By Meda Kessler
Photos by Ron Jenkins
Lake and Lorca Simons are creating their own magic at Hip Pocket Theatre
There’s always a “best of times, worst of times” for any nonprofit arts organization. But in facing the trials of the post-pandemic recovery, one of the hottest summers on record and the previous season’s retirement of founder Johnny Simons, Hip Pocket Theatre this year witnessed the best and worst simultaneously.
Theaters, especially experimental ones such as Hip Pocket, continue to work hard to bring back supporters and gain new patrons. But with HPT being an outdoor venue, the weather has been a unique battle, with a couple of performances canceled due to the heat. And then there’s the Johnny factor.
Since 1976, when Johnny, now 83, and wife Diane founded Hip Pocket with friend Douglas Balentine, HPT has been strongly associated with the lanky artist and his outgoing better half, both of whom have master’s degrees from TCU. Their talents have been far-reaching and notable. Johnny taught at Duke University; Diane had costumes she designed on exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum. HPT even performed at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
While the couple’s presence is still felt as soon as you drive onto the dirt road leading to the theater, it’s now their daughters who run the show. Lake and Lorca Simons, who are in frequent contact with their father and visit Diane regularly at her assisted living home (she suffers from dementia), have immersed themselves in Hip Pocket’s 46th year. Last year, they worked with Johnny as Lorca stepped into the role of producing artistic director and Lake as managing artistic director.
The sisters — Lorca is 51 and calls England home for now; Lake is 49 and lives in Brooklyn — grew up at HPT. As theater kids, their decision to forge paths into the arts comes as no surprise, and the distinctive work of each woman fills a substantial resume.
Lake is an internationally known puppeteer but also a director, a performer and a designer who continues to make the found-object collages of cardboard and bits of wood and string that have long been used to promote HPT shows. Her vast credits include work on numerous stage shows and festivals as well as the Broadway and touring production of War Horse. Lake has typically directed at least one HPT production each summer and continues to teach at Sarah Lawrence College.
Lorca is a passionate creator, too, with numerous film and TV acting credits and a long history of work in experimental “physical” theater involving dramatic movement and dance. She co-founded 5Rhythms Ritual Theatre and also returns to Hip Pocket occasionally to perform and direct.
As busy as they have remained elsewhere, the magnetic pull of home, the sound of the cicadas, the glow of the colorful string lights on the theater grounds and the Simons family legacy brought the sisters back to Fort Worth this summer for an extended stay.
Most of the action at Hip Pocket takes place at night, but the two women keep busy on theater grounds during the day, too. Day or night, they know it well; it was their playground, after all. The property, which they lease from the city, looks different in the sunlight. Lorca laments the lack of rain, as she had been working on a bit of landscaping.
For Lake, who recently wrapped a show at HP that featured Cy, her 6-year-old daughter, and the music of composer John Dyer, her life partner and longtime collaborator, making creative enterprise a family business comes naturally. Asked about her father’s step back from the theater, Lake says, “Johnny’s having a proper retirement these days. In his final season last year, we were here, but it was his time to take a final bow. Now, he’s there when we need him for advice or as a sounding board.” Looking back at Hip Pocket’s history, she says what excites her the most is realizing the quality work that has been done. “Lorca and I know we have a serious responsibility to continue this work and to continue to explore and experiment.”
Lorca, who is directing the next-to-last show of the season, Savage Love, agrees. “It has been a natural shift, and we’re here with our arms wide open. We’ve learned from our parents to take risks and go for it.” Lorca and River, her young son, stay at a friend’s home on nearby Lake Worth when they’re in town. Lake and her family also stay at a friend’s house not too far from where she went to high school in Fort Worth.
Much of what defines HPT is a cast of characters — both working on and attending productions — as unique as its location. “So many people, like us, have grown up out here. Our community has aged, which means we can turn to an elder when we have a question,” says Lorca with a smile. “Hip Pocket is valuable for this community, the performers, the audience. We need them and they need us,” says Lake. “We take this responsibility very seriously.”
Both sisters talk about “life happening” and how they continue to learn but still trust their instincts. While they live far apart, their respect and admiration for one another runs deep. “We love each other so much,” says Lorca, noting that it was Lake who suggested she do Savage Love.
They want these close feelings to extend to their work family, too. “We want to make this a safe and welcoming space for women, in particular; we want to diversify and elevate our work and respect the vision of others,” says Lake. “The Fort Worth theater scene is lucky to have so many strong women leading the way, and we’re happy to be part of that.”
Their mother remains as strong of a presence as Johnny. “Diane’s spirit is most certainly felt and continues to weave in the threads of this magic,” says Lorca.