The word of the day is "tangents." Michael Quattlebaum can't stop veering off on them, or drawing attention to them. Sitting lotus-style on the floor of a first-floor gallery in Raleigh's Artspace, the playwright is discussing the process he goes through in conceptualizing a new performance piece, and his synapses are sparking like fireworks. So many seemingly unrelated references and allusions are flying--to the Dadaists, to various forms of feminism and Buddhism, to filmmaker Harmony Korine and celebrity photographer David LaChapelle--that, with his hands tracing jagged arcs in the air, you want to stand back and simply marvel at this Catherine's Wheel in motion.
"Well, I'm just going off on another tangent," he says again apologetically, before continuing with his thoughts on the kitschiness of Christian art.
It's tempting to call Quattlebaum a prodigy. At the age of 15, the Enloe High School student not only started the Raleigh-based youth theater group Paint In Consciousness Experimental Theatre (P.I.C.E.T.), but he also wrote and directed its first performance piece, Paperdoll Psychology. Performed by seven of his female classmates last November for one night only at Artspace, the play was based on the fictional diary of a girl named Anna who, after experimenting with sex and discovering a humiliating conspiracy among her male partners, commits suicide at age 16. One critic marveled that the piece contained "more overt class and race critiques than The Vagina Monologues," calling it "performance art at its most vital."
But calling Quattlebaum a prodigy--ascribing his talent to something congenital--might discount the years of concerted attention to the arts he's already logged, and the hard work he put into his first major creative work. For Paperdoll Psychology, Quattlebaum read tracts on communist feminism, anarcho-feminism, French feminism, eco-feminism, and womynism, and went on teen girl Web sites to read the online journals of girls like the protagonist of his piece. Even more impressively, Quattlebaum internalized his research to the point where it informed an original piece of conceptual theater, at an age when many of us were cribbing from the encyclopedia for our class reports.
As Quattlebaum describes it, Paperdoll Psychology concerns the point at which a collective unconscious called the masculine, which dictates that women on all levels are lesser than men, has become innate in our society. "If you want to relate it to Star Trek, it's like the Borg," he says. "It's already innate in men, but when a girl turns 16, that's when she reaches a kind of state of enlightenment and is awakened to this reality." The main character, Anna, simply wants to be able to control her own thoughts, to avoid becoming "one of the master's paper dolls."
Quattlebaum calls his first performance piece "a feminist Exorcist." "With Paperdoll Psychology, I wanted to transcend my masculine experience and put an understanding of that into my discussion of the female experience," he says. "I was just trying to connect to females at all levels."
After Paperdoll, Quattlebaum went further out on a limb with a tricky audience-participation piece, Overexposed Dance Night, for an exploration of celebrity and media culture. The next two pieces he's writing for performance at Artspace promise to be equally as provocative as his first two. Religica: The Kitsch of Christianity (tentatively scheduled for Aug. 22 at Artspace), will tackle "sex, food and religion," and will include an installation called "The Last Supper" depicting the famous biblical tableau. But in the place of the apostles' humble foodstuffs, the playwright intends to heap refuse from fast food restaurants, in order to "look at how we're poisoning ourselves," he says. The piece will also incorporate taped confessions and video segments asking people their thoughts on God. Then, with You're a Pretty Little Communist (scheduled for Nov. 8 at Artspace)--which Quattlebaum says will take place entirely on a bed--he plans his "first romantic comedy," although it promises to take on the unfunny topic of disabilities.
"Please print that, so I have to stick with those themes. I have a tendency to change my mind too often," Quattlebaum says, before going off on another tangent.
Michael Quattlebaum expects to be heading off to college after high school, but he hopes to leave a legacy behind in Raleigh. He's currently looking for sponsors for P.I.C.E.T. so it can continue to inspire teenagers to think out of the box. Quattlebaum likens the vibe of P.I.C.E.T. to that of a 17th-century French salon, where people would meet to discuss the art, politics and philosophy of the day.
"I knew many creative people under the age of 18 who were really dynamic and wanted to get their voices heard, and there was no place for that," he says. "And a lot of young people are really foreign to performance art, or any art outside of painting or what you might call the classic fine arts. I wanted kids to have a place where they could fully express themselves."
So Quattlebaum approached Artspace's Corkey Goldsmith with his idea and the then-director of exhibitions and programs took P.I.C.E.T. under her wing, helping the 15-year-old write a proposal with his friend Kevin Novell. Before he knew it, P.I.C.E.T. had been offered a six-month contract. "Michael struck me as someone who will 'change the world' through his creative endeavors," Goldsmith says. "He doesn't let much hold him back."
Quattlebaum says he thinks more arts organizations should be run by youth. "We're all under the age of 18, but Artspace trusts us, they trust us so much to put on good shows, to put on shows that can be controversial but not ruin their image," he says. "That's a whole lot of trust. I mean nobody, nobody else would have let us do this."
Besides inspiring his actors, Quattlebaum has encouraged fellow Enloe students Sharon Goldberg, his technical director and co-writer for an upcoming piece, and Anna Creagh, who wrote P.I.C.E.T.'s May 31 production, Alice Threw the Looking Glass.
"The parents have really begun to understand that these kids are more than we see," says Quattlebaum's mother, Debra. "They take this very seriously. They have vision. These kids are different kinds of kids."
When she talks about her son, Michael's mom sounds less like a stage mother and more like a star-struck fan. "I took him to a 7 a.m. Saturday morning rehearsal at Artspace, and when I dropped him off, the girls acted like Spielberg just showed up," she says. "I have had parents say to me 'I think he's going to make it,' but what I see is that he genuinely lives the arts. He inspires people to develop. To have kids this talented want to be a part of what he's doing is impressive. But he's not satisfied yet. He's still waiting to do what he would consider a spectacular thing."