Penny Arcade (performer)

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Penny Arcade
Susana Carmen Ventura

(1950-07-15) July 15, 1950 (age 70)
OccupationPerformance artist, actress, playwright

Penny Arcade (born Susana Carmen Ventura, July 15, 1950) is an American performance artist, actress, and playwright based in New York City. She is known for her comedic wit, forthright delivery, and stage presence. Her performances explore topics such as gentrification, humanity, womanhood, LGBT culture, nostalgia, family history, and the life of the outsider. Additionally, Penny Arcade is known for her association with underground arts and culture.[1][2]

Early years[edit]

Susana Ventura was born in New Britain, Connecticut, and grew up in a working class Italian immigrant family. Her father fell ill from a severe beating he endured at Ellis Island in 1946 and in 1953 he was committed to Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, Connecticut, where he died 12 years later of a heart attack at age 50.[3] Her mother was left to raise 4 children alone and worked as a seamstress in local sweatshops. The family was presided over by her maternal grandparents, both born in the 19th century in a remote Southern Italian village of Picerno, Basilicata, as was her mother. The cultural clashes between the young Susana and her mother and grandparents were inevitable in the dawning of the free wheeling 1960's.[3]

At age 12 she had the highest score in her age group for reading comprehension in the state of Connecticut. Shortly afterwards in 7th grade she was labeled promiscuous. First by jealous girls in her junior high school and then by lies told by the boys whose advances she rebuffed. She explained, "I was perceived to be this girl that everyone had slept with when I was 12 -- no one anyone knew, but they had heard."[4] At age 13, she ran away from home and spent 4 weeks homeless in Old Saybrook, Ct.[5] She was apprehended, taken to The Hartford House of Detention, brought to Juvenile Court where she was sentenced to two years at Marian Hall, Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls, a reform school run by the semi cloistered Sister Of The Good Shepherd. She wrote her first play here at age 14. She was released at shortly after her 16th birthday and one month before her 17th birthday in 1967, she climbed out her bedroom window into car full of gay men and drove to to Provincetown, Massachusttes, where homeless once again she spent 1967's Summer of Love. At the end of September with money half earned/half pilfered from a Boston sandwich shop where she worked for three weeks, she left on a plane for New York City, where to amuse her mentor Jaimie Andrews, a 27 year old gay man who took her into his one room studio after several months at risk on the streets of NY, she changed her name to Penny Arcade after an LSD trip.[3]

Early career[edit]

As a child, Penny Arcade did not plan to become a performance artist. In her working-class Italian-American family, there ..."just wasn't a format for that," she explained. However, when she was living on the streets of New York City, Penny Arcade was known for her wit and one-liners. Jamie Andrews, of MainMan management company[4], was drawn to her charisma, and he took her into his home when she was sixteen years old. Jamie Andrews then introduced Penny Arcade to John Vacarro.[6]

Ventura's long association with avant-garde performance began at age 17, when she became a member of John Vaccaro's Playhouse of the Ridiculous.[3] In 1968, she appeared in painter Larry Rivers film T.I.T.S. In 1969, she starred in the Jackie Curtis play Femme Fatale at La MaMa Etc with Curtis, Mary Woronov, Jayne County and Patti Smith, followed by a small role in the Paul Morrisey / Andy Warhol film, Women in Revolt. In 1970, Arcade was featured in her first interview in Rags Magazine, an alternative fashion magazine.

Time in Europe[edit]

At the age of 20 years old, Penny Arcade left New York for Europe, where she lived for a decade.[4] In 1971, Arcade turned down a role in the London production of Andy Warhol's play Pork directed by Anthony Ingrassia. This was because she had been bored during her previous work with Warhol, during the filming of Women in Revolt.[6] She chose instead to join Vaccaro and The Playhouse of the Ridiculous in Amsterdam. After eight months in Amsterdam, she moved to the island of Formentera in Spain's Balearic Islands.[5] She has described her time in Europe as fodder for a "...great and scandalous memoir...drinking with sailors as a bargirl, starting a school for the children of drug smugglers, befriending and being befriended by Robert Graves at the end of his life... well, it goes on."[4]

Return to New York[edit]

When Penny Arcade was thirty years old, she returned to New York City in 1981. She worked with underground theatre artists, including Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam and the Angels of Light. She co-starred with Quentin Crisp in the long-running performance/interview piece, The Last Will and Testament of Quentin Crisp. In the spring of 1982, she improvised her first performance piece in Tinsel Town Tirade at Theater for The New City, receiving her first writer's credit.[5]

In February 1985, Penny Arcade presented her first full length evening of original improvised work, While You Were Out, at the Poetry Project, and then presented it at Performance Space 122 in June later that same year.[7] While You Were Out then moved to University of The Streets in November 1985 and continued to run another four months.

Penny Arcade was featured in 1988 Vogue Magazine's "People Are Talking About" issue, the first mention of performance art in a national fashion magazine. In the late 1980s, she created a character named Margo Howard-Howard, a 50-year-old drag queen with a scandalous past, for her performances.[8] The New York Times refers to the character as "patently unbelievable", but in a later article acknowledges that her monologue was "based on real Lower East Side residents." Howard-Howard received an obituary in The Village Voice.

The Village Gate Sign on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker streets, January 2006

In the 1990s, Arcade toured internationally with her most popular show, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, which, like much of her work, was an opinionated commentary on sexuality and censorship. It featured a chorus of amateur reverse strippers. In 1998 she performed at the first Gay Shame event (as opposed to gay pride) at DUMBA in Brooklyn; she appears in the documentary film of the event by Scott Berry, entitled Gay Shame '98.[9]

Arcade's 2002 performance New York Values, which also toured abroad, addressed the loss of cultural identity in New York during the Giuliani years. The famous Village Gate marquee in New York is still adorned with her name and the title of her performance piece Politics, Sex & Reality, although the nightclub no longer exists.[10]

Arcade is a co-founder of the Lower East Side Biography Project, a video production and oral history workshop that trains participants in documentary filmmaking and preserves the stories of Lower Manhattan artists and activists.[11] Recently profiled individuals have included Herbert Huncke, Jayne County, and Marty Matz, among others.

In 2002 Arcade ran for the New York State Assembly as a candidate of the Green Party.[12] She received 1,054 votes out of 32,976 in the 74th Assembly district,[13] losing to incumbent and anti-rent control advocate Steven Sanders.[14]

In January 2011 Arcade had an on-stage spat with notorious performance artist Ann Liv Young who was in guise as her alter ego Sherry.[15] In 2012 she took up residence at London's Arcola Theatre for a run of her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! [16]

In 2013 Arcade appeared in a revival of Tennessee Williams one-act play, The Mutilated. The production was directed by Cosmin Chivu with music by Jesse Selengut, and produced as part of the eighth annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Massachusetts. It later opened for a run at the New Ohio Theatre in the West Village.[17]

Personal life[edit]

Penny Arcade has been married three times, although she refers to the first two marriages as adoptions. Her third marriage in 1998 was to singer-writer-composer Chris Rael. It was an artistic collaboration that included happy, romantic, and domestic components. They lived together until January 2008. While Arcade is critical of marriage, she contends that the only protection that one can get is with a federal and state marriage license. She identifies as bisexual,[3] and supports marriage for anyone who wants it.


Selected works include:

  • While You Were Out (1985)
  • Invisible on the Streets (1986)
  • Bid for the Big Time (1988)
  • Bringing It All Back Home (1988)
  • Operating Under The Influence (1988)
  • Quiet Night for Sid and Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel (1989)
  • True Stories (1989)
  • Based on A True Story (1990)
  • The Beginning of the End of the World (1990)
  • La Miseria (1991)
  • State of Grace (1991)
  • Bitch Dyke Faghag Whore 1990
  • Sunday Tea With Quentin Crisp (1993)
  • Love Sex and Sanity (1995)
  • An Evening With Penny Arcade And Quentin Crisp (1995)
  • Sisi Sings The Blues (1996)
  • Bad Reputation (1997)
  • The Last Will And Testament Of Quentin Crisp (1999)
  • Lady Fest (2000)
  • Virtual Arcade Cyber Performance And Interview Show (2000)
  • Alive and Kicking (2001)
  • Sex. Politics. Reality. (2001)
  • New York Values (2002)
  • Penny Arcade At The Warhol Museum (2002)
  • Artist Survivor (2002)
  • Working My Way Down (2003)
  • Rebellion Cabaret (2004)
  • Escape From The East Village Ny Ny (2004)
  • Penny Arcade in Motion (2005)
  • Old Queen (2009)
  • Longing Lasts Longer (2011)
  • The Etiquette Of Death (2012)
  • The Girl Who Knew Too Much (2013)


  1. ^ "Penny Arcade - Artist". MacDowell Colony. Retrieved 2020-03-16.
  2. ^ Nunn, Jerry. "Performer Penny Arcade talks Stonewall and Andy Warhol; set to perform City Winery". Retrieved 2020-03-16.
  3. ^ a b c d e Arcade, Penny (13 November 2009), Bad Reputation, Semiotext(e)
  4. ^ a b c d Hicklin, Aaron (4 April 2011), Ladies We Love: Penny Arcade, retrieved 18 September 2015
  5. ^ a b c Biography, retrieved 18 September 2015
  6. ^ a b Abraham, Amelia (2015-08-18). "'Twenty Years Ahead of the World': Talking to Legendary Performance Artist Penny Arcade". Vice. Retrieved 2020-03-16.
  7. ^ Performance, New York Magazine, 10 June 1985, retrieved 18 September 2015
  8. ^ "Weekender Guide," New York Times, August 4, 1989
  9. ^ Penny Arcade, 11 June 2012, retrieved 18 September 2015
  10. ^ Al Giordano (June 4, 2010). "Penny Arcade's Bad Reputation and a Stage Called Journalism". The Field. Archived from the original on June 7, 2010. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
  11. ^ The Lower East Side Biography Project, retrieved 18 September 2015
  12. ^ "New York Dreaming Green". Village Voice. 2002-10-08. Retrieved 2013-11-09.
  13. ^ "NYS Board of Elections - Assembly - Vote November 5, 2002" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-11-09.
  14. ^ "Gotham Gazette's Eye On Albany: New York State Assembly: District 74". Retrieved 2013-11-09.
  15. ^ "Hipster warfare breaks out during performance artist Ann Liv Young's show at Delancey Lounge - NY Daily News". 2011-01-12. Retrieved 2013-11-09.
  16. ^ "Arcola Theatre". Arcola Theatre. Retrieved 2013-11-09.
  17. ^ Murphy, Tim (31 October 2013), Loud and Colorful, With Total Recall: The Performance Artist Penny Arcade, Now an Actress, retrieved 18 September 2015

Further reading[edit]

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