Feature: Wednesday, November 12, 2003
‘This is just my kind of place, it feels right to me. I dig it.’
A Pocketful of Miracles

Fort Worth’s world-class gift to theater is presented beneath stars and oaks.

By Samuel Hudson

Since 1976, Fort Worth has become a city larger than Miami and Pittsburgh, grown a skyline and a freeway system recognizably urban, filled up with citizens born elsewhere, and become what travel agents call “a destination” — like Disney World, Ground Zero, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, autumn foliage in New Hampshire, the La Brea Tar Pits, and Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Welcome to the 21st century.

More importantly, after 27 years the Hip Pocket Theatre still thrives here without prospering and has matured without growing up and getting respectable. It remains a mom-and-pop operation, mom being wife Diane Simons and pop being husband Johnny Simons, who is about five-sevenths of a genius. The Hip Pocket Theatre is homemade, custom-made, and self-made, and above all it is the instrument with which Johnny Simons makes original plays, some dozen of which very likely will outlive him and any grandchildren he has. Not that he will sit still for being called an artist right out in front of God and everybody.

Johnny Simons is what American poet Marianne Moore called a “literalist of the imagination,” an artist who creates “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” He has created an imaginary Fort Worth — his rowdy and sweet Cowtown, his endlessly mysterious Lake Worth — and peopled it with living Texans with immortal longings in them. The prickly-pear marriage of Pinky and B.B. Ruebottom will continue as appalling and touching comedy. No prayer will stop the Lake Worth Monster from rising up from the depths of an ordinary, guilty human psyche. The invented boy of Pinocchio Commedia still weeps salty tears. Nova’s Shady Grove beer joint is open for business. The ghosts of Cowtown! are permanent residents, settled forever in Johnny Simons’ real and dreaming city.

All of this was brought about more or less on purpose.

The summer home of the Hip Pocket is 13.7 miles from downtown Fort Worth, off Loop 820 at Las Vegas Trail, next door to the staid and disapproving brick of Grace Baptist Church. The performance space is a spectacularly ramshackle, hand-made, weatherbeaten, wooden amphitheater built on the near edge of a grove of oak trees. The stage floor is new wood nailed over layers and layers of rotting timber. A rickety stairway ascends into the lower branches of an oak; there is a treehouse in its branches. Lighting equipment hangs from cables strung from the trees. The audience sits on butt-busting wooden benches, hearing dialogue and music and deaf to the cicadas throbbing in the trees. There are aerosol cans of insect repellent at the box office. First-timers used to Broadway theaters or Bass Hall go into culture shock. This is a palace of culture?

Thousands of Fort Worth people and outlanders prove that it is, by sitting on the hard benches under the open sky every weekend of the Hip Pocket’s summer season. When everything comes together, Hip Pocket productions are uniquely wonderful, like nothing else on earth. When the Hip Pocket is mediocre, it is irritating in its own special way, and when it is bad, it is horrid in a way unto itself. Hip Pocket productions are almost never boring or not boring for very long. If nothing else, a dog or cat may wander onto the stage and enliven a dull scene.

The Hip Pocket Theatre currently mounts five productions a summer, at least two of which are always unforgettable. Standouts of the 2002 season were Preview for the Space Fleet Landing on Earth in 2001 A.D. by Uriel, Cosmic Visionary (as silly and wonderful as a Russian narrative ballet; not exactly a play but one of the damnedest things conceived by the human mind), and Simons’ restaging of Molemo!, his autobiographical comedy/fantasia of family life with a spooky subplot and a funny and creepy ending. This year’s season was memorable for Johnny Simons’ burly-que revue based on the lascivious pulp fiction of the 1940s to 1960s, for his “backyard circus” version of Hiawatha, and for daughter Lake Simons’ adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

The Hip Pocket Theatre has not gone unnoticed outside North Central Texas. The New York Times has published glowing (if sometimes slightly puzzled) reports about it. Texas Monthly dispatched critics. Magazines devoted to American theater have detailed its life and times. The Hip Pocket Theatre troupe has performed at the worldwide theater festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. The National Endowment for the Arts has given it grants. Two Ph.D. theses have been written about it already.

Diane Simons, called the Hip Pocket’s producer, is in every way Johnny Simons’ co-equal partner in this poetic enterprise; she produces the plays, makes the business side of the Hip Pocket work, and her beautiful costume and production designs are an integral part of the Hip Pocket’s style. She is an accomplished stage director in her own right.

The Hip Pocket performers are semi-pro, in the sense of a semi-pro baseball team. Several hundred performers have moved in and out of the theater’s force field. Hip Pocket actors such as Dick Harris, Peggy Bott Kirby, and Dena Brinkley could have had careers in any kind of theater in the English-speaking world but have stayed in Fort Worth and with the Hip Pocket, making their livings doing things like transcribing doctors’ reports, calculating the mass and weight of airplanes in design and production, waiting on tables, and working on construction crews. Actors and technical crewmembers are paid equal shares from box office receipts after expenses, which usually amounts to gas money. Musicians are paid small set fees.

The only full-time, salaried Hip Pocket Theatre employees are Johnny and Diane Simons, who earn $250 a week year-round. Diane Simons is on the teaching staff of the University of Texas at Arlington, and during the academic year she teaches courses in the design, craft, and history of costumes and in stage makeup. The Simonses rely on her salary and health benefits to keep body and soul together from month to month. Besides writing plays for the Hip Pocket’s summer season, Johnny Simons occasionally teaches, directs, and performs during the winter but is not now on staff anywhere.

The peculiar history of the Hip Pocket Theatre began in 1976 in a defunct motel on Highway 80 that had been turned into a “crafts compound” called “Grissom and Friends.” The founders were Johnny and Diane Simons — who had served hard time together at Casa Mañana, Fort Worth’s Preservation Hall for the post-World War II Broadway musical — and Douglas Balentine, a young musician who was then playing in a piano bar called the Red Slipper. They each put down $300 as working capital for their theatrical venture. The name of the troupe came from Johnny Simons’ being asked how he got the cash to pay for expenses: “From whatever I had in my hip pocket.”

Many players in Johnny Simons’ first productions were people he had taught and directed in venues like the Tarrant County Community College drama programs and Casa Mañana’s children’s theater. Some were from the floating world of local artists, performers, their admirers, wannabes. “We had no idea whether anyone would drag out to an old motel on Highway 80 to see us,” Diane Simons recalled.

They did. Among them were Fort Worth Star-Telegram critic Leonard Eureka and the Dallas Times Herald critic John Bloom. They knew what they were looking at, were enchanted, and in print gestured and shouted excitedly. Bloom was so pleasantly amazed that he ordered everyone in the Times Herald’s features department to drive over to Fort Worth — immediately.

The Hip Pocket Theatre performed at Grissom and Friends until one evening in 1979 when, during a performance, one of Grissom’s friends ran out of his converted tourist cabin waving a pistol. Following this unscripted drama, the Hip Pocket players evacuated quickly and landed themselves in the meadow behind Oak Acres Barbeque, where they remain as tenants today. The wooden amphitheater was built board by board from scrap lumber, much of it from fences torn down by Allied Fence Company in the course of installing new ones.

For 10 years Johnny and Diane Simons and Douglas Balentine sustained a production schedule that Johnny has described as “insane, just crazy. We were young and excited, and we didn’t know any better.’’ They mounted from four to six plays a year, none of them standard fare in the Southwest. In 1982, Simons and Balentine wrote, and the troupe performed, five original plays with music.

Johnny Simons and Douglas Balentine developed a form of music drama that is more directly related to European pantomime than to the American musical comedy. Actors spoke in prose dialogue until dramatic moments that required music.Then Balentine’s onstage band began to play. Balentine (and sometimes a chorus) sang as the actors mimed and danced the action. The lyrics of the songs said what the characters were thinking and feeling and advanced the plot. This innovation worked beautifully and has been widely imitated. It also solved the problem of using performers who didn’t sing well or at all.

Even in its early days, the Hip Pocket Theatre presented more than Simon and Balentine’s original work. It also produced plays ranging from ancient Greek comedy, Shakespeare, a medieval nativity drama, plays by Spanish poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca to Sam Shepherd’s Cowboy Mouth/Cowboys 2. When Diane Simons phoned Shepherd’s agent to ask for performance rights for the Hip Pocket Theatre, the first reply was, “Texas? Where did you say? Texas? Fort Worth, Texas?”

Behind Johnny Simons’ public persona of an ancient hippie not much interested in worldly business is a fiercely practical intelligence (how do you think artists get their work done?) and a mature man with the American equivalent of a classical education, a man widely and deeply read in many kinds of literature. Born in Fort Worth and raised in the cozy Riverside section east of downtown, Johnny Simons had the good luck to arrive at Texas Christian University as the post-World War II flowering of arts in Texas began. The drama and dance departments at TCU were already better than very good. He was a student of Walther Volbach and of David Preston, and therefore stands in apostolic succession to the performers and directors on the cutting edge of early-20th-century European theater. Johnny Simons studied mime with the man himself, French master Jaques Lecoq. He has a master’s degree from TCU, as does Diane. He has taught at Duke University, TCU, SMU, and at virtually every school with a drama program within a 200-mile radius of Fort Worth.

As a young man, Johnny Simons fell in love with a tradition of lowdown, raunchy, and disrespectful comedy that stretches back to ancient Rome and classical Greece and forward to vaudeville and burlesque: the Commedia Dell’Arte of the Italian Renaissance.

To commedia and its more genteel descendants — French mime and the pantomime of Russian ballet — Johnny Simons joins elements of American pulp fiction, schlock movies, radio drama of the 1940s and ’50s, Broadway musicals, black-and-white television comedy, and down-home Texas storytelling. Long before art critics and esthetic theorists began talking about the melding of highbrow, lowbrow, pulp, and pop, Simons was putting them together in theater pieces like The Lake Worth Monster, Old Tarzan, Riders of the Purple Sage, and The Crimson Pirate. Simons’ handling of mass-manufactured storytelling like King Kong is always respectful, never campy, never done with a wink and a sneer. In his re-imagining of these shopworn materials, he makes them as valid and as haunting as the other myths, legends, and fairy tales that he believed in literally as a child and that his soul still believes in now. Simons says that Longfellow’s epic-length poem “Hiawatha” is magnificent. Well, no, but in his adaptation and direction of “Hiawatha” this October, it was medium-magnificent while the performance lasted.

The Hip Pocket’s style of presentation of Johnny Simons’ commedia-inflected scripts is broad, sincere, and fluent. The audience knows instantly who Simons’ characters are and what quirks of human nature they represent, even if they can’t recite the names of the characters’ archetypical ancestors. Simons first training as a performer was as a dancer. He choreographs everything he writes and directs, prose exposition, too. As the Hip Pocket players move onstage, characters that might look flat and stereotypical on the printed page come alive with all of the contradictions of living people. Like lyric poetry, dance and mime can express emotions and their opposites at the same time.

There are 5,283 mind-numbing theories (mostly French) describing Simons’ approaches to theater. A professor of modern theater will instantly recognize the Hip Pocket as an example of “poor theater,” or “rough theater” — that is, theater that’s anti-fancy, anti-slick, stripped-down.

Besides the Ph.D. theses written about the Hip Pocket, its productions have been thoroughly documented with still photographs, sound recordings, and videotape — enough material to keep a squadron of scholars busy for 20 years. This documentation will, in fact, have a practical use when directors other than Johnny Simons reconstruct and reinvent those of his stage works that are primarily mime and dance.

Another factor in Johnny Simons’ style of theater is his spiritual connection with the universe. Insofar as can be determined from his plays, his personal cosmology is a home-brewed concoction of transcendental meditation and other wisdom from the East, myths from everywhere that stuck to his soul, plus some shrapnel from his strict Southern Baptist upbringing. A seminary graduate who attended a performance of Pinky and B.B. in Paradise this fall tried analyze its loopy theology, but got no further than, “What does this mean, what does this mean?”

With physical exercises and gentle but insistent mind-bending, Simons leads his performers up to the threshold of a flash of integrated mental, physical, and spiritual understanding and centeredness of being that he teasingly calls “getting it.” He never says exactly what it might be; it is beyond words, like mime, like dance, like ... . (Critics who question the worth of a particular Hip Pocket Theatre production just don’t get it.)

The Hip Pocket performers and technical, construction, and maintenance crews work as an ensemble, as exact equals. No stars. Again and again and again, the Hip Pocket personnel that Star-Telegram critic Perry Stewart once called “Johnny’s people” speak of the Hip Pocket as a family, as a home. They praise the love that is the glue holding such a disparate group together. Peggy Bott Kirby, who has performed in more than 100 Hip Pocket Theatre productions says, “They are my extended family.”

Adam Justin Dietrich, a greatly talented young actor/writer/director who is now the Hip Pocket’s development director, described the troupe’s ethos:

“Hip Pocket Theatre is honest story-telling, harnessing true inspiration and creativity without consideration of financial restraints or rewards. It’s run like a family: Love comes first, and through that love of one another and the art, the business is kept, miraculously, together. Hip Pocket Theatre is never too high up or too low down, but it’s constant: constantly entertaining, constantly rewarding, and constantly growing ....

“... Loyalty, forgiveness, strength, and talent immeasurable. ... I’ve learned more at Hip Pocket Theatre than at SMU or any other single source, anywhere. It’s real knowledge that can be applied to anything, anywhere, and learning it and living it feels good. Good vibrations. But it’s not hippie, even though it sounds like it. It’s honest and good-natured, everything life is supposed to be. Johnny once said, ‘This is just my kind of place, it feels right to me. I dig it.’”

But eventually some of Johnny’s people find family life stifling and run away from home. Others are given less and less to do and fade away quietly: “I was used,” “I was badly used,” “I was used up.” It takes a certain ruthlessness to wring new art out of the living flesh of untrained, semi-pro performers.

Professor of theater Tony Medlin says flatly that “every theater company in the Southwest has been influenced by the Hip Pocket Theatre. Everyone has stolen some of Johnny’s innovations.” Hip Pocket Theatre alumni have gone on to become full-time theater professionals, some even popping up in television sit-coms and commercials. Johnny Simons’ students and protégés are teaching at colleges and universities around the country. His daughters Lorca (named after the Spanish poet/playwright) and Lake are making careers in New York, with trips back home to perform in the summer. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said more than a century ago, “A teacher never knows where his influence ends.”

The Hip Pocket Theatre’s limitations are largely limitations of Johnny Simons’ temperament.

His version of artistic purity has excluded most performers who make their livings in the American theater. Using semi-pros, the Hip Pocket can operate on a tiny budget and won’t turn into what Simons fears and emphatically rejects: something “too beeg.” There has been some change in recent years, and nowadays performers who are members of Actors Equity, the actor’s union, do appear as “guest artists” in Hip Pocket productions without being paid the union’s minimum. Among these are Simons’ daughter Lorca, his former students, and returning Hip Pocket alumni. Simons has often said that the thing he most values in his troupe is “loyalty, loyalty, loyalty.” Yes, but talent and skill are nice, too. The Hip Pocket’s audience has learned to make allowances for amateurs who cannot play their parts very well, but flawed performances distract from the real power and depth of Johnny Simons’ work. It won’t matter in the long run. The texts of Simons’ plays survive, and the plays will only be enhanced when they are done by seasoned professionals.

Simons has rarely collaborated with a composer who is his equal in talent. He sings lyrics and melodies, and his co-composer then orchestrates them, but usually as what jazz musicians call “head charts.’’ The music in the plays Simons did with Douglas Balentine was not scored and exists only in memory and on sound recordings. It can be reconstructed. New music can be written. None of these limitations seriously diminish Johnny Simons’ accomplishment.

There isn’t a completely reliable count yet, but in 27 years the Hip Pocket Theatre has mounted more than 300 theater pieces. Johnny Simons has created maybe 80 works for theatre. He has written more plays than he can sit on. In academese this is called “a body of work.” And all of it has been done with two cents and a rubber band. The Hip Pocket has been the beneficiary of a subsidy worth millions and millions of dollars, very little of it in American money. This enormous subsidy comes in the form of hard, unpaid, sweaty work done out of a lively faith in what Johnny and Diane Simons and the Hip Pocket Theatre have been inventing. It is one of the most generous and lasting gifts ever given to Fort Worth, and it is still being given with an open hand.

The Hip Pocket’s loyal audience, working people for the most part, fills its amphitheater year in and year out. The most expensive ticket is still $12. The theatre’s operating budget for this summer season was $176,000. There is a deficit of $16,500. Foundation support, once significant, has fallen with the economy. Some individual wealthy patrons like Ann Rhodes have remained steadfast in hard times. She says simply, “They are unique. There is nothing like them anywhere else. Fort Worth must keep the Hip Pocket alive and healthy. It matters to Fort Worth and to American theater.” The Hip Pocket can do with a lot more like her, wealthy, middle-class — or as poor and generous as the Hip Pocket Theatre itself.

It can also do with toilets that flush with some regularity, seats that don’t send audience members to chiropractors, and a venue with a roof over it for a winter season. There’s a long list. Copies are available for the asking. At the top of the list is genuine American money.

So step right up, folks.

The Hip Pocket Theatre’s website is www.hippocket.org. The mailing address is P.O. Box 136758, Fort Worth, TX 76136. The phone number is 817-246-9775. If you get a busy signal, call again later. If you get the answering machine, talk to it. Diane Simons and her staff will be glad to return your call. All gifts are fully tax-deductible.

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