‘The Art of Becoming’ Penny Arcade, a Lower East Side artist doing things her own way for decades

Penny Arcade
Penny Arcade in her Lower East Side home, her abode for over 40 years
Photo by Bob Krasner

“The fascinating thing about me,” Penny Arcade begins, “is that I’m someone from the 60s and I’m still making new work.”

Born Susana Ventura, she began her career as a playwright at age 14 during a two year stint in the Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls in Connecticut, which, ironically, was the punishment for running away from home.

“It was a really interesting experience,” she recalls, and it was one of the nuns there who encouraged her to pick up a pen and follow her artistic impulses. She returned home but considering that she spent her time as a teen “smoking pot, talking politics and hanging out in gay bars,” it made sense that she escaped first to Provincetown, MA and then to NYC in 1967, where she became a member of John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous, appeared on the LaMama stage with Jackie Curtis, Mary Woronov and Jayne County and had a role in Warhol’s “Women in Revolt,” among other things.

Ever the rule breaker, Arcade left the city in 1971 for Amsterdam.

“New York has never smiled on people who leave,” she notes. “ It’s very unforgiving. I was the ‘it’ girl and I left behind the scene at Max’s, Warhol and all the rest. That’s what this show is about.”

Premiering at Joe’s Pub at the end of the month, “Penny Arcade: The Art of Becoming – Memories from a Long Exile at the Edge of Society. Episode 3 – 1967-1973: Superstar Interrupted ” marks the first time that Arcade has written a show specifically about herself.

“I skipped the 70s,” she explains. “People called me in Amsterdam, trying to get me to come back.”

Spain was next, where Arcade “lived on an island where I sang under the stars surrounded by 40 drummers. I lived off the grid in Maine for four years with no running water or electricity.”

It was a call from Ellen Stewart at LaMama that brought her back in 1981, for a role in “Nite Club,” a play about a plague.

Settling into a Lower East Side apartment in 1981 that she still occupies, Arcade found herself in a “fomenting moment in the East Village that was about to explode — the performance art, the galleries. The 80s was a time of extraordinary creativity here. I was 31 years old and devoted to the architects of the counter-culture. In my 40s, I became friends with many of them.”

Penny Arcade on an East Village roof in 1969Photo by Laurie Rubin
Sitting next to a portrait of Holly Woodlawn is an urn containing some of the late actress’ ashes. Arcade raised money to help Woodlawn in the last stage of her lifePhoto by Bob Krasner
Memorabilia in Penny’s home includes a pic of the infant Susana VenturaPhoto by Bob Krasner
Penny Arcade with a poster from a 1999 show, which promised “90 minutes of humiliation, transformation and sexual tension”Photo by Bob Krasner

“I auditioned for many things in the 80’s but I was never right – I was seen as too ethnic looking,” Arcade explains, “so I established myself as a self-producer. The first ten years of my work was all improvisation. I don’t know if I would have made all the work if I had mainstream success.”

When her 1990 presentation “BITCH!DYKE!F*GHAG!WHORE!” debuted, it was “a runaway success … but my sold out shows were ignored by the press.”

However, she managed to tour the show globally in 1993 to great success and many of her more recent productions have originated in overseas locations.

The new autobiographical piece is the result of a combo of circumstances, one being that she has been working on writing her memoir for the last five years and another the fact that “in the advent of the woke movement, it’s become very hard to do satire and social criticism in the non-profit scene in New York.”

Working with longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner — who describes Arcade as “a feminist who doesn’t hate men” — she has begun the process of a planned multi-part project that references her rock and roll experimental theatre roots.

“I’m back to making music,” she says happily. “It’s a bookend to the 80s, when I was known more as a singer than a monologuist.”

“The important thing that happens now,” she muses, “is that I’m very much about this last stage of life, which is about the completion of character. People think that the really important part of your life is between 20 and 50, but the most challenging, creative and rigorous part of my life has happened post-sixty. In this show, I tell what makes me different. It’s a very vulnerable, very revealing show about how I became who I am.”

“Penny Arcade: The Art of Becoming” plays at Joe’s Pub at Public Theater on Nov. 29, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, and tickets are available at publictheater.org/productions/joes-pub/2022/p/penny-arcade.

Learn more about Penny Arcade on her website, pennyarcade.tv.