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Genius ages well: A visit with Penny Arcade

BY STEPHEN DiLAURO | She’s been called the Queen of the Underground. For 55 years, Penny Arcade has used her performances, her poetry and songs, her plays and her life to shine a light on how cool it is to be free, to be absolutely and unequivocally oneself.

“The Art of Becoming” is memoir as performance.

“For the past few years I have been writing my memoir, it’s a big story,” Penny Arcade told me.

Adapting the memoir for the stage “was Steve’s idea,” she said. That’s Steve Zehentner, her longtime collaborator.

“I was dragging my feet writing the memoir. After all, I know all the stories. He suggested we make a show because, after all, that is what I do. I create live theater.”

The current iteration is the third episode in this living memoir and deals in part with Penny Aracde’s immersion in the 1960s Downtown New York scene. I saw a workshop version at the Krain Theater on E. Fourth Street last year before she and Zehentner took the show to Australia, where it was a smash hit and received rave notices.

From left, Patti Smith, Jackie Curtis and Penny Arcade. (Photo by Leee Black Childers)

Since then, Zecca Esquibel on piano has become part of the show. Penny says the script has “evolved” even more. Tues., July 23, at 7 p.m. she and her collaborators will be performing the latest version at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, at 425 Lafayette St. Her shows usually sell out quickly.

“My work has always been developed in front of live audiences, from the initial idea to the final refined polished product,” she noted. “This is what I’m known for in New York.”

Penny Arcade (who was born Susana Carmen Ventura) is also recognized internationally for inventing long-form performance art.

The Penny Arcade sex and censorship show “Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!” was groundbreaking when she launched it in 1990. After Zehentner joined her in 1992, she began employing a company of dancers for her performances.

“In the ’90s my work became largely autobiographical, and I brought a working-class, immigrant Italian point of view, which is foundational to me,” she related. “This made me very different from the largely suburban, middle-class theater and performance artists Downtown.”

Despite international tours, critical acclaim and hundreds of performances here and abroad, this great artist has received very little in the way of government grants or support from foundations in the United States. Here, in her home city, the mainstream media has largely ignored her efforts, except for the occasional blurb, mention or highlight.

Surprisingly, she has not yet won a MacArthur Fellowship award, or so-called “Genius Grant.” Yet, she was given a lifetime achievement award by Village Preservation for both her artistic contributions and her contributions to the community.

Downtown, though, she is a shining icon. In February she was this year’s honoree at Theater for the New City’s annual Love ’n’ Courage benefit. She expressed her delight at this announcement on social media posts, where she has tens of thousands of followers.

“Every decade since 1968 I have contributed to new art forms,” Penny told me. “I also instituted a poet’s theater in my work. That is to say, I applied my poetic practice to my theater writing, tapping into a legacy I inherited from working with John Vaccaro, who had been part of LeRoi Jones’s and Diane Di Prima’s Poets Theatre.” Vaccaro was the first to discover her. She explains that Vaccaro’s was “the original, seminal, queer, glitter glam, political, rock and roll theater.”

The future artist.

Susana Ventura came to New York City as a teenage runaway. She adopted the name Penny Arcade after an acid trip with Jamie Andrews, who took her into his East Village home and mentored and advised her. He introduced her to Vaccaro.

Soon after her debut in Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous she was befriended by Andy Warhol. He cast her in his movie “Women in Revolt.” The artist Larry Rivers put Penny Arcade in “T.I.T.S.,” a film he made. Then, suddenly she sailed away from it all, first to Amsterdam to continue her theatrical work with Vaccaro. Eight months later she went to the Balearic Islands, where she developed a mutual-admiration friendship with the great Anglo-Irish poet Robert Graves. She spent a decade in Europe.

Upon her return to New York, her artistic efforts launched the worldwide Neo Burlesque performance movement.

Her performance pieces are imbued with a humanist sensibility. Think Voltaire, if he’d been a working-class bohemian woman rather than a member of Europe’s royal courts.

Music is an essential element of her work. She writes her own songs and employs tunes by songwriters she numbers among her friends. Zehentner appears on stage with her, mixing a soundscape to accompany the video projections that supplement her vivacious narratives. All in all, Penny Arcade is likely Downtown’s most articulate survivor.

“It is a privilege to get old,” she said, “and now I have compassion, even gratitude, for my younger self and their journey because I realize that it was them, not me, that brought me this far.”

“The Art of Becoming” is an episodic musical memoir created by Penny Arcade and Steve Zehentner, with original songs by Penny Arcade and music by Penny Arcade, Chris Rael, Steve Zehentner and Zecca Esquibel. One night only at Joe’s Pub, Tues., July 23, at 7 p.m. Joe’s Pub is located at 425 Lafayette St., just below Astor Square. For tickets ($25 with two-drink or one-food minimum), click here.

DiLauro is a playwright, poet and roving cultural correspondent.


  1. John Penley John Penley July 10, 2024

    Penny seems to have forgotten when she proudly proclaimed that she was an original Anti-War Yippie and was active in supporting Anti-War, ACT UP, Medical Marijuana and other causes. She is definitely not saying much about Gaza or a Ceasefire or the active civil war taking place in the US now. Personally, I liked the old, noncommercial YIPPIE Penny Arcade a lot more.

    • susana carmen ventura susana carmen ventura July 12, 2024

      John! This was an interview! I am still the same old anti-capitalist, anti-war, community-grounded creature you have always known! This interview was done by e-mail questions last January but then I had to cancel shows because of Covid and the article was delayed. Funny you can imagine me morphing into some imperialist, uber-commmercial fame-chaser at this late date! End All War! Stop Project 2025!
      — Xo penny

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