Thursday, 07 June 2018 15:24

Legendary Performance Artist Visits the Spa City

Penny Arcade and longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner in residence at Saratoga Springs this week. Penny Arcade and longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner in residence at Saratoga Springs this week. Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Performance artist. Writer. Poet. Experimental theatre maker. Penny Arcade has authored 10 scripted performance plays and hundreds of performance art pieces. Her work has been produced everywhere from London to Vienna.

Born Susana Ventura in the small factory town of New Britain, Connecticut, she named herself Penny Arcade at age 17 while living on her own in New York City, where her mentor, photographer/artist Jaimie Andrews, introduced her to legendary director John Vaccaro and The Playhouse of the Ridiculous. She was subsequently recruited, while still a teenager, by Andy Warhol to be a Factory Superstar.

Arcade and longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner are in Saratoga Springs this week on a 10-day residency for The Orchard Project – which supports artists’ new work and the development of shows in the theater world.

Arcade says she recalls visiting the city decades earlier with Louden Wainwright, who was performing at Caffe Lena. A clothesline of words and typed scenarios depicting their current work-in-progress, tentatively titled “Old Queen,” clings in blue painters’ tape to the walls of the apartment where she is housed – a converted apartment complex on the city’s east side which once staged major music concerts as the Great Saratoga Music Hall. Arcade, appropriately enough, wears a T-shirt that reads: Love Saves the East Village. Here is some of what was said:

“The first time I came to New York I landed right across the street from the Village Gate. I’m from a factory town, New Britain, Connecticut and I ran away when I was 16. I went to Provincetown, then to Boston.”

On her name: I had the name ‘Penny Arcade’ since I was 17 years old. I named myself and it was supposed to be a joke. I was saving Susana Ventura for when I did something good. Unfortunately, it’s taken so long, haha, I’ve gotten stuck with Penny Arcade.

On the ‘60s: I’m part of the original youth culture. it was a very philosophical time. That’s one of the things we want to bring into the show. While there was a lot of low energy in the sixties, there was also a lot of high-mindedness: Paul Krassner, Abbie Hoffman, Lenny Bruce, James Baldwin. I come from an era when Gore Vidal was on television. Maybe if you were a bright kid, you were tuned in to these kinds of things. Regardless of what brightness you had, the mentality that was being driven was that of a seeker. You talked about how you were going to change things. You were metaphysically connected to a group of people. It was about evolution.

On Performing: I work improvisationally. Steve and I have worked together for 26 years. I improvise directly to Steve, and Steve writes it down. I can go anywhere and improvise an hour show, just off the top of my head by drawing from different shows of mine. I have 12 full-length plays and hundreds and hundreds of hours of performances.

On Andy Warhol: It’s taken me years and years and years to understand Andy. He was a very complex figure. I kind of resented him because I viewed him as a user.  You have to remember Andy Warhol did not become famous until he became shot. He was not the most important Pop artist. He was not Claes Oldenburg, he was not seen at that level. He was seen more as a freak. And he was kind of a prankster. Andy’s greatest feat was convincing the art world that he was a painter, when what he actually was, was an art director. We see the results and high impact of Andy Warhol not in art, but in advertising. That’s where you can see his influence. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate him as a conceptualist.

When she was 17: I took a $25 shuttle from Boston to New York City. I met these very kind of bizarre drag queens who are in this play. In Provincetown they said: you belong in New York. Eventually I re-met Jamie Andrews, who’s also in this play and who I’d first met in Provincetown. With him, I met John Waters and all these people. When Jamie saw me in New York, I was living on the street. I was definitely an at-risk teenager, like many, many teenagers who were there. Jamie saw me one day on the street, quite by accident, and he said: you don’t look too good. He goes, ‘I think you should come live with me.’ And he took me in. And as I say in the show, show me the 27-year-old gay man who’s taking in the 17-year-old girl off the street. Jamie is a fascinating person in his own right. He was the person who first brought me to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous. 

The Playhouse of the Ridiculous: All the elements in my work come from the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, except I do costumes. (Playhouse founder) John Vaccaro’s work is still not understood. I am his protegee. Vaccaro’s work was political. He wasn’t interested in Man’s struggle against Man, he was interested in society.

On Patti Smith: I was very close to Patti in 1969- ‘70. When I met her she had just become a poet. But first, was her paintings. She used to write on her paintings which she’d show me, and they were extremely interesting. I was in the first play she was in, (Jackie Curtis’) “Femme Fatale.” There was something that was transferred between the two of us. Patti’s an interesting person. Recently I’ve come to realize that Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe kind of heralded, in 1969, the first wave of young people where fame was more important than accomplishment. Patti wanted to be famous. We had a joke at Max’s (Kansas City) one night which went on for several weeks that Patti and I were going to start a band. She and I really bonded at being working-class girls in a scene of debutants.

On Bowie: Angela Bowie, from what I heard back then, was really the interesting figure. David Bowie was this boring kind of folk singer and then they started dressing David like Angela – and the rest is history.

On Punk: Wayne County to me is the most important person in the punk scene and far more important than Patti, Richard Hell or any of them...rock and roll was our religion, and Wayne County was the person who took it to heart. What else can a poor boy do except play in a rock and roll band?

On The Orchard Project: “We like the way Orchard Project works. It has a core of 15 kids interested in theater, in performance, so we like having those conversations. We’ve worked a lot with young people in our video projects. Steve and I have a video project we’ve been doing for 19 years called Stemming the Tide of Cultural Amnesia: The Lower East Side Biography Project – which anyone can watch. (Website: http://pennyarcade.tv/) . This is my way of injecting inter-generational voices into the culture, because it’s not 1980 or 1990 or 1970 for that matter when young people move to New York and meet older artists. The whole idea of lineage has changed. The whole idea of what it means to be an artist has changed. Those ideas have been gentrified.

On Purpose: “I think we all glom onto whatever resonates with us personally on a spiritual level, on a metaphysical level. We come here with purpose. I believe that we are born with purpose. That we all have certain lessons we are here to learn. That’s the purpose of life: for evolution. And it’s not a complete evolution. Whatever my standards are of who I think I should be, I’m not attaining them in this lifetime, you know? I think evolution continues.”

    

    

    

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