Johnny Simons is known for playing by no one’s rules but his own, and remarkably, he has stuck with that unspoken mantra for more than half a century of making theater.
A majority of those have been with Fort Worth’s iconic Hip Pocket Theatre, which has just opened its 40th season with a reworked version of Simons’ love letter to Mark Twain, Mr. Weaver’s Backyard Circus Presents: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
The physical venues for the outfit have changed several times since the original spot at George’s Back Door on Highway 80 in the mid- to late 1970s. The two most significant spaces — at Oak Acres Amphitheatre from 1979 through 2003 and its current home of 12 years at Silver Creek Amphitheatre — have in common that they’re both wooden outdoor theaters built from scratch on plots of lands in far west Fort Worth, stone throws from Lake Worth.
Nighttime summer performances are accompanied by a symphony of crickets, coyotes and other creatures.
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That rustic, DIY approach to theater is no doubt what keeps a good portion of HPT’s audience — often populated with patrons not seen at Fort Worth’s other established theaters — coming back.
And Simons’ self-styled brand is a big part of the charm that has kept performers — many of them not from traditional theater training backgrounds — coming back and working with him.
Charles Baker, an actor who worked at Hip Pocket in the late 1990s and early 2000s, learned numerous lessons from Simons that he now counts as invaluable, such as the importance of stillness and silence, but there’s one particular stage direction he’ll never forget.
Johnny said, ‘Fill it with talent.’
Actor Charles Baker
“During rehearsals for a show, he told me to start in one spot and move to another,” says Baker. “I asked him about the motivation for my character making that move, and so I asked, ‘What do I do from here to there?’ and Johnny said, ‘Fill it with talent.’ ”
That direction is one of many that Baker considers important to his acting trajectory, which eventually landed him in Los Angeles as a Screen Actors Guild member with numerous film and TV credits, including a recurring role as Skinny Pete on the six seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
“Fill it with talent” might as well be the title of Johnny Simons’ biography. Over the years, he studied and worked with a number of performance luminaries — David Preston, the original chair of Texas Christian University’s ballet department; the great French mime and physical theater teacher Jacques Lecoq; and Fort Worth’s early proponents of children’s theater and pantomime Flora and Dickson Reeder (Flora had studied with Marcel Marceau). He’s been inspired by out-of-the-box thinkers, he says, such as Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, whose 1968 book Towards a Poor Theatre is a seminal text of theater theory.
But much of Simons’ talent has been inherent and self-taught. From childhood through his current age of 77, he has had the magic that he himself looks for in performers for Hip Pocket’s summer season — for shows steeped in folklore and literature, and that often employ such physical theater techniques as pantomime, puppetry, movement, mask and lip-sync.
“I look for someone who still knows how to play,” Simons says. “Even if they might be shy, it’s important that they haven’t lost that childhood spirit of being willing to put themselves out there and to pretend.”
Simons grew up in west Fort Worth and attended Carter-Riverside High School. He was diagnosed with polio, and the doctors recommended dance lessons.
He attended Texas Christian University in the 1950s as a drama student, but switched to ballet when he learned that he could only take pantomime courses as a dance student — and surprisingly not in the theater department. It was there that he met the woman who would become his lifelong partner, Diane, a literature student who was constructing costumes in the theater department.
Simons followed her to Houston, where she had a job in the costume department at the Alley Theatre. While there, he would perform mime for anyone who would watch in the parks. He was discovered by a theater teacher at the University of Houston and was asked to teach. But he had to finish his college degree and returned to TCU with Diane.
They would eventually marry and have two daughters, Lorca, named after Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, and Lake, named for Johnny’s lifelong inspiration of Lake Worth. Both daughters are involved in theater and performance; Lorca is based in England, and Lake, in New York.
Johnny and Diane took jobs at Casa Mañana Children’s Playhouse, she as a costumer and he directing and writing children’s shows and performing in all of the big summer musicals.
His life changed when his disdain for the rules resulted in his firing by the doyenne of Fort Worth theater, Sharon Benge, whom he now considers a close friend.
During his time at Casa, he worked on a master’s degree in theater at TCU, which resulted in his seminal work, the autobiographical musical The Lake Worth Monster.
It was performed in the Solarium of the old Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which is now the space that holds the Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. (That piece will be revived as the final full production of the 40th season.)
He co-wrote the show with composer/musician Douglas Balentine, a Casa performer and one of the people with whom Johnny and Diane had begun performing and creating theater on a small, makeshift stage in the back yard of the Simons’ Lake Worth home. The energy of that group was a spirit of the counterculture, and soon enough, Balentine had a radical idea.
Doug and I went and burned our Equity cards. It felt liberating
“We both had our [Actors’] Equity cards,” Simons says, “and one day Doug said we should burn those cards and start our own theater. So Doug and I went and burned our Equity cards. It felt liberating.”
Balentine, considered a co-founder of Hip Pocket with the Simonses, died in 2008 while on a hiking trip in the Davis Mountains.
Another friend performing on their backyard stage, which was filled with puppetry, song and pantomime, was Jimmy Joe Steenbergen, with whom Johnny presented Leon Katz’s adaptation of the commedia dell’arte classic The Three Cuckolds in 1976. It would be the first production of the group, soon to be called Hip Pocket Theatre.
“It sold out,” Simons remembers. “That’s when we realized that there was a hunger out there for work like this.”
In 1977, Hip Pocket debuted at George’s Back Door, a location suggested by Steenbergen, with a full season: young playwright Sam Shepard’s Mad Dog Blues, Stephen Sondheim’s Roman comedy-inspired A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an original work called Nova’s Shady Grove, and Simons/Balentine adaptations of Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, and The Who’s concept album Tommy, long before that was turned into an official rock opera for the stage.
In those early years, the Hip Pocket troupe included Jim Covault, who would then join Jerry Russell’s newly founded Stage West, and Rudy Eastman, who had performed with another group that Simons had written work for, Sojourner Truth Players, and later founded Jubilee Theatre.
On the established heels of William Garber’s Fort Worth Community Theatre (later Fort Worth Theatre, now defunct) and Casa Mañana, Hip Pocket Theatre led the charge of Fort Worth’s burgeoning theater scene. It was soon followed by Stage West, Jubilee and then Rose Pearson and Bill Newberry’s Circle Theatre.
They were all defining their identities and building audiences and businesses, but Hip Pocket defiantly remained true to its foundation of playing outside the lines, as Simons likes to say.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s at Oak Acres Amphitheatre, Simons’ vision and personality attracted like-minded artists, including counterculture cartoonist Robert Crumb. Simons convinced Crumb to let him adapt his comics for a stage production called R. Crumb Comix in 1985.
Crumb attended the opening night and played in the band, to the surprise of audience members who didn’t realize this until the cast took its curtain calls.
The Simonses taught at Duke University for several years in the ’80s. There, they expanded their circle, meeting Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, which resulted in the world premiere of his play Widows at Hip Pocket, where Simons’ directing techniques made for a story in The New York Times.
Hip Pocket performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and had several winter seasons at the Kimbell Art Museum and the White Elephant Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Over the years, Hip Pocket’s seasons were populated with new plays and adaptations by Simons. Since 1999, when Lake Simons moved to New York to pursue a career as a puppeteer and physical theater artist, the theater has done an annual show by her and her partner, musician John Dyer.
There also have been performances of plays from the canon, such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
A bigger theater
In 2003, Hip Pocket lost its space at Oak Acres when the owner of the property decided to sell it. For the summer of 2004, it had secured another plot of land owned by the city of Fort Worth, part of the former Fort Worth Gun Club.
It took about five more seasons to build the space into the current home, with a wooden amphitheater with a larger stage and more levels and more seating than Oak Acres, plus a pavilion area with a stage for pre-show music and a concessions booth serving barbecue and libations.
The accolades have continued. When Lake began working with renowned New York puppeteer Basil Twist, he developed an interest in Hip Pocket and helped the troupe create puppets for several shows in the late 2000s.
He will return this summer to create puppets for the revival of The Lake Worth Monster.
Twist so admired Johnny Simons that he arranged for Johnny and his daughters to perform a wordless piece called Trio Molemo at Performing Arts Center in New York, a few seasons after they had performed it in Fort Worth.
... We pumped in crickets chirping because that’s what you would hear at the Fort Worth theater
“It was such an amazing experience,” says Lake, who teaches design and puppetry at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. “We really wanted to re-create a piece of Hip Pocket in the space, and my friend built a pier, and we collected driftwood from the Hudson River, and we put Christmas lights above the audience like stars, and we pumped in crickets chirping because that’s what you would hear at the Fort Worth theater.”
Hip Pocket continues to attract new fans and performers who want to learn. Dustin Curry, a Dallas-based actor with a clowning background, is in the current production of Connecticut Yankee, his first experience at Hip Pocket.
“I’ve spent the past couple of years in Dallas trying to do as much mainstream theater as possible, but I’ve recently caught this bug to try and do and see more niche theater and study with people who have similar interests,” he says. “There are some good companies doing this sort of thing in Dallas, but Johnny Simons is from the era of Bread and Puppet Theatre and the San Francisco mime theater movement, which is what interested me.
“The most intriguing thing to me about doing physical theater isn’t about getting laughs, it’s about conveying a story that touches an audience, be it through laughter or tears, and that’s the kind of work the Simons family creates.”
In 2014, the Doris Duke Foundation honored Simons with a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Impact Award, for which Simons — a notorious hermit who rarely ventures beyond the Lake Worth area (not even to downtown Fort Worth or, heaven forbid, Dallas) — traveled to the Big Apple to receive.
His daughter Lake considers her father her biggest mentor.
“He was my first teacher; he continues to be my teacher,” she says. “Not only that, but something a good teacher does is not just teach you things, but they also lead you to other teachers.
“I took dance when I was a little girl, and he wanted me to take dance. He encouraged us to paint and draw and be artistic.”
Now, with Johnny and Diane in their 70s, they are talking about what will happen when they are not physically able to run Hip Pocket. There are no specific plans for the theater’s future, but considering the passion of Hip Pocket regulars and those who have learned the craft there, no doubt it will continue.
“Whenever that conversation comes up about the future, it continues to be an unknown to me,” says Lake, “but I can say for certain I will always be a part of it.”
And no doubt, just like her father, she will play by her own rules.
Mr. Weaver’s Backyard Circus Presents: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
- Through June 26
- Silver Creek Amphitheatre, 1950 Silver Creek Road, Fort Worth
- 817-246-9775; www.hippocket.org