The Performant: Let ‘em eat cake

Retard's Karen Penley keeps it sweet and surreal.

While the Performant is off hugging trees in Oregon, please enjoy this series of interviews with the curators of three innovative performance spaces

There’s nothing about the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in North Berkeley that particularly speaks of abstract performance, but that element of the unexpected is possibly what makes it the perfect venue for Karen Penley’s fledgling performance series, Retard. Inhabited by out-of-the-box, outré performers such as Dan Carbone, Edna Barron, Herb Heinz, and Catherine Debon, Retard is a low-key, all-inclusive, no-judgment sort of event where the weird get a chance to shine, and everybody gets to eat cake. After an evening spent nibbling clafoutis and ducking clowns, I caught up with Karen via the magic of the Interwebs to pick her brain about her brave new experimental showcase.

SFBG: What was the original impetus for this showcase? What sets it apart?

Karen Penley: I have an interest in brave unconventional work and I wanted to be able to have room to let that happen instead of having to fit into the structure of poetry and music open mics…. I think the thing that sets Retard apart is a feeling of support for adventurous, innocent work.  I really love raw art, as well as the feeling of people being so immersed in…their artistic work and caring about it so much. It's this feeling of creating different worlds as well. You can do anything, theater, movement, improvisation, music, or some hybrid of such. Also, it's kind of homey, easy, non pretentious. I really wanted that. There are special Retards, the evenings called “Crack,” where I curate more carefully and then the other retards are more a jambalaya and are open to people I don’t know their work as well so they can just come and perform and I can get a sense of them.

SFBG:  What is your ultimate vision for these evenings?

KP: Well, ultimately, I would love to have them be ‘Crack’ every Friday, with lots of people coming, and I'd love to rent the church another day a week and have it be ‘Pretard’ which I tried to do for five months, but there wasn't enough participation and I couldn't afford it. ‘Pretard’ was a place to work on and develop material just for a warm audience, not a workshop, just a place to try out stuff, and then I wanted to take that work and curate it into cool evenings. But I'd love to connect with people that I admire, all different kinds of performers, and curate great evenings so that it really is a network of daring work.

SFBG: Do you bake your own cake? What do the cake and tea signify for you?

KP: I love cake and I can’t eat a whole one so this gives me an opportunity to bake all those great cakes on the internet that I couldn't bake just for myself. I always like food to be involved in performing and watching performance. It feels more cozy and fun and more warm-y to have cake and tea for people. 

SFBG: “Retard” sounds intentionally provocative, though you do offer a rather nonconfrontational definition for it on the webpage. What prompted you to use that name, and has anyone had an uncomfortable reaction to it?

KP: I HAVE had some uncomfortable reactions to the name. One girl was labeled in her high school and I really liked her and wanted her to perform, but we had a long email back and forth about it and she just couldn't condone the use of the word.  My feeling is that using it for my show changes the derogatory feeling associated with that word. I feel like a retard myself, always have. I want to be more retarded; i.e. slow down. In my mind, to be retarded is a good thing. Plus it's just funny (the name).


Fridays 7-9pm, $10 sliding scale

1823 Ninth Ave., Berk. (side building next to The Good Shepherd Church)


Also from this author

  • Bee true

    The documentaries of Berlin and Beyond

  • Divining the entrails

    New Last Gasp releases explore the unsettling art of Laurie Lipton and Elizabeth McGrath

  • The Performant: Epochalypse Now