Dallas — If you’ve never taken the windy road to Hip Pocket Theatre in far west Fort Worth, you’re missing a true gem nestled in a somewhat remote field under a big Texas sky. “Sometimes you’ll hear coyotes yelp during a performance…there’s something magical about this place,” says Lake Simons, daughter of HPT co-founders Johnny and Diane Simons, about their home for a decade at Silve Creek Amphitheatre.
Lake has once again returned to her parents’ theater to co-create and direct her new, physical theater adaptation of Don Quixote, running Aug. 12-28. She grew up performing in Hip Pocket’s productions, a very unique theatrical upbringing. Simons notes, “We weren’t really aware of it until we were older. There was a big group of us all running around, having a great childhood.” Simons developed her love for rustic, experimental theater through countless summers working on shows.
Simons and her partner John Dyer live in Brooklyn as freelance artists. They have been collaborating on stage for roughly 14 years, returning to Hip Pocket every summer for the last decade to create a new work. They begin planning their project typically in the fall, usually an adaptation of a literature classic or a general concept for a completely devised work. Simons notes, “Sometimes we like to create things from scratch, and other times we like to be able to take either a book and just do a whole new interpretation. So we were looking at the bookshelves and Don Quioxte popped out. We quickly realized that this would be the most juicy as far as material and characters and images.”
That imagery is an important element of Simons’ overall approach to theater. She studied set design and puppetry, and currently teaches those subjects at Sarah Lawrence College. Before that, she was also the puppetry associate for War Horse on Broadway and trained at the acclaimed École Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. She has also worked on several projects with renowned puppeteer Basil Twist, who fell in love with Lake’s father Johnny, and has created puppets for several shows at Hip Pocket. A few years ago, he brought Johnny, Lake and her older sister Lorca to New York to perform their original work Trio Molemo! at HERE Arts Center. This summer, Twist will be in town for a week to create puppets for Hip Pocket’s next production, a long-awaited revival of Johnny Simons’ legendary The Lake Worth Monster.
This kind of background emphasizes the physical, tactile, and visual elements of theater—even eliminating language altogether in the performance. Simons says, “It’s how I’ve developed as an artist to work in theater that’s how I know how to do things…making objects, making puppets… and physicalizing it.” Taking a classic work of literature and eliminating the text may seem difficult, but Simons and Dyer chose Don Quixote primarily because the work has great imagery that can translate for the stage. Previous adaptations they’ve created include Moby-Dick, The Tempest and The Little Prince.
I had the opportunity to watch a portion of rehearsal; the actors gathered butcher paper bundles and cardboard helmets and shields to explore a three-minute section of the performance. In the Texas heat, the actors’ work is heavily physical—they have to use their bodies to communicate the story. It asks much more of the audience, to fill in the actor’s movement with their imaginations. The handmade aesthetic also falls in line with the title character, as he loses his grip on reality. The simple props seem to be made by Don Quixote himself, an amateur at puppetry with a child-like naiveté.
Off on the sides, Dyer surrounds himself with various musical instruments and objects. He’s a musician and stagehand by trade, and whimsically adds quirky sounds and simple music through the rehearsal. Instead of adding music at tech, Dyer is present at every rehearsal, constantly reacting to the actor’s choices with guitar riffs, harmonicas blasts, clanging lids, and other sound effects. Simons notes the importance of music and sound effects in such a sparse world: “The really cool thing that John does when we rehearse is that he’s all set up and he just responds to what we’re doing on stage, and sometimes what he’s doing starts to really inform what we’re doing.”
When they began the process, only a few elements were put into place. They begin with small ideas and pieces that are explored and altered in the rehearsal process. A few music pieces had already been established before rehearsals began as Dyer says, “This is a little bit unusual because I had been approached about a dance version of this show in 2010, so I had written a few things. That show had barely gotten off the ground before it was abandoned, so I had a few guitar themes under my belt before we began.”
While the structure of Don Quixote is clear from the work of literature, the transformation to the language of the stage is a challenge where every choice has to be accounted for. Simons plays with inspiration, trusting that her team of collaborators will help her find the path to the performance. “There have been many moments in this rehearsal process that I’ve said to the cast ‘I want to incorporate this thing but I’m not really sure how so just keep it in mind.” And then we’ll be working and someone will say, ‘Oh hey what if we put that thing here?’ But for the most part, we tend to have just enough time to make it happen. I think there’s something great for me too to have deadlines and a short amount of time, it really causes you to make a decision and make a choice. We tend to allow things to play themselves out. It’s a nice part of the development process.”
This year was a bit different for Simons and Dyer, as they just welcomed their first child, Oak—a tribute to Hip Pocket’s former, longtime home at Oak Acres—a few months ago. Just like Simons, the child attended rehearsal, strapped into a Baby Bjorn while Simons directed the rehearsal with enthusiasm. One of the most striking puppets they worked with during rehearsal resembled crumpled up brown paper. As the puppeteer unfurled it, parts of a body took shape—a towering head and spirally appendages that were operated by multiple puppeteers. The paper people floated to and from Don Quixote with a ghost-like quality. After I watched a run of the short section, I became captivated by the simplicity and precision of movement.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- Ohlook Performing Arts in Grapevine presents a new musical about the current presidential election, Citizen Drumpf, written by Matthew Lord, through Aug. 13 OUR LISTING
- DVA Productions presents the original musical The Campaign Trail at the Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, through Aug. 7 OUR LISTING
- MBS Productions presents a world premiere translation of an ancient Roman comedy, Querolus, at the Stone Cottage in Addison, through Aug. 7 OUR LISTING
- SceneShop in Fort Worth presents Turn and Face the Strange, a collection of new short plays, scenes and monologues at Arts Fifth Avenue, Aug. 6-13 OUR LISTING
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- Pegasus Theatre presents the world premiere of Kurt Kleinmann's comedy The Coarse Actor Rises at the Bath House Cultural Center, Aug. 11-27 OUR LISTING
- Kitchen Dog Theater presents the third Dallas One-Minute Play Festival at the Trinity River Arts Center, Aug. 13-15 OUR LISTING
- The Ochre House presents Justin Locklear's Dreamless, Aug. 20-Sept. 10 OUR LISTING
- Amphibian Stage Productions presents a staged reading of the musical Music City USA by JT Harding and Peter Zinn, Aug. 21-22 OUR LISTING
- Fun House Theatre and Film presents the premiere of Jeff Swearingen's Old McDonald’s Farm: A Children’s Fable About the Obama Presidency at Plano Children's Theatre, Aug. 19-27 OUR LISTING
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
- Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre (May 11, 2016)
- Caridad Svich's De Troya, a developmental reading presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth (May 13, 2016)
- Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker in Kitchen Dog Theater's 18th New Works Festival at Undermain Theatre (May 18, 2016)
- Stefany Cambra's Finding Myself in Bed from Proper Hijinx (June 1, 2016)
- Acoustic Nerves/Therefore, a collaboration by Dean Terry and University of Texas at Dallas artists, at the Texas Theatre (June 9, 2016)
- Checking in with playwright Jonathan Norton (July 22, 2016)