By anyone’s account, Bryan Zocher is a man who has worn and still wears many hats.
The actor, playwright, educator and Wausau, Wis., native is now at the helm of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency’s Education for the Arts program after a career that spanned the gamut of the performing-arts world and brought him to what he describes as “the perfect place.”
“No matter if I worked as a playwright, director or producer, I’ve always been interested in developing art- and community-based projects through building unique coalitions,” says Zocher who assumed the EFA
post in March 2012. “When I moved to Kalamazoo (26 years ago) and saw the wealth of arts institutions, the community’s DNA of creativity and innovation, and the depth of the philanthropic resources, I called a buddy from college and said, ‘I think I’ve found the perfect place to be an entrepreneurial artist.’”
Zocher began his ecletic arts career after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s theater performance program. His post-college work took him from New York City to Pennsylvania to Seattle to the Dakotas before he was lured to Kalamazoo by a posting for a master actor-scriptwriter position with the then newly formed Mad Hatters Educational Theater. It was the beginning of a long career in Southwest Michigan’s arts community.
For Zocher, the road from actor, director and playwright to administrator has been paved with opportunities. “In the 1990s, between the great economy and a willingness for organizations to take a risk on an energetic go-getter, I was able to get my foot in the door as a teaching artist and program developer with school districts, arts councils and community colleges,” he says. “I’d walk through the door and say, ‘Here’s my vision. Here’s my experience. Here’s where we can get the money, and, by the way, I’ll even write the grant.’” That is, if the grants weren’t already in place, as they were with his first Kalamazoo job.
As the master actor-scriptwriter with the Mad Hatters, an organization whose mission was to promote positive attitudes toward people with special needs and disabilities, Zocher visited schools, corporations and retreats, using short dramas in which he would assume the roles of up to 10 characters, from a 5-year-old deaf boy to a truck driver paralyzed in a car accident. Through a facilitator, he would converse with audiences, breaking down barriers and misconceptions. Zocher called it a “truly transformational experience,” both for audience members and himself.
Zocher left the Mad Hatters (which later disbanded) to became a theater program coordinator at Kellogg Community College, in Battle Creek, expanding the program’s two productions a year to four and adding a children’s theater production. “It was a time and place where an artist who had energy, vision and drive, balanced with business-minded, practical, logical sense, could piece together an economic living,” he says. “Most projects weren’t full-time jobs, but everything was a learning situation.”
After leaving KCC, Zocher worked with the United Arts Council of Calhoun County (now the Calhoun County Arts Council) as a carpenter and then as program director of the Discovery Theater, which had a 20-week season and a week-long family festival in the streets of Battle Creek. He also spent three years as an Artist in Residence with the Van Buren Intermediate School District, thanks to a Michigan Council for the Arts grant. “I was afforded opportunities for on-the-job learning and training that were just amazing,” he says.
In 1995, when KRESA’s Education for the Arts program was just getting started, Zocher says, he “got this inkling that EFA was going to be an integral aspect of education in Kalamazoo County and quickly found a way to be a voice at the table.”
It wasn’t long before Zocher suggested to EFA’s first director, Jeffrey Harkins, that EFA should offer a course on playwriting. “I just happened to be a playwright, and I also knew of a great Michigan Council for the Arts grant for an Artist in Residence,” Zocher says.
Toward the end of his first stint with EFA, Zocher became its associate executive, overseeing a number of programs and writing grants. “For better or worse, I started to become less and less of a playwright and artist and more of more of a grant writer and program director.”
In 2004, in the midst of all these career moves, Zocher earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in performing-arts management from Western Michigan University. In 2006, he accepted a position as a program officer with the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation. “Once again, a life-changing experience,” he says, “and an opportunity to deeply learn about the community.”
“It was an opportunity, in some ways, to get back to my Mad Hatters roots by getting involved with a myriad of human-service and community-development agencies,” he says. “It was inspiring and humbling to assist the people that fuel our nonprofits — their energy and dedication — and to work with the trustees and staff of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, who have deep roots in Kalamazoo and were implementing Mr. Gilmore’s desire to build a vibrant Kalamazoo that provided a high quality of life for everyone.”
However, five years later, when Harkins announced his retirement from EFA, Zocher felt a “strong pull” to apply for the job, which he ultimately got.
A great fit
Zocher says that this newest hat with EFA may fit him best of all because it combines his passion for the arts, his organizational skills and his entrepreneurial spirit. The EFA program is an award-winning and nationally recognized comprehensive arts organization that calls itself “a magnet school for the arts without walls.” As the program’s top administrator, Zocher builds coalitions between schools and arts organizations and between students and arts opportunities.
The EFA program is divided into two parts: Excellence in the Arts, which provides specialized high school arts classes, and Arts for All, which provides K-8 teaching artist residencies, alternative- and special-education partnerships, Lincoln Center Institute-inspired aesthetic education, student scholarships and teacher grants.
Excellence in the Arts is funded primarily by a portion of the per-pupil funding that school districts receive from the state of Michigan and endowment funds held at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. Arts for All (K-8) is funded by Irving S. Gilmore Foundation grants, endowment funds held at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, KRESA operational funds, School District program fees, Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs grants, and smaller local grants.
“One of the great things about EFA is that our work encompasses the whole spectrum of arts education,” Zocher says. “On the one end, EFA is there for those young people who are looking at the arts as a career, but EFA also has many entry points for Kalamazoo County students to explore, create and develop through the arts and for teachers to facilitate different ways of knowing through using the arts to develop creativity, innovation and critical-thinking skills.”
Arts education has taken serious hits in the last couple of years due to drops in funding for schools and their focus on academic rigor as they try to meet both federal and state standards. In Kalamazoo, KRESA’s EFA has picked up the slack by broadening its offerings and providing more support to classroom teachers for arts education.
One such offering is a blended-learning media arts course that EFA plans to launch this fall and that will include both an online component and studio time. EFA is also in the process of starting two statewide online courses — Creative Writing and Digital Storytelling — through the Michigan Virtual University. “My vision and goal is for EFA to become the brand for Michigan online arts educational programming,” Zocher says.
With his years of experience and obvious drive, Zocher may well achieve that goal.
“My career journey has gone from being a practicing artist with an entrepreneurial bent to being a facilitator where I can help develop the foundation for teachers and artists to have the tools and the creative space to work with students. Who knows? Someday I may get back to being an artist, but right now I find so much energy and creativity in this work that it satisfies the artist in me. I guess I’m no different than a lot of people who want to pay it forward.”