New Jersey Youth Theatre (NJYT), formerly Westfield Young Artists’ Cooperative Theatre, Inc. (WYACT) is celebrated today as one the most critically acclaimed youth theatre companies in the State of New Jersey. It has been in continuous operation since Broadway veteran and teaching artist Cynthia Meryl founded the company in 1991.
Her visionary goals, then and now, have remained unwavering to this day, and are expressed in the company mission: to provide the highest quality theatre arts education at little or no cost to aspiring young performers seriously interested in entering the professional arena.
In summer 1991, with a small, volunteer, professional staff, the company (WYACT) produced three performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at a Westfield, N.J. middle school, featuring 40 young people ages 8 to18, who participated free of charge.
What emerged from that moment on was a succession of classic musicals and plays produced over the next seven years: one, sometimes two productions each summer at various Union County venues, including the Union County Performing Arts Center and Kean University’s Arts Incubator Festival. “Carnival,” “Camelot,” “The Children’s Hour,” ”Fiorello,” “Stage Door,” and “Crimes of the Heart” were among the popular classics and lesser-known, significant works produced. And each had an all-youth cast participating free of charge.
From year to year, the productions drew so much public attention and critical acclaim that, in 1998, WYACT received an invitation to rehearse and present at the fifth largest performing arts center in the country, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). And WYACT/NJYT summer musicals have been staged at NJPAC ever since, including “Carousel,” “Oliver!,” “Brigadoon,” “Once On This Island,” “South Pacific,” “West Side Story,” “Anything Goes,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Ragtime, The Musical,” “1776,” the workshop premiere of a new musical (co-written by Cynthia Meryl): “Midnight Madness.” and “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Each production featured an all-youth cast, youth orchestra and young technical interns behind the scenes. Six of those shows at NJPAC also toured to the historic Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan, New Jersey, for extended runs.
Every summer, more than 300 youngsters of diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds audition for the shows. To date, more than 1,400 talented young actors, musicians and technicians from nearly all of New Jersey’s 21 counties have received the company’s free professional training and performance experience. For many, this experience opened the door to major theatre arts colleges and universities in the U.S., and for some, it launched their professional theatre career.