Features EssaysPerformance Published 14 December 2012

Radical is as Radical Does

Penny Arcade on radicalism and neo-burlesque.

Penny Arcade

The word radical applied to art today is one of the most misused and
 misunderstood concepts.
 Radical  is used too often today as a synonym for shocking.
 From the late Latin “radicalis”, radical means from the roots. A 
radical experience is a change, a shift occurring at the
 very roots of itself. This is the complete opposite of shocking, which 
tends to be a surface experience, a surface reaction, one that is 
done to us and after the initial shock wears off, is easily dismissed.

To be radical is to effect a fundamental, deeply rooted change.
 What does it mean to be radical in the theatre in 2012? Certainly it is
 different than what it meant to be radical in 1968. One must measure
 what would be radical to the current status quo. We are living in a 
period where the ideas and activities of the past four decades are
constantly recycled. Is that radical? Is that a reinvention at the 
root? I think not.

Much is made of the word provocative too, but provocative action 
without content is an empty gesture. The change triggered by the
  provocation comes later, when the person has left the theatre. Real
 change occurs when an element that the audience member has experienced 
embeds itself in the psyche. What is provoked stays with the 
audience member; they take it home, where that embedded power works itself out.

My answer to the idea that  radical messages need radical form is 
this: radical messages need radical content.
 Content always trumps form. 
Form, being the surface, the real action, is on the inside.
 What was radical in 1968 – obscene language, pubic nudity, body
 fluids, all fluids for that matter – was based on the mores of the 
period. One has to dig deeper than that at a time when things like
 nudity and obscene language are the everyday stuff of performance,
 television and film. Today children’s
 theatre has paint and ketchup and feathers exploding everywhere on stage.

I have long been referred to as a radical artist, as a confrontational
 artist, mostly to marginalize me from the public I think. Yet I maintain that we 
as human beings confront ourselves dozens of times a day and no one
 confronts us more deeply or more starkly than  ourselves. 
To be radical today one must speak in the real language of
 everyday life and to the real experience of everyday life. Something
 so rare in today’s world of marketing, advertising and so called 
reality television.
 I very rarely use obscene language because it is mostly used in lieu 
of being articulate.

In 1990 when I started to improvise my sex and censorship show 
Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!, I created the environment
 of a strip bar. Not a burlesque venue, because in 1990, burlesque
 was a played-out art form that resided in small clubs in Las Vegas and 
in few other places. In 1990, as in 2012, it is the strip bar that the environment where the radical can be activated. Why? Because in
 2012 just as in 1990, few people have ever been to a strip bar. The
 women who work in strip clubs are not considered ‘feminists’, nor are 
they considered artists; as a matter of fact they are considered by 
and large to be most definitely ‘not feminists” and definitely not 
artists, yet it is my experience that the women who work in these strip 
bars are among 
the strongest feminists I know.

Penny Arcade in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

Penny Arcade in Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

I have often said that I use erotic
 dancers in my work because I believe that erotic dance is the most
 powerful feminist art form; it is the only thing devised by 
women that controls men, unlike the myriad of things devised by men to 
control women. Erotic dance is complex, mesmerizing and elicits deep, 
primitive feelings in us.

 Burlesque today, with very few exceptions, is what it has always been: acceptable, sexualized, female dance. While Burlesque may be
 sensual, it is neither erotic nor sexual. And it is the erotic and 
sexual that brings up feelings of the unknown, feelings of danger that 
are both feared and 
longed for. Our sexual energy is the true life force, it carries both 
life and the fear of not life i.e. death. Many people consider 
Burlesque to be radical because they have never been exposed to erotic 

For a short time in the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s as the Neo
 Burlesque movement blossomed in New York, it was both political and 
radical in many ways. It took an existing form and transformed 
it through its content. At the center of this movement was Tigger! (James
 Ferguson) who had begun his career with me as an erotic dancer in 1992
 in  Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! Tigger himself was a great influence on the creation of Neo Burlesque, touring with me in 23 cities around the
 world between 1992 
and 1995. We left a burgeoning Burlesque scene in every city where we worked because I always hired local strippers and these strippers became the Burlesque stars of today.

At that time the only person doing Neo Burlesque was me with 
my strip in B!D!F!W! where I fused the stripper and the 
comedian who usually opened for the stripper.
 This was at a time when any sexualized dance was considered most un-PC 
and therefore me and my troupe of dancers were quite radical. In the mid
 1990’s Tigger met Dirty Martini and Julie Atlas Mus and the three of 
them became the heart of the Neo Burlesque movement in New York. 

They all worked with me in two other of my shows, 1999’s Bad 
Reputation, my critique of the failure of feminism; and in 2002 New York Values, my autopsy on death of Bohemia and
 comodification of rebellion

. These performers formed a community with other valiant, young, 
idealistic artists and created this new form based on traditional

This was the new short form performance art called Neo
 Burlesque, which while it used elements of traditional Burlesque was 
unsettling, erotic, and political, but sadly this was short lived as
 the Burlesque craze spread like wildfire, becoming more and more bland 
and watered down and incidentally younger and younger and younger.
 Some of the biggest stars of current Burlesque like Dita Von Teese do 
very little; Von Tees practically presents a tableaux. 

In order for art to occur I believe there must be an act of 
transformation involved and in the work of these New York Neo Burlesque artists there was always an act of transformation that always political and transgressive, as there is in my original Neo Burlesque performance in B!D!F!W!.

B! D! F! W! at the Arcola Tent

B! D! F! W! at the Arcola Tent

In B!D!F!W! the central element of seduction is removed from the
 erotic dance. The dancers are instructed to only express their own
 sexuality and eroticism but also to specifically avoid the conscious 
manipulation of the 
public. To remove this seduction which is the raison d’etre of the
 strip club is a radical act. In B!D!F!W! the dancers represent the 
public. This public enters into a theatre transformed into a strip bar
, and into a show which is already in progress with music and the 
dancers dancing. They 
are taken by surprise by the environment because there is no 
opening ceremony. In fact the show never starts, it is always in 
progress, which is a critical element in all my work. Is the audience
 confronted? Yes, but are they confronted by the dancers or are they
 confronted by themselves?

By removing the element of conscious and
 even unconscious 
seduction from the dancer’s palette, and having the dancers focus
 mindfully on expressing their own eroticism, the audience is left on 
their own to deal with their feelings. I believe we always
 confront ourselves when we are thrown into a new experience. The audience must contend and be confronted by 
their own judgments and feelings, most of which they have never had to 
face in such an immediate way in an unmapped landscape.

 There are no restrictions governing the dancers, but there are three rules: no nudity, complete respect for the individual
 space of the audience members and no seduction, only self expression.
 This is a powerful thing to take away from erotic dancers, because the
 demand in the clubs is for them to continually seduce the audience
 while there is little real respect for their artistry.

After the first
 thirty minutes of dancing as the audience enters the space, the dancers
 enter directly into the audience, free to
 about anything they wish, to be open and friendly. It is
 this combination of eroticism and friendliness that creates an 
electric and unusual environment. Later, the dancers enter the audience at 
the onset of the dance break, an invitation to participate.
 I tell them that if they do not feel like dancing that is fine; but if they do, and the reason for not engaging is being worried that people are going to 
look at them and judge, well that is what people do. People look
 at other people and judge them. The audience always laughs in
 recognition of this, not only of others but of themselves, of 

B!D!F!W! is a show about individuality and the outsider, about the
 courage to be ourselves in the face of the world’s
 myopic judgment. What we experience in B!D!F!W! is that when we feel included and not judged, we suddenly have room for the individuality 
and autonomy of other people. 
Imagine the experience of the audience member who felt challenged by
 the sexually charged atmosphere when they entered the theatre, but 
later found themselves 
dancing on that same stage in the middle of the show? 
Freedom! Freedom from our own self imposed limitations.

The other element that is considered radical in B!D!F!W! is that I strip nude at the end of the show. 
I strip in B!D!F!W! to the great actor Ron Vawter’s video
-performance. When I first took off 
my clothes 
in B!D!F!W! I was 42 years old and a nude 42 year woman on stage was
 considered very radical indeed. In 2012 at 62 I still strip nude in 
B!D!F!W! but I also speak for 15 minutes on censorship, on 
community, on 
politics, on feminism, on language. A nude 25 year-
old woman with no trace of life on her body has no content; a nude 62 year old woman presents us with a narrative. What is radical here is not that I am nude. What is radical is that I 
am speaking about matters that effect all of us, critical matters. In
 1993 Michael Billington said  “The silver-
tongued Penny Arcade offers what can only be called a naked polemic.”
 The last line in the
 show is, “By now you have probably forgotten I have my clothes off.”
 Black out. Laughter. The audience has forgotten that I am naked. I 
prove my argument.
 Is the form radical? Perhaps.

 Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! is on at The Albany from 15th – 23rd December 2012. 




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