Ruth Wikler first met Penny Arcade in Melbourne, Australia, in 2016 where Arcade was participating in a panel on political theater. “We got to talking and I learned that she had never performed in Portland despite touring for five decades,” says Wikler, producer and curator of the presenting company Boom Arts. “I offered to rectify that!” She was thrilled to get the legendary performance artist to Portland the next season.
Watching the audience reactions to Arcade’s February 2018 show Longing Lasts Longer, a critique of New York’s gentrification, Wikler knew that Portland hadn’t gotten enough of the Arcade. “Sometimes we see audiences leaping to their feet for standing ovations the minute the show ends, night after night,” says Wikler. “That’s when we realize that the one- or two-weekend run we planned just wasn’t enough.” So Wikler has asked Arcade back this season for an “encore performance.”
The last artist Boom Arts brought back was dancer/acrobat/comedian Adrienne Truscott, in 2016. “The pleasure for me as a curator making that kind of invitation to an artist was that it signaled an evolution in our presenter/artist relationship, in which I could engage with her oeuvre, her body of work, not just with the show with which she had had significant touring success,” says Wikler. “Our invitation to Penny is very similar. It’s an invitation for her to evolve with us; it’s a gesture of faith, support, and championship.”
BOOM ARTS: THE SEASON: 3
Arcade and her collaborator, Steve Zehentner, were happy to come back to Portland. “I think that the show was very important to the Portlanders who saw it from the emails I received and from the response to the show every night,” says Arcade. “Steve and I want to experience Portland audiences again, as the audience is so important to the development of our work. We make our shows for real people. That’s the prize.”
Arcade calls Longing Lasts Longer, which she’ll repeat along with a pair of works-in-progress this week at Imago Theatre, a “cultural criticism you can dance to.” The show uses more than 100 sound loops from the past six decades of music to underscore the text. “It’s my point of view of the history of the past 60 years that defined where we are in the world now,” she says. “Also, it’s a comedy.”
Portland’s growth has surprised Arcade. “In 2000, when New York and San Francisco were beset by hyper-gentrification, I described Portland as ‘The City That Could Not Be Gentrified.’ I was wrong. It just took 18 years longer.” Grappling with the idea of what a city means and what is has meant struck a chord with audiences last year.
What Wikler sees as the strength of the show is that it’s not nostalgic about the past. “It’s about aging, about her life experiences, and about her own relationship with herself, and, by extension, about your relationship with yourself,” she says. “It’s political, but more in the sense that the ‘personal is political.’”
In addition to Longing Lasts Longer, Arcade is bringing two works-in-progress, The Faghag and Her Friends in the Summer of Love and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Arcade hasn’t toured work in progress before, but in New York she’s known for developing work live in front of audiences. “People like to see the nuts and bolts of a work,” she says. The process of making Longing Lasts Longer itself started with 13 live performances.
Over the last four years Arcade has built the show into what it now. “I’m not sure a show is ever done, because it can always be refined,” she says. Longing Lasts Longer has had more than 100 scripts, but only about 50 of them have represented what she considers significant changes. Since the last showing in Portland, she believes, the show has grown and hit its stride: “It’s like a sleek Maserati. It can really take the curves.”
For Arcade, The Faghag and Her Friends In The Summer of Love is a way of paying homage to the people and culture that made her who she is. “I say in that show, ‘Unbeknownst to me I was on a trajectory to become an old queen and now I am an old queen but in a world that has lost the means of measuring the value of old queens.’” Arcade was 14 years old she left home, eventually ending up in New York City and falling into the underground performance world. She became involved with artists such as Jamie Andrews, Andy Warhol, and Patti Smith.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is Arcade’s response to the #metoo movement. “I feel we lost the opportunity to educate the world about the fear and trauma women live with on a daily basis,” she says. “Suddenly someone leering at you in bar is equated with rape. As a woman who survived five rapes with pretty serious PTSD I felt I had to speak out because women like me were being marginalized.”
Audiences in Portland will have only one weekend to see her work, but Arcade will keep touring Longing Lasts Longer. She’s already taken the show to more than 20 cities worldwide. “The issue of gentrification is the same in every city and town across America,” she says. “I fought for housing rights for years and made next to no impact because people did not get involved until it directly affected them.”
Her advice for young artists and people resisting displacement is to start simple: “Make your views known; get together with other like-minded people to lobby for affordable housing and for commercial rent reform for mom and pop shops. Demand that huge corporations like Amazon and Google pay taxes and do not get subsidies. Once you get with like-minded people you will know what must be done in your area.”
- Boom Arts presents Penny Arcade at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, and 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29-Dec. 1, at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave., Portland. Saturday’s performances will be ASL-interpreted. Ticket and schedule information here.