In January of 2012, Mary Settle Cooney and David Hope as representatives of the Tennessee Valley Art Association and the Ritz Theatre, met with the superintendents of Colbert County, Lauderdale County, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia school systems.

They proposed an idea to start a school where they could audition students from the various school systems on both sides of the river in the Shoals.

If selected, the students would come to the Ritz once a week to participate in acting, voice or dance classes. Students could audition for any combination of classes.

The school was named The Ritz School for the Performing Arts.

“The idea for the school is this: Those school systems are not financially in the position to offer these things to the students in these individual schools,” Hope said. “Because there would probably not be enough students interested in each of these schools to warrant a teacher to teach a class like this.”

Hope said they knew, however, there would be plenty of students across the Shoals who would enjoy taking a class such as this — students who are both talented and interested in the material.

The students, Hope said, didn’t have the opportunity to explore their talents and interests in a traditional school setting, leaving the talent to sit there relatively untapped.

So Hope and Cooney scheduled a meeting with the school superintendents.

“They all five agreed immediately that such a program would be very, very valuable, and that they would love to be a part of it,” Hope said.

The classes provide in-depth training from experienced instructors. And because they’re selective with which students they accept, the performing arts school personnel can ensure they provide the best teaching environments for their students. Because a student must apply to the school, there aren’t disruptive students or students who would rather be somewhere else.

This year, 50 students from 15 schools in Colbert and Lauderdale Counties auditioned and 30 students from 10 schools were accepted.

“They’re not only getting the opportunity to be in a dance class, to be in a voice class, to be in an acting class,” Hope said. “But they’re getting training that is way beyond what the overwhelming majority of high school students get.”

Hope said if students stay in the program, they have to re-audition each year.

The students also stand a better chance at getting scholarship opportunities.

“It’s nice to get different ideas so I can form my own and figure out how I like to do things,” said Michaela Allsup, a junior at Wilson in Lauderdale County.

Allsup said she encourages other students to apply to be a part of the school and not be worried about rejection — something she said is a natural part of the performing arts.

“I probably wouldn’t be doing anything or putting myself out there,” Meghan Raney, a freshman at Wilson, who said she wanted to be involved in a performing arts school for a long time.

Meg McGuire, a junior at Muscle Shoals, said she has taken a lot from the classes, things such as opening up, which she said helps her in her day-to-day relationships.

“It was that moment when I learned that acting is more about vulnerability than anything.” McGuire said. “You have to make yourself open and vulnerable before you do anything.”

Katlyn Barnes, a freshman at Deshler in Tuscumbia, who said she wants to pursue performing arts potentially as a career, said she has learned to analyze and think about what’s going on.

“The way it’s put, just makes me think more and opens it up more,” Barnes said.

This year, the Ritz School for the Performing Arts will have its end-of-the-year Student Showcase on Thursday at the Ritz Theatre, a highlight of what the students have learned in dance, acting and singing.

Bobby Bozeman can be reached at 256-740-5722 or bobby.bozeman@TimesDaily.com.

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Bobby Bozeman can be reached at 256-740-5722 or bobby.bozeman@TimesDaily.com.

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