) How did you relate to Quentin Crisp as an artist? 

Penny: Well I think of Quentin as a philosopher and cultural critic. I think what impacted me most about Quentin were his standards for excellence in his writing, and his perseverance. While our culture tells us “the older you get the more useless you are”, Quentin showed me that the opposite is true, and that in ageing an artist brings refinement and completion that cannot come at any other stage of life. Quentin’s commitment to his own point of view, his freedom to think as he wished, despite the disapproval of even the gay world was a powerful example to me.

ED: You were friends with two of my heroes, Jackie Curtis and Marsha P. Johnson. You never shy away from people who are interesting but struggle with things like addiction and homelessness. Most people can’t handle people with troubles. What draws you to them? 

Penny: I am not drawn to people in trouble. I am drawn to people who are unique and who, despite their problems somehow, even at their most insecure, never betray their individuality. This was true of both Jackie and Marsha. It is interesting to see how time treats people and redefines their influence. In their lifetime Jackie influenced so many people by their larger than life commitment to the right to define themselves by their own measure. For all those non-binary identity warriors out there Curtis was quoted in a banner headline in The New York Times in 1969 saying “Not he, not she just me Jackie.” Jackie Curtis singlehandedly redefined drag and identity as we know it yet almost no young people know Jackie today. Jackie was a consummate, outrageous entertainer and people like Bette Midler owe no small debt to Jackie yet Jackie is forgotten in the annals of entertainment. Marsha was homeless, (that means sleeping in the street often passed out on the sidewalk)  a street hustler, a street person who begged on the street. A beautiful soul whether dressed in the most outrageous drag salvaged from what others threw away or as Malcolm, a rather rugged and proud black man who often initiated fights. Marsha was an entity, a presence in the street life of NYC but neither an artist nor an entertainer except for a period when Jimmy Camicia presented Marsha in his Hot Peaches reviews singing off-key holding a decorated paper plate with the lyrics written out. Today, Marsha has a statue of herself leading The Stonewall Riot, an event she was not even at. Today, Marsha is touted as a trans woman even though Marsha always called herself a queen and would never have willingly given up the male body. What drew me to both these dear friends and draws me still is that their individuality is untouched and unmatched whether they are marginalised in death like Jackie is, or marginalised in life like Marsha was. But make no mistake, alive neither of them would have allowed anyone else to define them.

https://vimeo.com/37455437

ED: Steve, how long have you collaborated with Penny and how did you team up? 

Steve: In the late ‘80s during the period when I was driving taxi, I used to listen to a Columbia University radio programme.  It was a Sunday evening show focused on performance and one night I caught Penny. Penny has a wonderful radio voice, very warm and inviting but it was her message of inclusion that was the most appealing to me. As necessary as identity based politics can be, particularly for legislation and legal protections, it was my opinion that the identity based movement sometimes works into the hands of the divide and conquer strategies of the right wing by fracturing the progressive left. 

By contrast, Penny’s critique was about bringing people together and came wrapped in what seemed to be a personal invitation to join a very broad humanist coalition. A couple years later, as I was working on my first film project, a short piece on racism that was a compilation of 150 interviews and portraits I made on the streets of New York City (http://stevezehentner.com/the-color-line), I met Penny’s husband at the time. Mitch told me Penny was looking for someone to do video work for her and I nervously rang her up. She was as advertised, very kind and inviting. Since I had come to New York as an architect, the first thing Penny had me work on with her was the documentation of Jack Smith’s Baghdadian themed apartment, which I measured and photographed for the possibility of recreating the space in a museum setting. I also did some construction work in her Lower East Side apartment, tiling her bathroom, etc. Some months later, in July of 1992, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! was opening in New York at PS122 and Penny hired me to as a live video operator. I had zero experience in theatre, but coming from architecture, I had a strong sense of aesthetics and I understood how to build form. Within a very short time, Penny and I began our rapport on the work, and over the next nine months, we completely rebuilt B!D!F!W! into the show it became and one that has toured to over 40 cities around the world. 

Our collaboration is forged by our shared politics and values but also in how our skills complement each other. Penny provides the content and I provide the overview and structure.  Over time, our roles have evolved and there is increasing overlap. It hasn’t always been easy but we’re in the trenches together and over the last 28 years, we’ve weathered well over a thousand performances and hundreds of international productions. The best part though, truly, is that we’ve become best friends. We do professional work but the relationship is primarily familial. It’s like we’re running a mom and pop theatre shop.

The Bitch Dyke Fag Hag Whore. Photo by Albie Mitchell

ED: You’re also a champion to the LGBT community. Was it your alliance with Penny that sparked that or was it something you always felt passion for? 

Steve: In general, I think I’ve always been tuned in to the existential horror of the human condition. I find it easy to relate to people, their struggle and the discrimination some face. There was of course plenty of brutality as well in the school yard to witness and over the years, I think, I hope, I’ve always tried to stand up for people who are being put upon. Part of it derives from my upbringing. I’m from Iowa and before it became infected by the mean spirited moral crusade of the born-again Christians, Iowa was a place where Kennedy liberalism had taken root. Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people didn’t talk much about politics, sex or religion, but a sense of fairness and social justice was in the air. Plus my mother was the sweetest, dearest person and my father naturally idealistic. However, my relationship to the LGBT community is not about how I’ve championed the community but what the community has done for me. During my university days, the foundation of my political awareness was built primarily from queer feminist culture and my feminist girlfriends. In New York, ACT Up had a profound impact on me. I attended meetings and was witness to their creativity, intelligence, sense of fun and their ability to get things done in the face of real horror. I have so many gay male friends and they have really been my role models, informally tutoring me on how to be a more articulate, cultivated and expressive person. Life in general is extremely complicated and difficult, and in the queer community’s struggles, sense of artistic freedom, of personal freedom, of joy, I have found so much that has been useful to me in the ever evolving completion of my character. Working with Penny on our theatre and the Lower East Side Biography Project (http://stevezehentner.com/lower-east-side-biography-project), I’ve been exposed to some of the most fascinating and fierce queer souls on this planet. I feel very lucky to have had these experiences and a great debt to the LGBT community.

https://vimeo.com/36505050

ED: Penny, you address censorship and political correctness in Longing Lasts Longer. How do you think these issues are dividing the community. 

Penny: The gay world was a place of unfettered investigation into ideas. The academic takeover of the gay world with its cookie cutter politically correct template on thinking makes a mockery of what gays, lesbians, bisexuals and others outside the dominant normative society fought to bring to light for centuries. As I predicted in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! in 1990, censorship would lead to self-censorship but as we have seen over the past 17 years, self-censorship which IS political correctness leads unswervingly back to the censorship and policing of others. Oh, if only the LBGTs of yore could revisit the planet right now in a great Ghost Dance to bring the values of personal liberation that are being perverted now in their names! In the not too distant past it was LGBT people who championed all oppression making no distinction between civil rights, women’s rights, LBGT Rights etc. they fought for HUMAN RIGHTS. The current identity politics and call out culture where the most pretentious yet ignorant people are micro dicing what was once a proud and generous community, a never ending internal witch hunt would in other eras have been suspected of infiltration by counter revolutionary forces.

ED: Most of us who are 40+ seem to understand satire and have a thick skin having lived through legalised homophobia, transphobia and AIDS. What do you think is the biggest contributing factor to the unbearable sensitivity of people today? 

Penny: People are NOT sensitive because sensitivity requires a degree of humility. They are called sensitive by the right wing but in fact they are anything but sensitive. They are bullies who seek to dominate every conversation and to make over the world so that they control it. Not one of those people has a sensitive bone in their body. They are control freaks who seek to overlord everyone around them in to submission. The sooner everyone who believes in freedom and autonomy recognises the tyranny of fragility we are forced to deal with; the I am more sensitive, virtuous, blah blah blah than you that now passes for ethics when all it is a self-serving commitment to the end of individuality and a sheep like docility based not on goodness but fear of being attacked, slandered and excluded. Exactly like their fellow monsters in the right wing.

ED: You use the phrase cultural amnesia. How would you define it? 

Penny: I started using the phrase cultural amnesia in 1993 in Australia when I was interviewed in Sydney for local television to refer to the loss of our collective memory regarding everything that had been struggled for and achieved in our collective past. Cultural Amnesia is the forgetting of how we got there. Marsha P. Johnson was a hero but not for what is being celebrated now because the people celebrating Marsha could have NEVER tolerated the real Marsha. A genial street beggar in street-sourced drag who morphed into a fierce street fighting man named Malcolm, bloody mouthed and beaten, when his bipolar condition sent him in that direction. We who came before could contain that conflict in the IDEA of Marsha which is why many of us called her St. Marsha but it is cultural amnesia that turns Marsha into the unrecognisable person in Happy Birthday Marsha P. Johnson, the heinous co-optation of Marsha’s personhood…with a reimagined evening in Marsha’s pink velvet living room, writing invitations to a birthday party she is throwing herself at the Stonewall after she performs there the night of The Stonewall Uprising. All of it presented to unsuspecting legions of people as the TRUTH, When Marsha NEVER had an apartment, or a birthday party, never performed at the Stonewall. NO ONE PERFORMED AT THE STONEWALL, IT WAS A BAR! And it is presentations such as this that lead to the state of cultural amnesia which is the Forgetting of the history that created our culture.

ED: We’ve recently lost a lot of notable artists. Hattie Hathaway was someone who influenced me heavily. Do you think there will be a new wave of artists who will keep New York City (and the world) thinking and on its toes or are we a dying breed, literally? 

Penny: The values have changed in society. The focus is on fame, branding, notoriety and monetising that brand. Honour, Truth, investigation and philosophy are in exact opposition to the current obsession because it belies the need for development. So perhaps there will be a few who will follow in those footsteps by self-development and the sharing of that development with the public. I hope so.

ED: I do too and I am dedicating all of my creative juices to exactly that! As a tribute to Hattie I’ve continued doing his night Reading For Filth. Any chance you’d grace us with your presence sometime? 

Penny: I would love to read for Filth!

ED: Consider yourself invited!!!! So, why does Longing Last Longer?

Penny: We are human beings and our condition is change. Nothing ever stays the same nothing good and nothing bad. Everything changes. Each of us as we grow has insights into what came before in our lives which armed with the understanding of the present sheds new light on our past experiences and we come to bittersweet, sometimes painful realisations of how we colluded in our own unhappiness. We gain wisdom but we cannot gain the past, that is our collective tragedy and if we can hack it our eventual triumph.

ED: What do you hope audiences will walk away from your show with? 

Penny: My only goal for the audience is entertainment with a big side serving of support for their own individuality because sadly there is little in life that supports individuality, the owning of our own lives. Very few if any people will support you in getting what YOU want out of life. Your friends, your parents, your employers all have their own goals for you. Steve and I, in creating the work we do are there to make a stand for your autonomy.

ED: A lot of entertainers feel it’s their job to wake people up, to shed light on certain issues. If you had to pick one issue to drive home, what would it be? 

Penny: I don’t know if a lot of entertainers want to wake anyone up to anything. It’s a good line of publicity. I do not believe one can change the world but I do believe you can change the world around yourself. You can change YOU. And my one fundamental message in all my work is no matter what OWN YOUR LIFE. Stop blaming and grab onto that life of yours. A life is a gift. We beat out millions of other sperm to be here, to be able to actualise our mind and heart with all of its desires.

https://vimeo.com/360615887

ED: Will you be going on tour with Longing Lasts Longer this year? 

Penny/Steve: We are going to be doing stand-alone shows of Longing Lasts Longer at Joe’s Pub on October 15th and 24th. I want to get Netflix or Amazon or some kind of broadcast for the show.

ED: My final question. Where do you both get your seemingly unending compassion from? You are both so kind in a business that can be so cruel. How do you both stay so genuine? 

Penny/Steve: I think this is a question of one’s nature. Steve and I are both naturally kind and what used to be called decent. Decent meaning people who act on their values. I don’t believe you can spout Black Lives Matter all over the place and then pass a homeless indigent black person on the street, starving and in rags and not look them in the eye and not buy them a meal. Yet there are Black Lives Matter activists who step over suffering black people in the street every single day!

Steve and I share values. That is the basis of our collaboration and why we have lasted as a creative team for 28 years.

Eileen Dover

To contact Eileen email [email protected]

Featured image courtesy of Albie Mitchell

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