Arcade fire - Penny Arcade comes to London

Posted: Tue Jun 12 2012

The New York legend is bringing her seminal sex and censorship show 'Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!' to Dalston this summer.

Penny Arcade always recruits the dancers for her erotic performance piece, 'Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!' - which combines comedy, narrative and dance - locally. The auditions for this summer's London revival at the Arcola Tent in Dalston, more than 20 years after its debut in New York, attracted hundreds of applicants, from former sex workers and strippers to older dancers and performance artists. One hopeful even flew over especially from Italy. 'B!D!F!W!' generates a lot of love and makes a lot of demands: demands that Arcade is confident the capital can handle. 'The blue-white electric energy that once hovered over Paris, and then over New York, is hovering over London now!'

Short and sensuous, impish and shrewd, strident and vulnerable, Arcade at 62 has lost none of the charisma, energy and passion that saw her escape a Michigan reform school for Manhattan's queer underground aged barely 14. 'I'm hard to interview because I just fucking talk,' she says. She's not wrong. Arcade specialises in freewheeling collages of rehearsed anecdotes, cultural references and piquant observations - rebel yells in praise of individual fulfilment and collective responsibility that are rooted in the radically progressive sensibility that has fuelled her 45 years of performance and activism.

Dubbed Arcade's 'sex and censorship show', 'Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!' has been her signature performance piece since its 1990 debut in downtown Manhattan. It comprises first-person narrative, comic character work and seductive audience engagement to explore identity, sexuality, gender and belonging in an age of conservative consumerism. Arcade is playing a no-nonsense sex worker one minute; revisiting a childhood argument with a nun the next. She uses erotic dance to memorialise the Aids cataclysm and then plunges the audience into darkness. The show's Arcola run will also incorporate guest spots from simpatico local talent such as Jonny Woo, A Man To Pet (with whom Arcade has performed before) and David Hoyle. 'David is like my spiritual brother,' she says. 'He and I basically preach the same thing and it's revolution.'

As a teenager, Arcade worked with the groundbreaking Play-House of the Ridiculous, became a Warhol superstar and threw bricks at the Stonewall riots. After living in Europe, she returned to New York in time to see Aids decimate her community. During the '80s, caring for sick friends alternated with the development of Arcade's influential brand of performance art. Emerging from the US culture wars, 'B!D!F!W!' was a word-of-mouth sensation, playing off-Broadway and touring internationally - including a seminal stint at the ICA - until 1995. It arguably left the international burlesque revival in its wake, though Arcade finds that scene 'boring'.

'It's interesting to me that the show continues to be relevant in 2012,' she says. 'And I mean really relevant. Eye-opening. I just did it for a month in Alaska, where people had to come out in blizzards - literally taking their lives in their hands! - and they'd come two or three times. I think it's the message of individuality and inclusion. People feel more and more excluded and so much is being drained out of the culture: empathy, history, talking about anything that's real. People are not finding in the arts what they come to the arts to find, which is: “How are we living now? Where can I see reflections of myself, my problems, my dilemmas?”'

When Arcade visited London last spring, she recalls, 'People asked me if I was here for the royal wedding. I said, “No! I'm here for the revolution!”' That was four months before the riots, mind you. A year later, she says 'we're perched at a critical point. A lot of young people are just not having it. They're more radical and they're really examining themselves.'

'Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!' seems a good fit for east London this summer, and there's plenty going on around the show. There are parties at the Dalston Superstore and, at the ArcolaTent itself on June 17, Arcade hosts a BFI Southbank screening of 'An Englishman in New York', the TV film about the later life of her friend and collaborator Quentin Crisp, in which Arcade is played by Cynthia Nixon. On July 7 she's marching in the Pride parade under a 'B!D!F!W!' banner (left) created by Ed Hall, whose work was recently seen in the Hayward's Jeremy Deller show.

'It's not a posh West End theatre but we can kick ass in here,' says Arcade of the Arcola Tent revival, co-produced by Time Out Live. 'Dalston is a lot like the East Village was in the early '90s. Real people live there. You can feel the rawness and not everyone wants to go there.' But you should go there. This is one East End lightning bolt you don't want to miss this summer. 'You should come and see Penny Arcade while I'm alive,' she suggests, 'instead of discovering me after I'm dead…'