The Man That Got Away -- Remembering Andrew Quattlebaum by Alex Smith

Andrew Quattlebaum -- from the film Summer Knowledge The ice and snow started falling late Tuesday afternoon, February 11, 2014. By Wednesday afternoon, the ground was covered in thick, white sheets of frozen, fallen precipitation, as unlikely (in late winter in Columbia) as the news I received in an e-mail that same Wednesday evening that my friend and long-time collaborator Andrew Quattlebaum had died the day before.

I met Andrew when he was a boy, a student at Heathwood Hall, and a member of the Trustus Theatre Apprentice Company. I helped my friend Tamra Stevenson direct a production of LINE by Israel Horowitz for a state high school drama competition that year, and Andrew was among the students we cast. I paid especially close attention to his work in this production as he was playing the role of Fleming, one which I had played in a previous production.

I became very close with the kids in the Apprentice Company that year. I felt a deep affinity with many of them for many reasons, and the one I felt for Andrew was especially strong. I was almost ten years older, but the similarities of our personal experiences made it especially easy to open up to him with regard to my shyness, my issues with having been “the fat kid” when I was young, my sadness over my parents’ divorce when I was young…we shared so many experiences that our ability to communicate developed into something of a shorthand.

This is not to say that our shorthand was limited to the negative. Far from it, we were both voracious readers and unapologetic autodidacts. We were both rabid for information, for knowledge, for that mental spark that came from putting it all together and making it make sense, even if only to ourselves, but often to and with each other. We shared a passion for music, and Andrew always had some new music he wanted to know if I’d heard, turning me on to a lot, especially in the last few years when I, admittedly, had reached a point where it was becoming harder and harder to seek such things out. Of course, we lost each other on certain topics: I was never nearly smart enough to engage with him in discussion of quantum physics, and I never could convince him of the fact that Barry Gibb is one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century. C’est la vie…

The point is, like many of the other relationships I cultivated as a result of meeting that amazing group of kids that were in the Apprentice Company the same year Andrew was, he and I became friends in life and contemporaries in the world of acting, film and the theatre. When I wasn’t working directly with him, I was marveling at his work…but I was one of the lucky ones who got to work with him a great deal, and there is not a moment of that time that I would trade for the world.

I said it in an essay I wrote about the first film we worked on together, SUMMER KNOWLEDGE, but it bears repeating: The thing that always amazed me about Andrew as an actor was that no matter how outlandish a direction or line you threw at him, he always made you believe it. In that very film I required of him delivery of a complete non-sequiter of a line as the culmination of a scene full of dialogue on the page: “To crush the earth until it curses requires strength.” His delivery of that line was so jarringly right that I ended up cutting all but one other line of dialogue in the scene for the film’s final edit. He believed so earnestly in the line itself, and in the elusiveness of there necessarily being meaning within every thought or function that made up the dramatic structure of a piece of art, that all you needed to know about his character, aside from his name (which we had just been told), were those very words, and everything that occurred with and about the character of Paul (who he also played in the next film we worked on together, INSIDE) from that point forward made perfect sense. This was, for me, the unique mark of his already outrageous talent that hovered just below the surface of every choice he made, but which ultimately made the performances that those choices added up to unforgettable.

I said in the same essay that I would get him to play that same character forever, and, at least in INSIDE and, for a brief moment, in the production of THE GRADUATE I directed at Trustus in 2006 (which remains one of my favorite casts from any show I’ve directed), I did. In one scene, late in the play, Andrew was playing a quackish family counselor to Benjamin Braddock and his confused parents. As the session devolved at its end into a generational argument between son and parents, complete with yelling, I asked Andrew to make the counselor’s exit out the office window instead of a nearby door, which he did, close on the heels of laughing hysterically in response to Mrs. Braddock saying, “Doctor, I think we…”, and then, once he had the Braddock’s and the audience’s full attention, suddenly stating with deadly seriousness, “I’m not a doctor.” What the “doctor” was in that moment, as was the character of Paul in both films, was the man that got away.

I didn’t expect life to imitate art. I simply took for granted that there would always be the next thing we worked on together. I think a lot now about the work we didn’t get to do together…the fact that, among many other things, after two films as a supporting player, I had an outline for a film that would focus on the character of Paul…I think about the production I wanted to direct someday of WAITING FOR GODOT with Patrick Kelly as Vladmir and Andrew as Estragon, or the dream production of OTHELLO which Darion McCloud and I have been talking about for years, and the fact that, to both our minds, there really was no one other than Andrew to play Roderigo to Darion’s Othello and my Iago…Christ, I’m getting so old now that I can’t help but imagine how amazing Andrew’s Iago would be However empty his leaving us has rendered those dreams, though, I remind myself that those of us who were fortunate enough to have shared in his immense well of talent were indescribably lucky to have witnessed Andrew’s (far too) short career.

I’ve been trying to balance the personal and the professional as I wrote what I have here about Andrew, and I see that I’ve failed. It’s mainly because the two intertwined between us, and a great deal of our time spent together was working, but it’s also a lot easier to forget to cry when you’re composing hyperbole about your friend’s talent and not just saying what you feel.

I will always wish that we had a little more time to work together, a little more time to create, but, ultimately, what I really am wishing for is just a little more time with my friend.

Andrew was a beautiful, beautiful person, and I am lucky to have counted him among those I hold dear to and deep in my heart. I loved him, I love him still, and I will miss him for the rest of my days.