Andrea Neahous and Robert Neitzer are living their dreams. Elliot DeMerit and Robin Kotlarek are chasing theirs — the same ones.
DeMerit and Kotlarek, both seniors at Port Washington High School, are about to do something even they didn’t see coming until the reality of their fast-approaching high school graduation sank in.
They will take a pass on traditional four-year college for now and pursue their passion for the stage by enrolling in The Young Americans College of the Performing Arts, a nonprofit organization outside Los Angeles that educates and trains casts of young performers who tour the world with the mission of inspiring confidence, self-esteem and respect in the children and teenagers they work with.
In doing so, they will follow in the footsteps
of Neahous and Neitzer,
2011 graduates of Port High who, inspired by their experiences as students working with The Young Americans, joined the group, toured the world and were in Port Washington last week working with students.
“I would do this forever if I could,” Neahous said.
Their experiences, Neahous and Neitzer said, have been rewarding, to say the least, if not exhausting.
Neahous has toured with The Young Americans in at least 12 countries, everywhere from Japan and Korea to Lithuania and Estonia. She’s been to Japan alone six times and visited at least 80 U.S. cities while on tour.
“We basically live on a bus for three months straight,” she said. “We decorate our seats to make it feel a little more like home.”
Neitzer’s passport looks similar, although he has also toured with The Young Americans in the United Kingdom.
Whether they’re working with students in Southeast Asia or the Midwest, the routine for troupe members is essentially the same.
A cast of between 34 and 45 performers selected for each tour sets out with truckloads of gear bound for schools across the country and around the world.
At their destinations, the performers serve as the stage crew charged with transforming gyms and cafeterias into performance venues complete with lighting and sound systems.
Their real job, however, is that of educators, who during their three-day visits to schools host workshops for students and perform on stage with them.
Their mission is not to prepare their pupils for performance careers but to teach them larger lessons about themselves and their classmates by inspiring them to step out of their comfort zones and onto the stage, where the rewards of singing, dancing and acting are confidence and self-esteem.
That is most obvious when working with children who are reserved, Neitzer said.
“I really enjoy working with shy kids, like this one boy in Germany,” he said. “He was so nervous when he got up on stage to sing a solo that he was shaking. But he nailed it, and let out this huge sigh of relief when he was finished.
“Every time I think about that I get shivers. That was a turning point in my career.”
Neahous said, “Almost every Young American has a similar story.”
It’s not just children who Young Americans bond with. While on the road, they stay with host families — strangers who often become friends in a short amount of time.
“Every three days you have to adapt to a new family,” Neahous said.
Neitzer said, “One of the things I liked best about touring were the home-stays. We stay in contact with a lot of our hosts.”
Young Americans aren’t paid for their work; it’s part of their education, but with host families who shelter and feed them along the way, they don’t have many expenses to worry about.
“I could literally go to Europe for a month with $30 in my pocket and not have a problem,” Neahous said.
After spending three-and-a-half years straight on the road, Neahous stepped away from touring in September to become a resident adviser and office worker at The Young Americans College of the Performing Arts.
It’s getting time, she said, to start thinking about the next step in her life.
“I want to finish my degree and become a kindergarten teacher,” she said. “My dream is to teach in Japan.”
That said, when The Young Americans came to Port Washington last week, Neahous couldn’t resist the chance to join the cast.
“I can’t believe how much I miss this,” she said just before taking the stage at Thomas Jefferson Middle School for Saturday’s performance. “And it’s great to come home and work with kids we know.”
It’s tempting to call Neitzer a former Young American, but it turns out there really is no such a thing. He has stopped touring, and in April will move to Japan to be reunited with his girlfriend, a fellow Young American he met while touring, and enroll in Temple University’s campus in Tokyo to study psychology.
Living in Port Washington temporarily, he stopped at Thomas Jefferson Middle School last week to watch the Young Americans in action and wound up on stage.
“I came the first day and saw this little girl sitting by herself, so I went over and talked to her,” he said. “Finally we agreed that if I went up on stage, she’d go up there too, and all of a sudden I’m in the show.”
Noting that they followed in the footsteps of another Port High alumnus, Curtis Shaurette Jr., who became a Young American after graduating in 2008, Neahous and Neitzer said it’s remarkable that, with the addition of DeMerit and Kotlarek, five local students have decided to join The Young Americans after working with the group during its several visits to Port Washington over the years.
“It’s cool to see that Port Washington will be well represented in the next generation of Young Americans,” Neahous said.
DeMerit and Kotlarek auditioned for acceptance into The Young Americans College of the Performing Arts during one of the group’s summer workshops in Port, but at the time they weren’t thinking seriously about life after high school.
Then came their senior year, and the soul-searching began.
“What sold it for me is, I was looking at colleges and thinking about what I wanted to do, and nothing really stuck out to me,” DeMerit said. “Then I thought, ‘I love to sing. I love to dance. I love to perform. Why not do that until I figure out what to do with the rest of my life?’”
Kotlarek was also looking at four-year colleges.
“I thought I wanted to be a dentist,” she said. “Basically I forgot that I auditioned for The Young Americans until I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and thought, ‘Wait, I can become a Young American and do what I love to do.’
“I know now that I definitely don’t want to become a dentist.”
During their first year of college, DeMerit and Kotlarek will focus on academic and performing arts classes taught on the school’s campus in Corona, Calif. The college also requires its students to participate in its public outreach programs, which includes visiting people living in institutions such as jails and homeless shelters, Neahous said.
They can begin touring during their second year of school, although they will still have to take classes.
“I think traveling all over, never being in one place for very long and teaching so many different people will be awesome,” DeMerit said. “Instead of like on vacation where you just pass through various places, I’ll be able to experience the places we visit and take those experiences with me in life.
“I know this is definitely what I want to do.”
Neahous would be the first to tell DeMerit and Kotlarek they’ve made the right decision.
“I wouldn’t trade my experience with The Young Americans for anything,” Neahous said. “In high school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was afraid I’d go to college and study something I really didn’t like. Then I joined The Young Americans, and all the experiences I’ve had and the friends I’ve made and people around the world I’ve met have been so rewarding.
“Now I have such a better vision of my life.”
Image Information: Posing in front of a cast of Young Americans and the Port Washington-Saukville School District students they performed with last week at Thomas Jefferson Middle School were (from left) Port High senior Elliot DeMerit, Robert Neitzer and Andrea Neahous, who have toured throughout the world with the group, and senior Robin Kotlarek. Photo by Sam Arendt