September 15, 2017 | By Chuck Carlson
Zach Fischer has heard the stories. All of them. More than once. And just about all the versions, too.
It goes something like this: Wide-eyed kid is bitten with the acting bug and moves to New York City, where thousands of other wide-eyed kids bitten with the acting bug have converged.
It is a difficult, soul-crushing adventure, but this kid is undaunted and he goes to dozens of auditions, waits tables to pay the bills, lives in a Brooklyn one-bedroom apartment with five other roommates, and goes to dozens of auditions seeking that big break.
Fischer, Albion College’s Theatre Department chair and assistant professor, smiles. Oh, yeah, he’s heard them all. And he lived through much of it in his 14 years pursuing his acting dream in the big, bad city.
“But I didn’t have five roommates,” he said. “And I was lucky enough not to have to wait tables.”
He did, however, take a day job as a bike messenger in Manhattan.
“I was horrible,” he said. “It’s amazing I’m not dead.”
Fischer was also a hotel doorman, along with many of his actor friends, and they would routinely abandon their posts for the next audition, which often resulted in disappointment until, of course, the next audition came along.
“I tell my students there are a lot of easier ways to become rich and famous,” he said.
In time, Fischer did indeed carve out a nice acting career, appearing in lead roles in Off-Broadway productions and in equity theaters around the country like the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Virginia Stage Company, among many others.
He also earned small parts in such TV shows as The Americans, Law & Order, 30 Rock and Gossip Girl.
“My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and if I’m in a TV show, I usually play a bad lawyer,” he cracked.
Fischer, a San Diego native, found acting in college, and not for the fame and fortune and adulation that might result, but for a deep and abiding love of the work. After all, as he learned from years of experience, it’s the passion for the craft that truly matters.
And that’s something else he relays to his students at Albion College.
“If you do it because you want to be famous, it won’t sustain you for a year in New York,” he said. “You have to be willing to do it for free. You have to love it.”
And Fischer does love acting. Perhaps more to the point these days, though, is that he loves teaching acting. Indeed, he’s not sure teaching the craft wasn’t always part of the plan anyway, even in those years when he sought roles along with, seemingly, everyone else.
His eyes were opened to it when he attended Willamette University in Oregon. “I was profoundly changed by the teachers there,” he said.
He would go on to earn his master’s of fine arts in classical acting from Florida State University’s Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
That’s when he struck off for New York, where he figured he’d spend a career immersed in performing Shakespeare.
But along the way he began helping other actors prepare for auditions; he soon realized that not only did he enjoy it, he was also pretty good at it.
He then received an opportunity for a temporary teaching assignment back at Willamette. “It was an amazing opportunity,” he said. “I fell in love with it. And it was a great holiday from obsessing about my own acting career. I didn’t want to give it up.”
In the summer of 2016, still acting after returning to New York, Fischer decided it was time to find a full-time teaching gig. It wasn’t long before Albion came calling.
“It all happened very quickly,” he said.
He came to the department last fall as a visiting assistant professor, then was converted to tenure-track and named chair at the end of the 2017 spring semester. He has helped reshape the department with assistance from three other new colleagues—technical director Joel Klain, costume designer professors Kimberley Y. Jones and Stephanie Henderson. The four of them join Mark Hoffland, who has taught and directed plays at Albion since 2007.
Along the way Fischer has brought some new techniques, some new philosophy and, perhaps, a vision that he could only have imagined spending all those years in the trenches with a thousand other actors.
“I want students to let go of the need to produce a result on stage,” he said. “It’s a lot of teaching them to get out of their own way. People respond to that. They’re honest and they understand, and that’s rare for young actors.”
These days, Herrick Theatre is buzzing with the anticipation of two productions over the next two months. The first is On the Verge, directed by Hoffland, that will run September 21-24 and 28-30. The second is Henrik Ibsen’s Public Enemy, directed by Fischer and set for November 9-12 and 16-18.
In 2018, the student-directed Almost, Maine, will be unveiled February 15-18 and 22-24; the final production of the academic year will be Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, set for April 12-15 and 20-21 and which Fischer will direct.
Perhaps the biggest change for the department is that the shows will run over two weekends instead of one as in previous years.
“We can take advantage of word of mouth and it allows students more of a chance to see how shows grow over the course of a run,” Fischer said.
Terra Travis, ’18, a communications major with a minor in theatre, has been involved with the theatre program since she was a freshman. And she has noticed a difference since Fischer came on board.
“He rekindled my love of theatre,” said Travis, who has major parts in the first two productions this season and actually came to Albion as an intended theatre major. “Zach has definitely held all the students and the professors at a high standard. He said we are a department at Albion College and Albion is a phenomenal school, so our theater program should be phenomenal.”
Fischer is also tapping into a rich and unique local theatre community that has companies in Albion, Marshall, Jackson and Battle Creek, to name just a few.
“For theatre to be powerful and effective, it’s got to not only be in the community, but of the community,” he said.
And that’s another acting story he’d love to tell.