A few weeks ago, Perseverance Theatre’s Artistic Director Art Rotch found out that playwright and performance artist Penny Arcade was coming to Alaska for a visit.
“I was amazed she was going to be in Juneau!” said Rotch. “She usually plays in Sydney, London or New York.”
“Penny, and her genre of work, of drawing on material and creating a show in the moment, is pretty unique,” he added. “She was one of the creators of this type of work.”
Rotch isn’t alone in praising Arcade; when recounting his 10 most influential art experiences to Rolling Stone magazine, singer Jeff Buckley included Penny Arcade in the list.
Newsweek has called Arcade “a wonder to behold;” The Sydney Morning Herald declared “what raises Arcade to the level of greatness is her insight into the collapsing soul of America.”
She was even portrayed by “Sex and the City”’s Cynthia Nixon in a 2009 BBC film, “An Englishman in New York.”
And yet, chances are you’ve never heard of her.
“I don’t get a lot of mainstream press in America, but that makes sense,” said Arcade. “I talk about real stuff.”
Arcade’s shows, which are both autobiographical and observational, blend a spirited enthusiasm for fun (audience members are often encouraged to dance during intermissions) with an unflinching look at how people are, how they live, and how they communicate with each other.
“Penny’s been able to maintain the beautiful anarchy that children exhibit with their natural abandon, sense of adventure, rebelliousness and hatred of authority — until, of course they are socialized,” writes Steve Zehentner in his essay, “In the Trenches with Penny Arcade.”
The essay appears in “Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews,” published in 2009 by Semiotext(e). The book celebrates the work and words of Penny Arcade, and also includes scripts from three of Arcade’s performance pieces: “La Miseria,” about growing up in an Italian working-class family in a Connecticut factory town; “Bad Reputation,” about an adolescence plagued by alienation and run-ins with authorities; and her sex and censorship show, about, well, sex and censorship.
What will Arcade be presenting to Juneau audiences?
She says that although she tours around the world, each performance is site-specific.
“This is about connecting with the audience,” said Arcade. “I’ll do some of my character work, some spoken word stuff, and create a show specifically about me being in Juneau.”
This will be Arcade’s first foray to Alaska. She said she is intrigued by a culture that has historically valued individuality.
“I would imagine that there are a lot more highly individualized people living in Juneau than in my East Village neighborhood right now,” said Arcade of her home in New York.
In one of her shows, “New York Values,” Arcade discusses the demise of her city’s identity, of its evolving status as a marketing capital rather than a cultural one, of, for example, wealthy art school students replacing working artists.
“I have a real problem with hipsters; they are a very annoying group of people,” she said. “If you have to live in a publicly sanctioned hip neighborhood to be hip, then you have a problem!”
True individuality is becoming an endangered trait, Arcade said.
“Even though America has always identified itself as a place of rugged individuality, the culture that we live in really doesn’t like individuality,” she said. “Now, even those people who supposedly align themselves with a bohemian or alternative lifestyle, really don’t like people who are highly individual — they all get the same tattoo because they all want to look different-but in the same way that everybody else looks different!”
“If you live in a place like Juneau you’re a little less susceptible because you’re more on the outside of things,” added Arcade. “There’s a reason that people on the outside of society see things more clearly — it’s because they’re in a better position to observe them.”
Arcade’s performing career was launched from the outside of mainstream culture in the late 1960s, from the New York stage of John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous and the films of Andy Warhol.
Since then she has written and directed 10 full-length works, and is currently at work on several new projects. Her sex and censorship show, created 20 years ago, is being revived for a 2012 run in London’s West End.
While some may consider her outrageous, Arcade believes that she is simply describing the world as she sees and experiences it.
Her willingness to share uncensored glimpses into her experiences, into the family and culture that formed her, is remarkable considering that she was once told to stay silent.
There is a scene from “La Miseria” where Arcade’s brother basically tells her that nobody wants to hear from her; nobody is interested in anything she has to say.
Arcade’s enduring career as a performer indicates that that simply wasn’t, and isn’t, the case.
Arcade is committed to her beliefs, and she is committed to sharing them through her work.
But she admits that sometimes that exposure can be painful to achieve.
“Everyone has an inherent nature,” she said. “My inherent nature is very timid — English is not my first language, I’m immigrant Italian with a working class, peasant background, I wasn’t pumped full of self-esteem as a child — I have that going on as my internal center.”
“I’m very clear on that, that it costs me something to be honest,” she added, noting her role as a performer. “And yet I’m concerned about being pristinely honest, because I have a responsibility to the public to be as articulate and as truthful as I can be.”
Her shows, however, are not didactic; they are developed through improvisation, through interactions with the audience.
This weekend, Arcade’s show, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” will be performed in two different settings — at Perseverance Theatre Friday night and at The Rendezvous on Saturday.
Such cooperation between venues is, Arcade said, an effective way to present more art to more people.
“A lot of places talk about the shrinking audience space for live art, leaving the public to have to watch reality television,” she said. “But the more places presenting live art, and the more cooperation among venues, the more possibilities there are to reach the public.”
“One part of the public might be comfortable going to Perseverance Theatre but not to The Rendezvous, and vice versa,” she added.
Arcade is adamant about the role of art in our lives: “The public needs art like they need bread.”
“I believe that we go to the theater to experience that which we are unable or unwilling to experience in real life,” she said. “Going to the theater and seeing a live performance is different from sitting there and watching television; there is an energy that passes between the audience and the performer, and I maintain that during each show I walk a tight rope between the audience and myself.”
Know and go
What: “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” Penny Arcade performance at Perseverance
When and where: 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 15, at Perseverance Theatre, 914 Third St., Douglas. With no-host bar provided by The Rendezvous.
What: “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” Penny Arcade performance at the Rendezvous
When and where: 9:30 p.m., Saturday, July 16 at The Rendezvous Bar, 184 S. Franklin St.
Tickets to both performances are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Advance ticket sales to both events available online, at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, Hearthside Books, or by calling 463-TIXS. Those aged 21 and up must be accompanied by an adult.