By Emily Dings
ERIC QUANDER IS THE ULTIMATE MULTIHYPHENATE. IN FACT, THE NUMBER OF LABELS THAT COULD PRECEDE HIS NAME MAKE A VERITABLE WORD-BEAST: ACTOR-DIRECTOR-MUSICIAN-LIFE COACH-RADIO HOST-EDUCATOR-WRITER-AMPUTEE ACTIVIST BARELY SCRATCHES THE SURFACE.
But for Quander, aka Q, theater has been a through line, the rack on which his many other hats hang. You can hear it in the cadence of his speech and read it in the lyricism of his writing (Quander is also a freelance writer for Amplitude).
“Theater is me,” he says. “I carry theater everywhere, even when I’m not doing it.”
An actor since high school, Quander’s talent blossomed during his college years at James Madison University. He joined the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (SSE), which later became the Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, and trained at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre Intensive in Washington DC. In 1993, he left college to pursue acting on the West Coast, landing his first role in a Seattle theater production within an hour of his arrival.
In the years that followed, Quander’s life and career continued along a trajectory that, as the saying goes, could fill a book. His multifaceted talent and work ethic—along with his knack for being in the right place at the right time—netted him opportunities all along the entertainment spectrum.
Quander built a name for himself in the Seattle theater world, broke into radio with the chart-topping Prince Eric Show on the Disney radio network, and began singing in bands. He moved to Los Angeles where he got an agent and began work in television acting—among his credits are an ad campaign as Mr. Kinkos and an episode of Seinfeld. He admits to being “mostly into partying” at that point in his life, but it seems that even his downtime was fruitful: One night when singing at a party, he was invited to front the band Mistress of the Pope, which later saw wide success in the underground LA scene.
The band’s eventual breakup created a natural transition point, after which Quander returned to theater. In 2000, he founded the African American Theatrical Ensemble (AATE) at the Inglewood Playhouse in LA so he could work on his own projects and help promote black talent. Here, with the encouragement of artists such as Daniel Bryant, James Avery, and Bill Duke (who gave him the nickname Q), he launched a series of well-received productions, including HOME, T Bone N Weasel, and The Mighty Gents. He also staged and starred in a production of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, a play that tackles internalized racism among black American soldiers in World War II.
Married for seven years, he and his wife, Alzorra, a former runway model, then made the bold decision to trade the glitz of LA for the desert tranquility of the Morongo Basin. They settled down on a ranch where Quander broke in his cowboy boots and got a job as a role player with a company that trained Marines in desert survival skills. Working in harsh desert conditions for six years, he learned Arabic and helped prepare 100,000 Marines for deployment to the Middle East. During this time, he and Alzorra welcomed a son, Ashoka.
In February 2018, after having stepped on a nail while working on the ranch, Quander found his energy flagging at work. His heartbeat fluctuated, and he couldn’t keep up with his colleagues. He had recently had three stents implanted in his heart due to congestive heart failure, and at Alzorra’s urging, he prepared to return to the doctor for an evaluation. Minutes later, before he was even fully dressed, Quander and his family had to abandon their home because it caught on fire.
As the house burned to the ground along with all of the family’s possessions, Quander received yet another blow: He learned that he’d contracted blood poisoning from the nail puncture in his foot, and that it was a miracle he was still alive. “They gave me a choice—take the leg off or die,” he says.
Quander awoke the next morning to a role for which he had little preparation, a below-the-knee amputee. But in true Q fashion, he adjusted nimbly. “I have a strong sense of self—I knew that it was all going to be okay. I knew then I was going to take that situation and make it work for me. I would go on, raise my son, and keep living.”
And keep on he did. When his care team visited to prepare him for the typical period of adjustment that follows an amputation, the first thing they warned him and Alzorra about was depression.
Alzorra began laughing. “He’s already gone through depression—it lasted about a minute and a half.” Quander was ready to begin adjusting to his new body right away, and he requested a walker.
“I told the doctor, ‘Whatever goals you set, tell me what the benchmarks are, and I’ll surpass them.’ If they said walk 150 feet, I walked 300.” When Quander received his first prosthetic leg, he and his family embarked on a year of travel in an RV while they figured out what to do next. “I did anything I wanted—I climbed rocks, hiked, rode horses, went to the beach. I didn’t know what not to do because I didn’t think in that way.”
Quander credits part of his resilience to practicing techniques he learned from theater, especially the Alexander Technique, which has to do with the alignment of the spine and manner of breathing. “When you’re aware of how you’re breathing,” he says, “it affects every aspect of your being. Awareness of breath is the single most important thing for amputees, new or old, in order to own their own bodies.”
Yoga and meditation have also played a big role in his recovery. After experiencing phantom limb pain with his first prosthetic device, he turned to meditation, which he’s practiced for nearly 30 years. In the rare moments when he experiences the sensation, he returns to his mantra.
If his theatrical skill set has helped him heal, Quander is also grateful that his amputation has helped him renew his relationship with the theater. “Sometimes the universe puts you where you need to be,” he says. And after reconnecting with his longtime producing partner, William Haugabrook, he realized that where he needed to be was back with the AATE, rebooting the production of A Soldier’s Play that had been so well received nearly 20 years earlier.
The original script of A Soldier’s Play was set in 1944, with an all-black, male cast. Haugabrook raised the idea of revisiting the play in the light of the #MeToo movement, this time with an all-female cast. In addition to setting the play in the current era for contemporary relevance, Quander hopes to cast an amputee actor for one of the roles.
“From now on, whenever I can, I will always have a disabled artist in produc-tions,” he promises. He notes that although the character in A Soldier’s Play is scripted as an amputee, he plans to cast amputees in all sorts of roles where their limb loss or difference is merely incidental.
Quander says he is frequently contacted by aspiring actors who are amputees. When they ask for advice on breaking into theater, his advice is simply to begin putting yourself out there. If you haven’t acted before, community theater auditions are a great place to get your feet wet. Acting classes can allow you to hone your craft and surround yourself with like-minded people, he says. And organizations such as the National Disability Theatre, the Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment, and Theater Breaking Through Barriers support the careers of actors with disabilities in particular.
Quander is represented by Gail Williamson of Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates, a firm specializing in actors with disabilities. They contacted him after becoming familiar with his work, a resounding confirmation that being an amputee wouldn’t negatively impact his career.
At 49, Quander is just getting started. In addition to directing the AATE production, he serves as a peer educator in special education in his local school district and is raising funds for a trip to his father’s home country of Ghana to help bring prosthetic limbs to Ghanaian amputees. He has recently become a certified life coach for amputees, as well as the owner of a tea company. And he’s booked a gig as Titus Andronicus for his first official return to the stage in summer 2020.
“In my work as an actor,” he says, “I’ve been so many people. It’s all within you—you just have to tap into it. I’m not supposed to be Robert De Niro—I’m supposed to be Eric Quander. You’ve got to love yourself and embrace the opportunity.”
For More Information
African American Theatrical Ensemble www.theaate.com