Haskell Fitz-Simons, the longtime artistic director of Raleigh Little Theatre, died last night at UNC Hospitals following a lengthy battle with lymphoma. He was 64. The Chapel Hill native had served as a director at the prominent Raleigh community theater for 30 years, joining the company in 1983. Before that, Fitz-Simons had been a drama and speech instructor at University of Wisconsin at Superior. His theatrical resume included work with the Light Opera of Manhattan, an apprenticeship at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and seasons with the Manteo, N.C., outdoor drama The Lost Colony. Fitz-Simons earned his MFA in theater from UNC Chapel Hill in 1979.
“His death was so sudden and unexpected,” RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf said this morning.
“From the outpouring of support, it's clear that his legacy is not only about the fact that he directed so many shows for us and was here for so many years. People today are talking about the spirit of Haskell, his mentorship, and how many lives he touched.”
Fitz-Simons came to the stage from a theatrical family. As a child, he performed with other family members in summer productions of Unto These Hills, the Cherokee, N.C., outdoor drama. His parents also had a hand in notable early productions by Raleigh Little Theatre. In 1936, his mother, born Marion Tatum, directed RLT's second production, the African-American drama Heaven Bound; Fitz-Simons would later direct her in a 1984 RLT production of Deathtrap. His father, Foster, was a novelist, a dancer who worked with modern dance choreographer Ted Shawn, and an actor who performed at RLT in the 1940s and taught at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art.
Fitz-Simons’ last production for the company was a December 2012 restaging of the company's holiday classic, Cinderella. He also directed The Rocky Horror Show in August and The 39 Steps in October.
Funeral and memorial service arrangements are incomplete.
Musical theater fans can be quite rigid in their tastes, and even more so once they’ve reached a certain age. Take this tart little number, whom I encountered the other night in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Mere moments from the opening curtain, he was already griping to me about the long-term decline of the American musical—and at a North Carolina Theatre show, no less: They’re too disappointing. Too long. And then there are those productions—you know, the ones where the cast comes out into the audience: “God. I didn’t pay $100,” he snarked, “to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”
“You know,” he groused, “there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’”
“Can you imagine? Now, it’s ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’”
(What can I say? People have always felt that they can just open up to me.)
But this little-too-lonesome character wasn’t some crank on a night pass from assisted living in North Raleigh. The man in the chair was actually our host. (His name? Man in Chair.) And as the central figure in the musical THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, he not only ushered us into his all-time favorite night at the theater, dropping the needle on a phonograph to share the soundtrack by its original cast with us. He then proceeded to lead us on a guided personal tour of it as well, repeatedly interrupting the playback with his annotations on the careers of the performers, the mechanics of the show—and almost anything else that came to mind as the record spun. As obsessive musical theater fans will sometimes do.
And, as also sometimes happens, that musical, which becomes the play within this play, takes over and remakes his rather gray little flat into the dynamic stage of an all-singing, all-dancing (and definitely all-mugging) spectacular which supposedly bowled them over on Broadway in 1928.
This Friday Iron Man 3, which was partially filmed in Cary and throughout North Carolina, will blast into theaters after already taking in $200 million internationally. While it's the biggest comic-book-related event in the Triangle, it's not the only one, as a series of local and national creators are headed through the area during the next few months. These events help emphasize the variety and diversity of the medium.
Scholars of classic illustration would do well to check out Fantagraphics' sample from their reprints of the classic comic strip Prince Valiant, while fans of the AMC mega-hit The Walking Dead should check out the free issue of the comic book that inspired it.
Local creators are also represented at Free Comic Book Day. While there's plenty of books for kids featuring Adventure Time, the Smurfs, the Simpsons, Spongebob Squarepants and even translations of Swedish Pippi Longstocking comics, we recommend checking out the Princeless/Molly Danger book from Action Lab Entertainment, featuring a pair of well-developed, strong-willed female heroes that are equally appealing to young boys and girls — and their parents.Free Comic Book Day event at Chapel Hill's Ultimate Comics along with Pittsboro-area creator Tommy Lee Edwards, who in addition to his comics work has helped design such feature films as The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington and the scuttled live-action remake of the popular Japanese anime/comic Akira.
Ultimate Comics celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, along with the fourth anniversary of the Durham-based NC Comicon, which attracted such record numbers to the Durham Convention Center last fall that they've doubled the space for this November's show. In celebration, they're doing a series of events with Marvel Comics creators over the next few months.
Mitch O'Connell's colorful, crazed pop-art illustrations have appeared everywhere from the cover of Newsweek (four times) to a recent full-page story in The Wall Street Journal, but you'll have to forgive him for hoping for a good-sized turnout at his appearance at Nice Price Books in Raleigh on April 27.
"I’ll be in North Carolina meeting my fiancé’s father," says O'Connell, on the phone from his home in Chicago. "My only goal is that hopefully a respectable line is in place to impress him.
"So I impose this responsibility on the people of Raleigh—hopefully it’s a burden they’re willing to shoulder."
O'Connell's on tour to promote Mitch O'Connell: The World's Best Artist, a new hardcover collection from Last Gasp Publishing that offers an extensive retrospective of his pop culture-infused career in art, providing colorful, chaotic pics that draw from decades of American iconography.
"I’m lucky that my grandparents and my parents saved a lot of my stuff, so there were still books available from childhood and adolescence," O'Connell says. "It let us give the book an actual narrative, and hopefully a humorous one."
I love it when a theater review heralds the arrival of a new artist or a new work of art.
Sorry, but this isn’t one of those. Instead, we have more of a report from the road that director / adaptor / designer Chip Rodgers is currently exploring. His certainly audacious—and, at times, extremely frustrating—new adaptation of the ancient Greek drama ELEKTRA, whose workshop production runs through Sunday at Meredith College’s studio theater, is a work that can only be said to be in process. Still, presently, it’s headed in a most interesting direction.
We find in its torturous discourse an examination and critique of a psychologically land-locked age that should look hauntingly familiar to present-day audiences. Its inhabitants remain preoccupied with a search for true meaning and emotional and ethical authenticity, while being perpetually distracted by contingency and plagued by indecision and self-doubt. At several points, the modern language the work is housed in recalls the conversationalisms novelist Don DeLillo uses to indict the glib, reductive and facile grasp his modern characters have when it comes to contemporary dilemmas.
But, as also happens with DeLillo, Rodgers’ characters wind up talking past each other an awful lot—so much so, in fact, that the trait veers from the merely irritating, well into the theatrically problematic.
It's clear that this young, alternative-theater triple-threat, who impressed in last spring’s atmospheric staging of Hungry at Meredith, is on the trail of big, generational issues. Unfortunately, it’s just as clear that a number of fundamental script, character and performance-oriented questions haven’t yet been solved in this still-developing work.
But the series—known as “mommy porn” by some—catapulted to fame thanks to the power of word-of-mouth and the thrill of the transgressive. For many readers, the tale of the sadomasochistic relationship between young Anastasia Steele and sexy millionaire Christian Grey was their first foray into smutty literature.
To date, the Fifty Shades series has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide, setting the record for the fastest-selling paperback of all time. (Yes, outpacing even Harry Potter—sex sells.) As is to be expected for any best-selling cultural phenomenon, there’s already a Fifty Shades of Grey movie in the works.
And now, thanks to efforts by members of Chicago-based improv company Baby Wants Candy, there’s even a musical based on the trilogy. 50 Shades! The Musical made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, continued on to previews in Chicago and New York—and is now playing in Raleigh as the first stop on its national tour.
One change is taking place at the top. Early this week, CAM parted ways with Elysia Borowy-Reeder, the museum's executive director of the last two years. The change has been announced internally but an official announcement is expected soon.
[UPDATE 4:11 p.m.: Here it is.]
Kate Shafer, who has served as gallery and exhibitions manager since the institution’s opening, is now interim director.
“There was a desire on the part of the Contemporary Art Foundation and the advisory board to seek a new direction for the philosophy and the leadership of CAM,” says Marvin Malecha, ex-officio of the museum’s advisory board.
Borowy-Reeder, who is traveling, referred questions to Malecha.
“I think there are some people here who were looking for maybe more of an out-of-the-box thought process relative to how we go forward with CAM, rather than a traditional director’s role as we’d been in," Malecha said.
"We’re looking to take a new turn after two years of finally getting the museum into place after years of aspiration. This is really a chance to go off in a new direction.”
What does “new direction” mean, exactly? The museum’s two governing bodies—the 14-member advisory board and the 16-member Contemporary Art Foundation—will kick around answers during a half-day retreat next week. They’ll also decide what kind of search CAM will make for a new director, or whether they’ll simply reorganize the existing staff.
In other very recent changes, Marjorie Hodges has taken on the role of director of the Contemporary Art Foundation. Her commute won’t change, however—Hodges leaves the Flanders Gallery, directly across West Street from CAM.
Gab Smith also comes on board as director of advancement and membership engagement.
That was the challenge set before young writer Brandon Sanderson when he was called upon to complete The Wheel of Time, a series of doorstop-sized fantasy novels published from 1990 to 2005 by Robert Jordan, a pen name for James Oliver Rigney, Jr., that have sold 44 million copies worldwide. Jordan’s death in 2007 while working on the planned 12th and final volume of The Wheel of Time caused an uproar among those seeking to know the fate of hero Rand al’Thor and the other characters.
Enter Sanderson, the prolific young writer of the acclaimed Mistborn series. A longtime fan of The Wheel of Time, Sanderson was tasked with turning Jordan’s partially-finished manuscript, pre-written ending and extensive notes into something that would successfully conclude the series, which eventually was split into three novels. (Jordan had once said the last book could run 2,000 pages; the finale trilogy collectively ran more than 2,500). That last book, A Memory of Light, was published in January to rave reviews and a spot on the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Sanderson will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music with Jordan’s widow and editor Harriet McDougal on Feb. 20 to promote Light and answer questions about the series. We got him on the phone to ask what it was like to finally bring the series he loved to an end.
DAVID GATTEN FILM SCREENING AND DISCUSSION
N.C. State University
Caldwell Hall G107, 2221 Hillsborough St.
Fri., Feb. 15, 5-7:30 p.m.
This is the true story of how the ocean made a movie.
To be more precise, filmmaker David Gatten collaborated on a movie with the Atlantic Ocean, where the Edisto River empties its freshwater into the ocean’s salt along the South Carolina coast. Gatten put unexposed 16mm film stock into a crab trap, tied the ends of a 50-foot rope to the trap and his ankle, and dropped it into the water.
“The ocean made the movie,” Gatten says. “The exposure, the processing, the chemistry, the physical interaction—everything—was entirely the ocean. I didn’t do anything other than decide how long it should be in the water, at high tide, ebb tide, low tide. And how much film I was going to put in. The ocean and crabs decided how much film I was going to get back. They did the editing. They did the sound. I was the producer.”
Gatten made three such films in 1998, returning to the South Carolina coast in 2007 to make three more. This more recent set, along with five other 16-mm films from his acclaimed career, will be screened in a mini-retrospective on Friday evening at N.C. State.
It’s a rare chance to see the work of one of the country’s foremost experimental filmmakers with Gatten at the projector’s controls. In his omnipresent overalls, he’ll introduce the films, something he doesn’t often get to do but considers an integral part of the screening. Neither dramatic nor scripted nor off-the-cuff, he nonetheless sets the films up with a precise, evocative monologue before bringing the screen to life an exact beat after he stops talking. A screening is a performance, to his mind.
INDY WEEK: It’s only been a little over a year and a half since bin Laden’s death. How soon after the event did you start working on this book? What were some of the challenges in making sure it was something that was ready to be published?
Mark Bowden: It all started, technically, the day after bin Laden was killed. I was out in LA at the time, and a movie producer asked me if I would consider researching and writing a script. I emailed Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, and asked me if he would consider putting me on the list of the thousands of journalists who wanted to interview the President about this event.
Much to my surprise, Jay emailed me right back and said he thought I was an ideal person to do a story like that! He didn’t know I was just writing a script, but my friend the producer wound up deciding not to pursue the project, so I wound up with potential access with no project. I called up my publisher and pitched it to him, and he said yes.
I told him I did not want to be the first—that I wanted to research this until I felt I was ready to write, and he accepted it on that basis. So I signed a contract and got to work!
How much access did you wind up having?
Ultimately, I did sit down with President Obama for an interview in the Oval Office that lasted an hour and a half. I interviewed most of the key people on the White House staff; I interviewed extensively at the Pentagon and at the CIA, and at the Joint Special Operations Command, and in and around the country with sources of my own who were able to help me understand various aspects of the technology and strategy that’s been involved in the last 10 years, and I had the help of my son and my cousin David, who worked on a documentary film for the Discovery Channel based on my work, and they did reporting and interviewed people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With all that, I had help, and I had opportunity.
As you were doing research for this, how did your perception of the situation evolve, in terms of your understanding of it?
Well, I think like everyone else, I was fixated on the raid itself. But as I got more into the story, I realized this was more of a 10-year-long story, for which the raid was only the last few hours. And I was only vaguely aware of the evolution of what I call the “targeting engine” that the CIA and Special Operations and NSA and various counterterrorism intelligence agencies put together.
So that was all new to me, at least in the detail that I came to understand it, and of course at that time I had no knowledge at all of how the CIA found bin Laden, which to me is probably the single most remarkable aspect of the story.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception that the public’s had about the events leading to bin Laden’s killing?
Well, I do think that most people don’t realize, or didn’t realize, that finding bin Laden was not a sudden stroke of luck. It was a very long and painstaking process that developed the information that led to this fellow Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Really, the most remarkable piece of this was finding him, not knowing that he would ultimately lead them to bin Laden, but knowing there was a good chance that might happen, and then that subsequently paying off.
I think the most surprising thing for most people is that this was not something that happened suddenly; it was a very gradual, very determined intelligence effort that found bin Laden in the compound.
That touches on one thing the book makes very apparent—that intelligence is more than what people see in thrillers, it’s about a gradual compilation and advancement of leads. What was one of the greatest challenges in presenting that information in a way that stays true to the process and conveys its impact without sensationalizing it?
Well, I think that’s obviously a major challenge when you’re constructing a narrative. But I believe that if you penetrate to the core of a story, and you understand the significance of each turning point, it becomes inherently interesting.
I think where writers get lost is when they get distracted by a lot of extraneous, but curious or interesting detail. But the key to me was focusing in on exactly what were the pieces that had to be fit together, and where did those pieces came from. If you narrow it down like that, I think it becomes compelling—if you put together the story in a very clear and I think decisive way, and I think that helps maintain the reader’s interest.
In the book, you often have passages where you go inside the head of Barack Obama and others. When you’re going through your research and interviews and translating them into prose, what are the biggest challenges with sequences like that?
What I try to avoid doing is using a lot of the conventional tools of attribution, which tend to slow down the narrative. I’m content as a writer, if President Obama tells me, “This is what I was thinking, and this is what was happening,” if I can simply relate that fact.
What I’ve done traditionally in my books is have detailed source notes at the end, if anyone wants to check the attribution of the quotes throughout the novel. In this case, that was virtually impossible, because most of the key people involved, other than President Obama, were willing to talk to me, but did not want to have specific things attributed to them, because I was dealing with people who were in high office and positions of responsibility, and they’re just concerned about putting too fine a point on their thought process.
There is a bit more of a need here than in my other books for the reader to simply trust what I’m telling them is through my reporting, rather than something I’m making up.