On a surprisingly not-sweltering August day, Basil Twist is in work clothes — mismatched shirt and long shorts — in a wooded area behind the stage at Hip Pocket Theatre, surrounded by various items for making an oversized puppet.
There’s a head from an old puppet, a large corrugated pipe that’s going to be a giant tail, and arms with lever systems so the puppet can move its claws.
“Are you using that water bottle?” he asks, pointing to the journalist’s only hope for hydration. “Finish up the water. I want to make scales.”
With the last drop gone, he throws the bottle into a bag with other bottles that will be cut and splayed open to form scales on the title creature in The Lake Worth Monster, the long-awaited revival of Johnny Simons’ legendary autobiographical musical.
The show is the final stage production of Hip Pocket’s 40th anniversary season. (The season officially closes with Hip Film Fest, a three-night showing of films from past HPT productions.)
“This is nourishing for me as an artist in New York,” Twist says of working with Simons, “to be with someone doing this out of such passion.”
That’s mighty big praise for the co-founder of one of North Texas’ longest-running, and certainly most unique, theaters. Twist is one of the biggest names in puppetry in America, the recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” which identifies talents in the arts and gives them $625,000 for five years to do as they please.
So how did Simons persuade Twist to come and work on this project?
“He wrote me and asked if I’d do it,” Twist says, “and it was long enough in advance, I had my schedule open.”
Meeting in New York
It’s not Twist’s first time working with Simons and Hip Pocket.
Twist grew up in San Francisco, with a mother who made and performed with puppets for children’s shows. His grandfather was Griff Williams, a big-band leader in the 1930s who used marionettes in performances. Twist’s grandmother, Dorothy, gave him her late husband’s puppet collection, which is displayed at New York’s HERE Arts Center, where Twist directs the Dream Music Puppetry residency program.
That’s where he met Lake Simons, daughter of Hip Pocket co-founders Johnny and Diane Simons. Twist already knew the Simonses’ other daughter, Lorca, through a mutual friend. Twist needed a puppeteer for the tour of his hit show Symphonie Fantastique, and hired Lake, who had studied mime with the famed Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
Once Twist found out about the Simons girls’ parents and their upbringing on the Hip Pocket stage, he wanted to learn more about the remote Fort Worth theater. That launched a collaboration that began with Twist-created dinosaur puppets for Johnny Simons’ stage adaptation of the comic strip Alley Oop in 2004, the first show at Hip Pocket’s current home at Silver Creek Amphitheatre.
It continued when Twist and Lake Simons brought Twist’s puppet production of Stravinsky’s Petroushka to perform with the Fort Worth Symphony in 2008.
Twist, who moved from San Francisco to New York in 1989 and then spent three years at the world’s biggest puppetry school and event in Charleville-Mézières, France (“It’s like the Hogwarts of puppetry,” Twist says), has been acclaimed for his work and collaborations with such artists as drag performer Joey Arias and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, with whom he’s creating a new version of The Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet.
Twist also designed the Oompa Loompas for the new musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opening on Broadway in 2017.
“[Johnny is] more than a kindred spirit,” says Twist. “He’s a total inspiration. What [Johnny and Diane have] forged here and how they raised these amazing artists, it’s incredible.”
Twist is also thrilled to be working on an important piece of Fort Worth theater history.
Johnny Simons had worked at Casa Mañana and was a graduate student when he created The Lake Worth Monster as his thesis project, first performed in the solarium at the old Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, exactly where the Sanders Theatre is now at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.
The music was composed by his friend and Hip Pocket co-founder Douglas Balentine, who died in 2008.
The Lake Worth Monster, a musical journey about a young man dealing with his own demons, was also performed in the early seasons at Hip Pocket, in the late 1970s, and was revived there in the 1980s. It hasn’t been performed since.
For this production, there will be a number of original collaborators, including James Maynard (who’s creating marionettes), Patty Littlefield and Don Arnett. Balentine’s brother, Bruce Balentine, has helped reconstruct the score, and the musical director is longtime Hip Pocket collaborator Joe Rogers (known for his musical collaborations with Rudy Eastman at Jubilee Theatre).
“The monster is a metaphor,” Twist says. “The show is really the journey of this young man, this journey of growing up.”
The Lake Worth Monster