Backwoods bard mixes the creative and the chaotic at his theatre.
by Lisa Martin
Johnny Simons ’73 (MFA ’75) and his wife Diane ’66 (MFA ’73) on the stage of Hip Pocket Theatre.
Photo courtesy of Robert W. Hart
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Topics: Alumni, Friend in the Business
by Lisa Martin
Though some might call him a backwoods bard or even an oracle under the stars, John “Johnny” Simons ’73 (MFA ’75) considers himself an “elderly child.” And he revels in having plenty to say despite helming a theatre troupe for more than four decades.
When the curtain metaphorically rose on Hip Pocket Theatre’s 41st season in June 2017, the Fort Worth-based auteur seemed less interested in revisiting the organization’s heady past than musing about a future of creative pursuits.
Reared near Hip Pocket Theatre’s current digs by Lake Worth, Simons abandoned his undergraduate studies at TCU the first time to pursue acting in New York City. His second go-round as an undergraduate ended when he dropped out to join the U.S. Navy. As an orderly at a California naval hospital, he witnessed the trauma, suffering and heroism that influenced much of his later work.
Upon returning to Fort Worth, Simons reunited with former classmate and future wife Diane Rowand Simons ’66 (MFA ’73), whom he followed when she took a job at the Alley Theatre in downtown Houston. While she designed and created costumes and props, he performed pantomime in Houston’s Hermann Park. Impressed by Simons’ Marcel Marceau-inspired technique, a professor at the University of Houston persuaded him to teach there. When the couple welcomed daughter Lorca (named for the Spanish playwright), Simons asked for a pay raise but was told he needed a degree first. So back to TCU he went with his young family in tow.
“I started as a theatre major, but the only way I could take pantomime was if I majored in ballet,” Simons said. “David Preston had started TCU’s ballet department, and he was wonderful and inspiring. I think about him every day.”
Simons also counts as a mentor the renowned educator and stage director Walther Volbach, professor of drama and TCU’s first director of theatre.
For his master’s degree thesis project in theatre, Simons wrote what would become his signature work. Set against folk rock composed by the late Douglas Balentine, The Lake Worth Monster presents a cautionary tale of drug- and alcohol-fueled heartache rooted in the implosion of Simons’ first marriage years before.
“Last year, we produced The Lake Worth Monster in honor of Hip Pocket Theatre’s 40th season, and we had people coming from all over the country to see it and to celebrate with us,” said Robert Bourdage, president of Hip Pocket’s board of directors since 2006.
When faculty advisers encouraged Simons to stage The Lake Worth Monster, he, his wife and Balentine felt a spark, one that flared in 1976 when the trio turned the motor court of an aging motel off Fort Worth’s Highway 80 West into an outdoor theatre. Simons and Balentine constructed a stage from plywood and railroad ties, wrote and adapted material, and found actors who not only filled the roles but also furthered their artistic vision. Out of this passion, chaos and youthful energy, Hip Pocket Theatre was born.
I like the silliness and fun, the comedy. These days people need a reason to laugh, and I feel like I’ve done some good in this world if I can give them one.Johnny Simons
About that name? “We came up with it after we literally dug into our hip pockets, got out our billfolds and pooled our money,” Simons said. “I think we had something like $500.”
Money issues, Simons said, have long dogged the troupe, which moved after three seasons to another outdoor venue, the nearby Oak Acres. For a few years in the ’80s, Hip Pocket performed in the winter and early spring at the White Elephant Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
In 2004, Hip Pocket moved to its current home, 11 acres peppered with ancient live oaks and scrub off Silver Creek Road on the western edge of Fort Worth.
“I feel like a serf sometimes,” Simons grumbled. “Everything we make goes to the city of Fort Worth for rent.”
To keep his family afloat while funding his passion, Simons taught classes in everything from pantomime to children’s theater. In the same year he co-founded Hip Pocket, he built from scratch the drama department at Tarrant County College’s Northwest Campus.
Simons also taught or served as an artist-in-residence at TCU, Tulane University, Rice University and Duke University, where he was an assistant professor from 1987 to 1993. During the Duke years, he and his family, which now included a second daughter, Lake (named for Lake Worth), spent their summers in Fort Worth consumed by all things Hip Pocket.
“We grew up at the theater running around with children of the actors who were out there,” said Lake Simons, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., who has directed one play each summer for the last several seasons. “There’s such a large, extended-family feeling there, which I’m excited to share with my own daughter.” (Cy turned 1 in early May.)
His IS A life of extraordinary creativity and intellect, and he’s exerted extraordinary influences on the hearts and lives of many people, putting them on a path that opened up their creative energy.Tony Medlin, about Simons
For Tony Medlin, taking one of Simons’ mime classes at Dallas Theater Center in his late 20s was a life-altering experience, one that led to him to join “Johnny’s tribe.”
“Seeing Johnny work was an epiphany, a thunderbolt,” said Medlin, who in 2000 wrote a doctoral dissertation at Louisiana State University titled “The Children of Molemo: An Analysis of Johnny Simons’ Performance Genealogy and Iconography at the Hip Pocket Theatre.”
“His is a life of extraordinary creativity and intellect, and he’s exerted extraordinary influences on the hearts and lives of many people, putting them on a path that opened up their creative energy,” Medlin said.
An indication of Simons’ influence came in 2014, when he received a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Impact Award, which carried an $80,000 prize. Simons and Hip Pocket also have received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, along with other grants from local sources.
As for the future, Simons, who celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary with Diane in 2016, has no intention of slowing his breakneck pace. Eschewing modern technology — including mobile phones, computers and even the humble typewriter — Simons puts pen to paper to write plays such as Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which he adapted from Alex Raymond’s 1934 comic strip as well as the serialized films of that era. Simons said he spent weeks listening to the preludes of Franz Liszt, music that accompanied the Depression-era Flash Gordon radio series, to put himself in the right frame of mind.
From there, Simons came up with a script, blocking it on the open-air stage, which he describes as “rough-hewn,” much the way he sees himself.
“I’m basically a blue-collar guy who has never liked elitism or anything pretentious, so I squash that whenever I see it,” he said. “Needless to say, I don’t cast people who are divas.” (His take on Flash Gordon ran in June and July 2017.)
Hip Pocket’s season wraps up on Halloween after four productions, each requiring the volunteer actors to rehearse for about three weeks before opening night. Such a frenetic pace seems to mirror Simons’ relentless output.
“This is a man who oftentimes is planning years in advance,” Bourdage said. “I’ve been out on stage while he’s actually thinking on a play. He’ll stand out there nearly an hour when all of a sudden he starts to move. There’s always a lot going on up in his head.”
For all the honors and acclaim of the last four decades, Simons insists he has more to write, say, teach and give.
“Every summer is a little more difficult for me, but I still love the writing and the rehearsing, which is my favorite part,” Simons said. “I’m writing about spiritual matters without hammering it into people. But it’s not all that. I like the silliness and fun, the comedy. These days people need a reason to laugh, and I feel like I’ve done some good in this world if I can give them one.”
Your comments are welcome
Johnny Simons came into my life in 1975 by way of my brother, who played in the band that accompanied the summers shows. His productions are magical.
I went to see The Lake Worth Monster 3 times last summer, and cried at the end of the last show because it still wasn’t enough.
There will never be enough of Johnny and Diane magic.
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