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Teacher, Director, Mentor and Mom

Local Educator Finds Balance and Strength Along Life's Winding Path

Article by Lynette Confer

Photography by Maile Mason Photography

Originally published in Bend Lifestyle

In celebration of women, Mother’s Day, and our Women’s Issue, we sat down with educator and Redmond Proficiency Academy (RPA) High School Theatre Director Kate Torcom to hear of her journey that led her back to her roots in Central Oregon. A journey that found her pursuing her long-held vision of a career on the professional stage in Chicago, then finding the courage to change the course of her life to follow a new path.

Chicago born, but Oregon-raised, Kate Torcom grew up with a deep love for Oregon. “From the time I was born, we spent every summer in Oregon,” reflects Torcom. Before her sophomore year of high school, her family made a permanent move to Redmond where Torcom attended Redmond High School.

After high school, Torcom attended Southern Oregon University (SOU) in Ashland. During college, she worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), both on stage and with their educational programs. Then, in her junior year of college, Torcom had the opportunity to teach at Northwestern University’s Cherubs program in Chicago, a renowned summer intensive theatre program for high school juniors. 

In 2012 Torcom graduated from SOU with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre. Her goals were clear and her mind made up. She was headed to Chicago to pursue a career on the professional stage. But, a call from her former Redmond High School principal, Jon Bullock, by this time the Executive Director and co-founder of Redmond Proficiency Academy (RPA), was the first fork in the road for her. “The day after graduation Jon called and offered me a job teaching theatre at RPA Middle School,” Torcom explained. Having lost her dad during her freshman year of college, Torcom decided this teaching opportunity would allow her to move home to support her mom, and also save money for her move to Chicago.

“Looking back I had no idea what I was doing that first year, but I did love it,” she recalls. However, after one year of teaching, Torcom set off to Chicago. “I had a plan, a track to follow and I was set on that.”

During her time in Chicago, Torcom worked with Second City Theatre and Shattered Globe Theatre, gaining experience and success along the way. As many artists do, she also worked several day jobs. It was at one of these jobs that she met her husband, Mike Swiatkowski. “I kept telling him that we weren't going to date," Torcom laughs. "After all, I had a plan!" 

Meeting her husband was not the only turning point for Torcom. She described one moment on stage when her mind was on a former student who had called for advice. “The stage lights were on me and I did the thing you are absolutely not supposed to do on stage . . . I was not living in the moment with my monologue the only thing in my head,” Torcom reflects. “I loved being on stage, but for the first time ever I caught myself doubting. I realized that maybe I could be doing even more with my life. It just sort of snuck up on me and hit me all at once.”

Soon after, Torcom and Swiatkowski made a move to Central Oregon where she had been offered a position as Theatre Director for RPA High School. The two were married at Sparks Lake in 2019 and their son, Chase, was born in 2021.

“Sometimes you are stretching for different things when something amazing comes along,” notes Torcom. “It’s important to plan and know where you are going, but you always have to be ready, be flexible and willing to pivot. Sometimes what you find is miraculous. My life now is everything to me.”

“I never really understood what moms went through, and now my respect for women as a whole is endless,” states Torcom. “But also, as a teacher, I thought I cared about my students before.  Chase is the best thing that ever happened to me, and all these kids are the best thing that ever happened to these parents . . . they trust me with their kids.” This trust, and what Torcom has learned from her journey of motherhood, is one of her greatest gifts. Through these experiences, she has also gained a new appreciation for her own mother, a person she says taught her that every relationship matters.

When it comes to her work as an educator and director, Torcom has more than proven herself.  “Kate brings to RPA and to the students a real sense of what the theatre and creative arts world looks like out in the real world. And she has proven to be a very passionate educator,” states Bullock. “She has great drive for the success of the students, and her ability to motivate students to chase their dreams is really powerful, and it empowers the students.”

“I don’t have a lot of interest in directing at the professional level. Working with these students at this level is magical.” Torcom remarks. Her philosophy with her students is, “I allow them to ‘throw spaghetti’! I give them space to be themselves, to offer ideas, to make mistakes and the freedom to experiment. The biggest thing is student ownership. It took me a long time to learn that letting go and letting them make their own discoveries actually took them to the best places."

Under Torcom’s leadership, RPA Theatre has become a widely acclaimed performing arts program. In February, RPA won 42 medals at the regional thespian competition, with many of these students going on to compete at the Oregon State Thespian Festival. “One of our greatest accomplishments on paper is that we are an eight-time international award-winning theatre department,” Torcom states. “It’s pretty miraculous.” RPA Theatre also brings to stage two continually sold-out shows per year at their McClay Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Redmond.

According to Lydia Carter, a senior at RPA and fourth-year theatre student, “Torcom creates a safe space for us where we can be our real, true selves. She teaches us how to be a decent human being at work, at school, in life. The number one thing I learned from her, from RPA, is how to accept myself through achievements and through failures and flaws, to accept that I am human and I am good enough, that the work I do is good enough.”

Torcom admits that she constantly strives to find balance in her life. “I’ve learned so much about myself through my journey and I’m proud of where I am right now,” she explains. “I’m working to find balance in life as a director, a teacher, a mentor and a mom. Seeking balance has allowed everything to soften. I think there’s a lot of strength in softening that a younger me would not have understood.”

To manage stress and stay healthy, Torcom relies on support from her family, physical activity, time outdoors and regularly utilizes acupuncture. “I do think it’s important to acknowledge that balance comes and goes in life,” she remarks. And, she’s learning to be ok with that.

“I was so one-track minded in college . . . I saw my life, my goals, my future in a narrow way,” reflects Torcom. “I saw myself on stage, the end. While being on stage is amazing, being a mom is way cooler. I had no idea how badly I wanted and needed that in my life.”

Probably the most important lesson learned so far is, “That I am enough, we are all enough,” Torcom firmly states. “That does not mean you don’t have to work hard, you still have to put in the work. But, who you are is always inherently enough, in any moment.”

RPAcademy.org

“Sometimes you are stretching for different things when something amazing comes along."
– Kate Torcom, RPA Theatre Director and Teacher
 

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