Just seven years later, her Performing Arts Academy of Marin (PAAM) has grown so much as to need a new 6,000-square-foot facility in Strawberry, with more than 400 students taking over 80 classes a week from a faculty of 13 instructors. Was all that part of the plan?
“I’d always wanted to be in the position where we are right now,” Thistle says. “I am always trying to create an environment where we can serve more kids and offer more to the community. We now have gathering spaces for the kids and families. We’ve worked very hard to build this community. And for a lot of these kids, they have friends that they wouldn’t have had otherwise – I’m thrilled.”
The community agrees, in spades. A quick glance at Yelp reviews reveals a deep outpouring of support from PAAM parents:
- “It is a labor of love for the passionate director and her well-chosen staff, and it shows every single day in the quality of the instruction across all disciplines of the performing arts … We can say without reservation that the PAAM community has been one of the most positive influences in her life to date.”
- “The staff has a real talent for sharing their craft that requires focus and dedication while simultaneously making the experience a whole lot of fun. Annie ... is professional, compassionate, and a true role model for my young tween who has gained immeasurable skill, confidence and self-worth in the PAAM conservatory and summer camps over the years.”
- “My teen daughter's friend base at the studio is fantastic mirroring the studio's philosophy of supporting each other on and off of the stage. She has become an accomplished dancer and performer at PAAM as well. I am extremely grateful to have such a supportive and creative learning environment here in Marin.”
Thistle’s journey began at the age of three, when she got her first tutu and attended her first ballet class.
“I stuck with it immediately and never wavered,” she says.
She then expanded her interest into performing arts, where she’s stayed ever since.
“That’s where I found my true passion, combining my love of singing and acting with my inherent love of dance,” she says. “Performing arts has been the ultimate outlet for creative expression, release and exercise throughout my entire life.”
Thistle’s family moved around a bit during her early years – her dad was in the beverage business, a gig that took the family from Louisville, Kentucky to Lincoln, Nebraska to Grosse Pointe, Michigan and eventually to the Bay Area, where he worked for Brown-Forman and specifically its Fetzer Vineyards brand.
But the connection to performing arts never ceased, through her years at San Domenico Middle School and St. Ignatius and then onto Boston College.
After graduating summa cum laude, Thistle stayed in Boston for three more years to perform professionally in musicals for a variety of dance companies. She knew that she eventually wanted to start teaching, but needed to scratch the performing itch first.
“I knew that I needed to explore that avenue and doing that really allowed me to move forward as a educator,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been fully satisfied if I hadn’t.”
While in Boston, she met her husband DJ, a teacher who in 2012 launched SteamFeed, a blog that focuses on the latest trends in social media, technology, and marketing. As the couple thought about next steps, DJ fell in love with Mill Valley and the greater Bay Area and they decided to move back.
Thistle launched PAAM in her living room, teaching a dozen local girls and eventually moving into space at the Community Church of Mill Valley in summer 2009. As the program grew too big for the church, Thistle opened her first location in the Alto Plaza shopping center in January 2010, a 1,600-square-foot space near where UPS and Starbucks are now.
After three years there, it became clear to Thistle that a much bigger space was needed, so she leased the 2,800-square-foot storefront space above Balboa Cafe at Mill Creek Plaza. And in late 2015, as PAAM had gone back to using space at the Community Church for extension classes because the Miller Ave. space was no longer enough, she decided to go ever bigger at 60 Belvedere Drive in Strawberry, just behind the Strawberry Village shopping center.
“We’re really happy to get under one roof,” she says. “It’s just been exponential.”
As PAAM has grown, its ties to local schools have grown as well. PAAM has contributed to programs at Edna Maguire, Tam Valley Elementary, Strawberry Point, Old Firehouse Preschool, Marin Day Schools, Marin Primary, St. Patricks, St. Marks, St. Hilary and the Mill Valley Library. Thistle’s 4-year-old daughter Kenadie attends Marin Horizon’s preschool, and PAAM does a first grade enrichment program through Edna Maguire, as well as the "America Sings" program through Kiddo!'s Drama Block Grants.
As she feverishly seeks to get completely settled into the new space, and readies her students for their performance of Shrek this weekend at the Civic Center in San Rafael, AND is 30 weeks pregnant with her second child, Thistle takes a brief second to reflect on the journey so far.
“I’m just surrounded by amazing people,” she says.