Arts and Entertainment

New performing arts school opens on Redmond Ridge

Students rehearse for the Redmond Academy of Theatre Arts’ debut performance, “A Chorus Line,” which will be July 14-17 at the Redmond Performing Arts Center at Redmond High School. - Courtesy Photo
Students rehearse for the Redmond Academy of Theatre Arts’ debut performance, “A Chorus Line,” which will be July 14-17 at the Redmond Performing Arts Center at Redmond High School.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

A new theater school has opened on Redmond Ridge for young aspiring thespians and performers.

The Redmond Academy of Theatre Arts (RATA) was founded by Kelly Willis, a Sammamish resident with an extensive background in theater performance and teaching. The school is open to students from preschool to high school and offers lessons in musical theater dance, acting, voice and theater production. With RATA still in its infant stages, the academy is only offering dance classes on Saturdays this summer. Willis — who in addition to being the founding director is also the academy's artistic director — said when school starts in the fall RATA will offer its full range of after school and Saturday classes.

RATA is also currently rehearsing for its debut production, "A Chorus Line." The musical will be showing July 14-17 at the Redmond Performing Arts Center at Redmond High School, located at 17272 N.E. 104th St. Show times are 7 p.m. each day with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $12 at the door.

A native of Columbia, Mo., Willis has a bachelor's degree in theater performance, specializing in dance, from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in acting and directing from Southern Illinois University. Before settling in Sammamish, Willis and her husband performed together in theater productions around the country. The couple actually met while performing and spent the first three years of their marriage touring and working on cruise ships.

"We did a lot of performing," Willis said.

Since their arrival in the Northwest, Willis has become very active in the local performing arts community. She began her career as a dance instructor at a studio in Redmond. The job began as a part-time position as Willis worked to help support her new family, but it eventually grew into a full-time position.

She moved on to work at the Washington Academy of Performing Arts in Redmond. Willis said several of her students moved on to perform on Broadway.

"This was an exciting time for me," she said.

The school closed in 2004 and Willis freelanced for seven years, offering her teaching and theater experience to Redmond schools throughout the Lake Washington School District (LWSD). She worked on productions predominately at the junior high level but did do some work at Redmond High as well.

Willis (above) said one of the things she loves about working with kids is seeing them learn about themselves in theater. Her favorite part of the job is seeing kids experience "the lightbulb moment," when they figure something out for the first time — whether it's a dance move or hitting a hard-to-reach note.

"I love what I do," Willis said.

Throughout her freelancing years, Willis toyed with the idea of opening her own performing arts school. The opportunity for her to do so came when she began working with Aman Narula, founder and president of Positive Ally, an after-school program on Redmond Ridge with a mission to promote "leadership and life skills in young people through organized sports, academic reinforcement, and extra-curricular activities."

As theater falls under extracurriculars, Narula hired Willis as an independent contractor to teach theater to the elementary school-aged students at Positive Ally. He said the two of them "just clicked" when they first spoke and when he learned about Willis' idea to start a performance arts school, Narula offered to let her rent his space at Positive Ally, at 22330 N.E. Marketplace Drive, Suite 121, during his program's off hours in the evening and weekends.

Since RATA opened Willis said she is excited because this is the first time she is working for herself on such a large scale. This being said, the work she has been doing is nothing different from what she's been doing in the past.

"Even though this seems new, it's not really," Willis said. "I've been doing this for 20 years. It's the first time I've been doing this for myself."

Narula, who has sat in on a number of rehearsals for "A Chorus Line" and watched Willis work with her students, said the teens are very familiar with her as they have worked with her in the past and just respond to her. He credits this connection partly to Willis' extensive theater experience and her knowing the business, but also to the fact that Willis is a mother and just a very loving person.

"She knows what she's doing, that's for sure," he said.

As he has watched rehearsals, Narula also said the teens are very committed to the production and have been training hard.

"I'm pretty sure ('A Chorus Line' is) going to be very, very well received," he said.

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