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Utah musical theater teacher honored with national award

Katelin Ruzzamenti Knight will receive the Jimmys’ Inspiring Teacher Award in online ceremonies.

(The Jimmy Awards) Katelin Ruzzamenti Knight.

Two years after a Utah teen won the highest musical theater honor for high school students, his teacher will be presented with the Inspiring Teacher Award.

Katelin Ruzzamenti Knight, the musical theater director at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, will be presented with the Jimmy Awards “Inspiring Teacher Award” on Saturday. She’s taught musical theater and acting and been the director for five years, “and I never expected this.”

The National High School Theatre Awards — aka the Jimmys — are sponsored by the Broadway League Foundation and named in honor of Broadway producer, theater owner and 10-time Tony winner James M. Nederlander (1922-2016). The New York Times called the Jimmys “the Tonys for teenagers.”

Pre-pandemic, state winners traveled to New York City — to Broadway — where they spent a week being coached by Broadway actors, directors and choreographers and competing for top awards. At the end of the week, they performed onstage (and online) and learned the winners.

“It’s really such a unique and remarkable tool that these students get to learn and to watch and to experience,” Ruzzamenti Knight said.

(Alex Gallivan | Special to the Tribune) Katelin Ruzzamenti Knight, musical theater teacher, speaks with Ethan Kelso at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts after he won a nationally recognized award for best performance by an actor in New York.

In 2019, Utahn Ethan Kelso was named best actor, and Ruzzamenti Knight — who directed him in “Big Fish” — couldn’t have been more thrilled. But she didn’t expect to be honored by the Jimmys herself.

“It’s really humbling to be able to receive this award on behalf of my production team at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts,” Ruzzamenti Knight said.

(Kelso’s career — along with everyone else in theater — was put on hold by the pandemic. But he’s auditioning for roles on Broadway.)

That she’s feeling humble would be an understatement. She was quick to give credit to choreographer Jessie Metcalf-McCullough, music director Nate Warmboldt, the students, the faculty and the school. “I’m just really grateful to be able to accept this award on behalf of them,” she said, “and I’m grateful to the competition for celebrating teachers in this way.”

In the space of 15 minutes, she mentioned what a “humbling” experience this is a dozen times. While she said her students were “really excited for me and for our school,” she said, her own reaction was that it’s “again, a humbling opportunity.”

As much as she doesn’t want to talk about herself, Ruzzamenti Knight doesn’t hesitate to talk about her students or the school where she’s taught for the past five years.

“If last year taught me one thing,” she said, “it’s that students need the opportunity to have some sort of creative outlet. And it was really humbling last year to be able to provide an opportunity for my students to still get to work hard at something that they love to do — to sing and dance and to act each day. It’s just such a wonderful opportunity for our students to be able to put on these shows and to participate in the Utah High School Musical Theater Awards.

Because of COVID-19, the 2020 Jimmys were canceled. The 2021 Jimmy Awards Show will be virtual, streaming Thursday, July 15, at 5:30 p.m. MDT. Corbin Bleu (”High School Musical”) will host, and you can find information about how to stream the ceremonies at jimmyawards.com.

(A second Inspiring Teacher Award will go to Benjamin Pesenti of Elmont Memorial High School in Elmont, N.Y. He directed the 2019 best actress winner, Ekele Ukegbu.)

As much as she’s, yes, humbled by the award, Ruzzamenti Knight really wants to talk about her ongoing work with her students.

“It’s really great to be able to work with kids who love the performing arts and who love to work on it every day,” she said. “We’re really proud of our program and we are proud that we get to work with these remarkable kids each day.”

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