Pip Simmons (1942-2024) by Ruud Engelander

Theatre is the most ephemeral art form. Theatre, dance, mime, puppetry, they crumble under your hands, you look at them, the curtain falls (at least it did in the past) and it is gone and never comes back. You can keep some things, texts, costumes, set models, objects, photos of actors or dancers, video recordings, but the experience you had during the performance cannot be recreated or retold.

It’s a cliché that has probably been around as long as theatre itself. Even if you see a performance for the second or third time, the experience can be different. But sometimes the realization of transience hits you extra hard, for example when an actor, actress or director dies. Not only his or her work is no longer there, but also he or she themselves.

I realized this once again when my old friend Pip Simmons suddenly passed away on January 24, 2024. I tried to remember what exactly had disappeared. Yes, of course he was gone, but what had disappeared with him? Not the memories, because they are mine and will only disappear with me. No, what is irrevocably gone is the way he thought about theatre, about what he thought should happen on stage, but especially what it should bring about in the spectator.

Many theatre makers try to entice the audience to think: I’ll decide that myself, I think. Simmons wanted to achieve something similar, but not on a cerebral level, but by providing the audience with a direct, emotional, physical experience.

A good example comes from The George Jackson Black and White Minstrel Show from 1972. The American “minstrel show” dates from the early nineteenth century, a phenomenon that would be unthinkable today: white actors painted themselves black and made racist jokes. Simmons used the concept and placed George Jackson, a member of the radical Black Panther Party, who was shot dead in San Quentin State Prison in 1971, at the centre. The form: an auction of slaves, where the actors were linked with handcuffs to members of the audience during the intermission. The performance was obviously quite controversial, but there was also a lot to laugh about and Chris Jordan’s music, always an inseparable part of Simmons’ performances, was brilliant.

In short: by giving the audience a role as potential customers of the slave trader, a painful, inescapable, but at the same time hilarious situation was created.

Someone who has read the above paragraphs, but did not see the performance at the time, cannot form a clear picture of what exactly happened in the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam where the Pip Simmons Theatre Group was, as always, a guest, supported from the start and programmed by founder and director Ritsaert ten Cate. What is missing from my description is mainly the context of the early 1970s. The revolutionary impetus of those years, think of the Action Tomato and other protest movements in the arts, but also of Provo, university occupations in Paris and the Netherlands, protests against the war in Vietnam, nuclear weapons demonstrations, and of course the racial struggle, the Black Panthers in the US and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It seemed as if all social frustration had ended up in a large cauldron that could explode at any moment. That feeling, which made many people happy and optimistic, was translated by Simmons to the theatre, where the visitors, generally quite progressive people of good will, saw themselves paired with a black-faced actor or actress and had to adopt an attitude: Do I like this or do I think it is funny? Do I find it annoying, disturbing or embarrassing? Or a little bit of all of this?

A second example followed about three years later: the Pip Simmons Theatre Group had been disbanded in 1973 and resurfaced in Rotterdam in the autumn of 1974 as Children of The Night , invited by the Rotterdam Theatre Council there to make two performances, in the autumn of that year and in the spring of 1975. My role was to maintain contact with the Rotterdam authorities, I did production work and publicity, and I was the dramaturg, insofar as a director like Simmons needed such a person.

But first we had to go to Germany. The Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, then with Ivan Nagel as Artistic Director, had invited Pip Simmons to direct Schiller’s Die Räuber, a play from 1782 about a fraternal struggle with the themes of money and anarchy. Simmons was not someone who had much interest in eighteenth-century dramatic literature and made a counter offer. The Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, was a left-wing extremist terrorist group founded in 1970 that fought the capitalist Federal Republic and did not shy away from murder and violent bank robberies. That’s what Simmons wanted to make a performance about. The proposal was accepted. Pip asked me to act as a dramaturg, also because he could not read or speak German. We locked ourselves in a friend’s house in the countryside in Wales, where we could work undisturbed for three weeks. The theatre had sent us a stack of articles, mainly from Der Spiegel , about the group’s activities and backgrounds. We created a kind of script, which largely consisted of observations about what we thought had happened in the previous years. The core was: what can still be morally defended and what cannot?

We went to Hamburg with the script (there was not a line of dialogue, only scenes as we had imagined them based on the articles and other information), reported to the theatre, spoke to actors who had expressed interest, looked for housing for a few months, until it turned out that in the end there was no actor who had the courage to participate in a play about such a controversial subject. Was it cowardice? I do not think so. The situation in Germany was tense: in 1972, the group’s founders had been tracked down and imprisoned. But everyone knew that a second generation had now emerged that would continue the struggle in the same way. So participating as an actor in a theatre performance about a well-armed terrorist group that had proven to be ruthless was not an obvious choice.

Without a performance, we left Hamburg again after a week and decided to make a detour via the Bo-Theater in Bochum, where Peter Zadek was the Artistic Director. Zadek offered to realize the production there, had actors and all the facilities and so Das letzte Baader-Meinhof Stück was finally created.

The premiere on April 21, 1974 was – of course – disrupted by activists, but later overtaken. The piece remained in the repertoire for a while. Simmons and I were glad it was over and relieved we headed back to London and Amsterdam.

During the entire rehearsal process it became increasingly clear to me that Pip as a director could not work well with actors he did not know or had not selected himself. He got along very well with his core group of British actors, because he knew what he could ask of them. Was the production a failure? In any case, it was not what we had envisioned. It was impossible to transfer with impunity the anarchic mentality of the actors of the Pip Simmons Theatre Group, ready to try everything he proposed, to the highly cultural world of the German theatre, where different rules applied.

Because what kind of director was Simmons exactly? I had attended a rehearsal in London a few years earlier at the Theatre Upstairs, the small hall of the Royal Court Theatre. I don’t remember which production it was, perhaps the aforementioned The George Jackson Black and White Minstrel Show, or else Do It! , from 1971, based on Jerry Rubin’s book of the same name about the protests during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, a performance that made extremely high demands on the actors and on the audience, which found itself besieged by a group of long-haired, noisy hippies and in this case too could ask himself the question: how far can you go? In the theatre and in “real” life?

Back to the Theatre Upstairs: an actor or actress wanted to know more about the character he/she had to put on stage. “What moves me here?”, it must have been something like that. “Just get up there and do it!” was his impatient reply. He gave the players broad powers to devise and propose scenes themselves, after which he said what he did or did not agree with. He kept an eye on the big picture. In other words: he gave the players plenty of space, but he was the boss. At the same time, he did not behave like a director standing above the group, liked to play a game of darts, made the same corny jokes as the rest and allowed everyone to have their own respect. I never heard him make a critical comment, but he indicated that he wanted things a little different. And so that happened.

That is why there was never actually a written text at the start of the rehearsals, but at most a script, scenes that had to be worked on. Ultimately, that script was created, because he was first and foremost an author, although not of well-made plays . The end result was the result of his dreams, nightmares and obsessions and of the players’ ability to improvise.

Back to Rotterdam. In 1974, work began on Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s novel. It became a visually and musically interesting performance that did not impose extreme demands on the audience. The opposite was the case with the second production in the spring of 1975.

An die Musik was a performance that I doubt anyone who has seen will ever forget. During the preparation period, when the only idea was to make “something” about a concentration camp with an orchestra consisting of prisoners, I asked Daniël de Lange, renowned theatre critic of the Volkskrant, if he would like to talk to us about that “something’. I knew that he had been in such an orchestra in a camp and we asked him whether he thought a performance about it would be acceptable. After all, it was only thirty years after the end of the war and there was a lot of unresolved suffering. Should we bring that up again? De Lange believed that it was possible and should be done.

The performance came and was a huge hit. Not only in Rotterdam, but also in Amsterdam, where it was of course played in the Mickery Theatre. This was followed by a long international tour to Nancy (the glorious festival founded by Jack Lang), Paris, London and many more places.

In 1975 the public was in an undesirable position. The first part of the performance was called “Anne Frank’s dream”. Call it a nightmare. The second half consisted of the concert. Schubert’s An die Musik was one of the songs in the repertoire, Chopin’s funeral march another. In Bochum we met a talented actor who we asked to come to the Netherlands to play the role of “the sadistic German”. His job was to make the prisoners play music and give other assignments until they literally dropped. In consultation with the other players, he provided them with new, often really painful physical humiliations at almost every performance. At the end, the stage was shrouded in smoke, into which they slowly disappeared.

Once again the audience became part of the performance. Not that there was unsolicited audience participation like with George Jackson , but the situation was clear: they were watching a concert in a concentration camp. Did you have to applaud that?

Pip Simmons saddled the audience with these kinds of questions: moral dilemmas. Not in an intellectual way, as many fans of Bertolt Brecht think it should be, but in a direct, almost physical way .

“Pip Simmons has the most terrifying mind I have encountered in the London theatre,” wrote the Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson in 1975. “It is to be hoped for the happiness of his soul that he does not himself realise all that is suggested by its dark recesses.” But Simmons was all too aware of what was happening there. He was inspired by his own background, but also by books, newspapers and conversations.

As I wrote this article, I realized that I had only witnessed a small portion of Simmons’ activities up close. His first performance dates from 1968. His best work (I think) was in the 1970s. He continued to work, but in the mid-1980s he called it a day. Times had changed. It is possible that his provocative views on theatre-making were no longer considered relevant. Don’t know. But he moved to Sweden with his Swedish wife, Helena, who had been one of the members of the core group of actors.

For this article I looked for old reviews, but they are hard to find. Maybe they are still in an old scrapbook or in an obscure archive somewhere. These memories have also disappeared.


For an overview of Pip Simmons’ work, I refer to www.unfinishedhistories.com