The Write Stuff: The Torchy Songs and Skirt Swishings of Karen Penley
The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen, where authors give exclusive readings from their work.
Karen Penley's show, "Circus Proboscis: A Sneeze of Freaks" was recognized with a Theatre Bay Area cash grant award. Rob Avila of the Bay Guardian has described her performance as "[a] glad, jagged-toothed mockery of human folly [that] comes fast, fresh, and unexpected." Karen curates and performs in The Retard Show every Friday night in Berkeley.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them ... ?
It depends how I feel about them -- if I want to impress them, if they bore me, if I think we might have a connection. It depends if I'm bored with what I'm doing art-wise, or if I care about anything at that moment, if I care about having communication with anyone, or if I'm in one of my "I just want to be in the woods staring" moods. Sometimes I say, "I do art stuff." If I'm really feeling confident, I'll say, "I'm a performer." Sometimes if it's a stuffy mom type, I'll say, "I teach." If it's someone I like, I might make a gagging sound or rolling eyes look after I say, I teach.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
No, I'm so not successful. But I'm not done yet. When I'm a world-known performer and I'm doing work I love with people I love, then I'll be freaking successful!
When you're sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I like watching the Rachel Zoe Project. It's a bummer. 'Cause I've watched all four seasons and there are no seasons left.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn't have to be ideal.
I kind of already live in the wilderness. But not that wild a wilderness. I live in the woods, but I have a house and a refrigerator and a stove and a big bed with four old down comforters on it and a dog. I don't think I'd like to live in the wilderness otherwise, not really. I like comfort. But it does sound good to not take a shower and just wear the same clothes all day long and stare. But I already do that.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I totally would. For my boyfriend. I actually already practiced when I had a boyfriend recently. But then I never got to do it because other things happened. What did I do? I swung on a pole, and looked coquettishly over my shoulder. I would do teasy things, like pull down my bra just a little and then put it back up again. Teasy things. That's where it's at.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Ha ha. Right now? $2. For reals.
What's wrong with society today?
So so so so many things. I don't even relate to society; that's why I live in the woods. Big thing: hurry and agendas and tasks and no time to sit and stare or no time to just give yourself the pleasure and comfort you need. Big thing: fakeness and social restrictions on how to behave. No one seems very real, mostly, to me. And then, oh god, the bigger bigger things, like not taking care of animals. That is horrendous to me, the atrocities performed on animals. Oh god, there's so much wrong with society.
What is your fondest memory?
My fondest memory that I'm remembering right now is being with my old boyfriend and he was being like a little kid in his movements, like he was new, like a baby almost, tender and yet so real and we were in bed, and he had his eyes closed like he was in a dream and he said he saw the cypresses by the beach, like he smelled the beach when he was with me.
What are you working on right now?
I'm trying to put all these little pieces, songs and poems and monologues and torchy songs and skirt swishings, into a whole one girl show. It's sort of about a little girl and about a big girl and it's about romance and animal girls and not liking people and I play accordion, violin, and guitar and wear different skirts and costumes.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or what kind of writing do you most admire?
I like writing that is both spare and real and grit and street and writing that comes from the subconscious, like hypnagogic images. I like a combination of real and magical.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area you would change, what would it be?
I wish there were better, more wild, more adventurous, more real, more crazy, more naked, more gorgeous, more painful, more sweet, more visceral, more better better better theater and performance work going on. I really really really wish that. John O'Keefe. He is the man. I love his work. I wish there was more stuff like his work. He lives in San Francisco at Project Artaud. He is a world-famous playwright. His stuff is freaking amazing.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Orange and cinnamon in a teapot on top of my wood-burning stove. Jasmine and tuberose by my bedside in the summer. The musky part of my dog by her muzzle.