If you ask Sandy Bremer how she felt about receiving the Community Medal of Arts Award for 2020, she will tell you just how horrified she was — not at the award itself, which she was honored by, but at the thought of having to get up in front of a group of people and speak.
“I was afraid that I’d have to say something in front of people,” says the 60–year–old actor/director/choreographer/teacher whose career has been all about standing up in front of people.
How’s that again?
“When you perform, you play somebody else and you’re reading lines written by somebody. You’re completely different,” Bremer explains. “When teaching, you’re teaching in front of people about something else. Nothing’s focused on yourself.”
But if there has been one thing positive from the Covid–19 pandemic for Bremer, it was that she received the award via a Zoom meeting.
Bremer was awarded the Community Medal of Arts Award for her dedication to teaching and directing in the Kalamazoo arts community, having worked with Farmers Alley Theatre and the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and as a teacher with Education for the Arts, an organization dedicated to bringing arts education to nine public school districts in the area.
“It’s an honor, of course,” she says.
From bean counter to Broadway tours
Bremer grew up in Portage and attended Western Michigan University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in accounting, of all things. After graduating, she worked for First National Bank and did community theater at the Civic and the New Vic.
“Sandy was the performer in Kalamazoo in the 1980s,” says Janet Gover, former marketing director for the Civic and an actress who performed with Bremer many times. When Bremer auditioned and won the role of Marty in a production of Grease by Tibbits Summer Theatre in Coldwater in 1988 (Gover was alongside her, playing Cha–Cha), it became the catalyst for Bremer to pursue theater work full time.
“Janet and I had a blast in that show. I really was over the nine to five and the bank,” says Bremer. “That summer just made me realize that my passion was performing and theater, and I needed to continue on that path and try to make a living as an actor. “
During the next several years Bremer toured the country, performing in the national tours of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, The Pajama Game, The Pirates of Penzance and Tintypes. Between tours, she auditioned and won a role for a show at the renowned Derby Dinner Playhouse in Louisville, Kentucky. She opted to go back out on tour instead, but when it was over, she contacted the Derby again.
“There was an opening in the upcoming show, so I threw caution to the wind and based myself in Louisville, thinking, ‘I can work out of there just as well as anywhere in the country,’” she says. She spent the next 15 years as a resident company member of the renowned Derby Dinner Playhouse, where she appeared in such roles as Mama Rose in Gypsy, the title character in Mame, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Sheila in A Chorus Line, and Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun.
“Name any lead female musical theater role, and Sandy has probably performed it,” Gover says.
After Bremer gave birth to her daughter, Bonnie, in 1999, she pulled back from performing after realizing that her performance schedule kept her from coveted time at home with her growing girl. And when Bremer’s husband,
Neil Bremer, was offered a position as executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo in 2010, the trio packed up and headed to Kalamazoo.
Going to the ‘dark side’
Sandy Bremer saw this move as an opportunity for her to go to “the dark side (meaning the behind–the–scenes work of theater),” she says with a conspiratorial eyebrow wag. She began directing and choreographing shows at the Civic Theatre, and when an opportunity to teach with EFA came her way, she seized it.
With EFA, Bremer is a theater teaching artist who educates students in three areas: aesthetic arts education, which exposes them to a variety of arts disciplines and teaches them to view and consume art critically; the PACE program, which teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade about theatrical dance, movement and expression; and the Alternative Arts Initiative, which allows students in nontraditional schooling to participate in arts programs. It’s through this initiative that Bremer presents multisensory theater performances for kids on the autism spectrum.
Bremer considers becoming a teacher and director as a natural progression for those in the arts. Fortunate enough to have been able to make a living performing at the beginning of her career, Bremer is acutely aware of how rare that is in any arts discipline.
“Everybody says (when) you’re going into theater, ‘Well, then what are you going to do with your life?’” Bremer says. “So (receiving the Community Medal of Arts Award) was kind of an acknowledgment that, yeah, you’ve made the right decision. You have had an impact on others.”
During her eight years teaching with EFA, Bremer says her most rewarding experience has been putting together the multisensory performance The Snowflake Man at the Civic in 2018. Multisensory performances are written and designed to be inclusive for children on the autism spectrum who may find it challenging to enjoy more typical theater performances.
The Snowflake Man followed a man who was obsessed with snowflakes. The performance included piles of fake snow for kids to touch, mist to simulate snowfall and, at the end, snow.
“The big thing was, at the end, it snowed. So we had a snow machine and it snowed on them, which was — talk about just making you die every day and cry,” Bremer recalls. “These kids were just in the snow. It was so fabulous.”
Passing it on
Bremer and her teaching colleagues eagerly await the return of in–person performances. As much fun as she has had going into virtual classrooms, it does not compare to the real thing, she says.
“The village sent me on my way and I came back, and now I’m ready to send a bunch of others on their way,” Bremer says. “The biggest thing is that I really feel like you’re supposed to give back and teach your craft because you learned from people and it’s your obligation to give back to the community. And my community is Kalamazoo.”