One of the lies that we all tell ourselves is that there will always be time — to mend broken relationships, to tell the people who love us that we love them right back, to say goodbye to old friends battling serious illnesses. Sometimes, we wait too long. Like many of his friends, I knew that 64-year-old Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director Haskell Lee Fitz-Simons was undergoing chemotherapy. At our age — Haskell was 12 days younger than I am — we have far too many friends battling the Big C. But I had no idea that Haskell had entered the UNC Hospitals in his hometown of Chapel Hill until I read the shocking announcement of his unexpected death this past Sunday night — on Facebook, of course, where Haskell and I have 233 mutual friends. My initial response on Facebook on Monday morning was:
R.I.P. Haskell Fitz-Simons. He was one of my favorite people to interview, because he always had a really interesting take on the show that he was directing. He was always “good copy.” But more than that, he was good people. We shared a number of interests outside the theater, and it was great fun to hear his impressions on several FX series to which we were both addicted. I will miss so many things about Haskell, but most of all his sunny disposition.
More than 50 people so far “Like” this Comment, which is so totally inadequate in taking the measure of the man. There is so much more to say about Haskell, who would have celebrated 30 years as artistic director of Raleigh Little Theatre this July. Only Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III has a longer tenure in the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. Ironically, it was David Wood who first e-mailed me that Haskell and another pillar of the Triangle theater community were very sick. We have been e-mailing back and forth about ways to honor both men, as they so richly deserve; but now Haskell’s honor will have to be posthumous. You have no idea how painful it is for me to write that last sentence.
Even more than his accolades as a director of Raleigh’s oldest community theater or the credit he so often deflected for transforming the Prince Street Players’ one-act version of Cinderella into a two-act musical extravaganza that became a Triangle tradition and will celebrate its 30th year this December, Haskell Fitz-Simons was responsible for changing the insular mindset at Raleigh Little Theatre. In July 1983, when he arrived, RLT had a still huge chip on its shoulder about Theatre in the Park and his upstart director David Wood.
There was also a pervasive paranoia about reviewers. If you wrote anything short of a rave review of an RLT production, the Unwelcome Mat was put out for you the next time you entered the theater. When I wrote for the late, great Raleigh Times (the afternoon daily not the restaurant), I once had an irate delegation from RLT arrive at the newspaper’s offices with a Letter to the Editor protesting my review of their latest production — a couple of days before I wrote it! Morever, RLT keep an “anatomically correct” (whatever that means) voodoo doll of me backstage.
Haskell changed all that, although I did have an ex-girlfriend — a redhead — who wanted to see the doll — and promised to bring her own packet of pins for the viewing! After Haskell’s arrival, onstage and backstage talent were able to move freely between RLT and TIP; and diehard RLT boosters started buying tickets to TIP shows as well. Both theaters — and Triangle theatergoers in general — benefited greatly.
In October 2011, Haskell directed the stage version of the 1987 nail-biter The Woman in Black, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from novelist Susan Hill’s 1983 ghost story. Several months later, when the motion-picture version of Hill’s novel starring Harry Potter himself — a grown up Daniel Radcliffe — arrived in local theaters, I asked Haskell if he would like to review it, and he happily accepted. Haskell’s experience directing the stage version of The Woman in Back provided invaluable insights into the celluloid version of the story. (To read his Feb. 23, 2012 Triangle Arts and Entertainment critique of The Woman in Black, click here.)
Moreover, I am convinced that Haskell would have been an equally fine reviewer of opera — which he loved — but his ill health scuttled our tentative plans for him to write an occasional opera review, whenever his schedule permitted. Sadly, his voice is stilled — far too soon — and the Triangle theater community has lost one of its true giants.
MEMORIAL SERVICE: According to news reports, Haskell Fitz-Simons’ memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, May 21st, at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, 1520 Canterbury Rd., Raleigh, NC 27608. (Click here for directions.) There will be a reception afterwards in the church’s fellowship hall. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St. Raleigh, NC 27607; the Wake County Animal Shelter; or 820 Beacon Lake Dr., Raleigh, NC 27610; or SafeHaven for Cats, 8431-137 Garvey Dr., Raleigh, NC 27616.
ONLINE GUEST BOOK: To leave a message, click http://www.legacy.com/guestbooks/newsobserver/guestbook.aspx?n=haskell-fitz-simons&pid=164814665.
SECOND OPINION: May 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC remembrance by John W. Lambert: http://126.96.36.199/~cvncorg/2013/05/20/remembering-haskell-fitz-simons/; May 20th Raleigh, NC News & Observer editorial: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/05/19/2899752/man-of-the-theater.html, May 19th obituary: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/05/19/2899752/man-of-the-theater.html and May 13th article by Renee Elder: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/05/13/2890485/raleigh-little-theatre-director.html; May 14th Raleigh, NC Triangle Business Journal article by Jason deBruyn: http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/news/2013/05/13/rlts-haskell-fitz-simons-dies-at-64.html and May 13th article by Dale Gibson: http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/blog/2013/05/local-theater-community-loses-a-giant.html; and May 13th Durham, NC Indy Week article by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2013/05/13/long-time-regional-director-haskell-fitz-simons-dead-at-64.
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Review, a FREE weekly e-mail arts newsletter. This article is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review.
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