Tara Young: From Broadway To Dubai
By Anna Robb
Tara Young has worked as an Artistic Director and Associate on over a dozen Broadway Shows and National Tours. In addition to creating musical productions and working with notable groups such as the New York City Ballet, New York City Opera, LA Opera, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Tara lends her vast experience and knowledge of Broadway by leading workshops and appearing as a guest lecturer. Tara’s skills have also been used with Cirque du Soleil on the Michael Jackson’s The Immortal World Tour and Dragone on The Han Show in Wuhan, China.
Tara took some time out from her current work on the creation of “La Perle” in Dubai to speak to TheatreArtLife about work, life, her personal journey and the importance of sharing.
Tara, did you come from a performing arts family?
Tara Young: No, I didn’t start at all from a performing arts family. I started dancing as a little girl and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t realise how helpful it was going to be in my life. Dancing saved me. I had a challenging upbringing, and dance was the one thing I could do consistently in an upbringing that was not so consistent. So, every day after school I went to jazz and tap and ballet. By 10 years old I announced to my family that I was going to be on Broadway and they needed to be ready for that.
Then, sure enough, this little girl from Calgary, Alberta made it there by 18 years old and started working on Broadway as a performer with Liza Minelli.
I turned my challenges into opportunities from a young age. Dance became a discipline I could attach myself to and I followed through with it. My follow through was exemplary.
How did that transition occur from going to dance classes to being on Broadway?
Tara Young: I worked as a goal planner in my head from an early age. At 10 years old I had a vision. I had extremely supportive parents but the upbringing was a challenge and at an early age I learned to have tools in my toolbox to help me every step of the way. I learned early that if you make a plan and follow thru you will succeed. When I realized that solid preparation comes in contact with an opportunity there is success. So, at a very young age, I said, I’m going to make a 1-year plan, a 2-year plan, a 5-year plan and a 10-year plan.
My 10-year plan was to make it to Broadway. Then I started figuring out, working backwards, what I needed to achieve in 1 year to achieve my 10-year goal. It was easy as a kid, I had to be a better dancer.
My 2-year plan thought process was, on Broadway people sing, so I better learn to sing. Then my 5-year plan was to start auditioning for shows. They needed to see me. I don’t know how I managed that. When you are raised in moments of confusion, you either choose to go into the confusion or become rational. I went the rational route and in many ways, I probably would have been an excellent stage manager.
I achieved my 10-year goal and once I achieved that goal, I said to myself, “Well that went well” so let’s do another 1-year, 2-year, 5-year, 10-year plan. My next 10-year plan was that I had to do 10 Broadway shows by the time I was 30.
And everybody was saying to me; “Why are you pushing yourself so hard?”
My response was “You need to achieve something.”
The blessing of this plan is that I achieved it. The curse in this thought process was that I missed out on a thing that is so important, which is called life.
As I was busy making plans, life was happening.
So, by the time I was 30, I was a little depleted because I had done 11 Broadway shows, I had toured the world but I had not fully lived my life. Then 9/11 happened. The world crashed around me. Not only physically because I was in New York and I had dust on my face from the building collapsing, but emotionally I truly had to re-evaluate my goal planning. I think I had fallen in love with my plans more than my own life. My goals and achieving those tasks had taken over and the most important person in the planning was me and I had forgotten her. Let’s be honest, it is in the darkest times that we find new strength to see the light and well in many ways I needed to find the light. I can sit here now at 49 years old and look back on this time and feel only gratitude for the challenges I have faced and it has brought me a confidence that I can handle what comes my way in the future.
In my current life and work, where I need to hire many people, I know now that I want to hire human beings. I don’t want to hire “human doings”. But I have hired “human doings”. When I do, they are overachievers, they’re overqualified, they are everything over, but they are so sad inside. Then I find myself having to manage the sad, instead of managing the work.
I think I was very much like that, a “human doing” from childhood to 30.
It takes some time to understand that we cannot be defined by our awards, we cannot be defined by our last show yet the industry propels us to be defined by our last show.
I am still evolving in this and the concept of “human doing” versus human being.
I feel today, I am different. Now I live in gratitude and forgiveness.
What was your first job in New York City?
Tara Young: My very first job in New York City was at the Radio City Music Hall and I was performing there with Liza Minelli singing and dancing and acting.
How did that feel to perform on such a famous stage? Did it hold that satisfaction that you dreamed?
Tara Young: Totally contrary. It was a bit of a letdown. It was the weirdest thing. I had dreamed about it since I was 10 and I had this exhilaration onstage as I saw 6 thousand people standing up for us but I did not feel totally fulfilled. There was something inside me saying, “This is not working”.
I kept doing the show, and we performed for about 2 years. We went around the world, we went to arenas where sometimes there were 20 thousand people standing up for us and there I was, singing and dancing with Liza Minelli and still, I felt I was missing something.
My mentor at the time (and still to this day) Susan Stroman (known as Stro in the business), came up to me towards the end of the tour. She told me that the show is coming to an end and that she would really like me to come work with another group of people.
“It’s a man named Steven Sondheim and it’s at Carnegie Hall.”
I was so excited and I said, “Yes”.
Stro said, “Be careful before you say yes because we are not going to have you perform.”
My heart dropped. My immediate thought was, she doesn’t think I’m good enough.
I said, “Why?”
Stro said, “Because I think you are going to be better doing this and I want you to try this, I want you to be the assistant director.”
And I said, “But I’ve never done that.” (I was 22)
She said, “Trust me.”
And you know what? I started being an assistant director/choreographer and I never went back to performing. Within 3 years I was an associate director/choreographer for my first Broadway show and it just went from there.
It was really a fast rise. I tell people that we cannot underestimate paying attention in our lives. So many people don’t pay attention to the small little things that can happen that can change the direction of our lives, Susan Stroman saw something in me and I went with it.
If she had not noticed that in me, I do not think I would be where I am now.
Again gratitude comes into place. So thankful for these moments.
What do you think it was that Susan Stroman saw in you, to recommend that you go into directing?
Tara Young: I do now. I told you I was not feeling fulfilled when I was onstage in front of 20 thousand people. I think performers by nature, have to be slightly selfish people, they have to think about themselves, it’s what we ask them to do, and then of course onstage they are sharing with each other, but it begins with looking at YOURSELF.
I am not a very selfish person, by nature, I am a selfless person, I am a giver and a nurturer. I think she saw that in me. She also saw this woman who was incredibly organised, almost to the point of militant. This does not allow for a lot of creativity quite frankly because great performers are not cut by marching.
I actually do really well marching, which is why I am not a director like say, Franco Dragone or Susan Stroman. I am the second person in the sense of maintenance because I know how to stay in my lane. That’s the best way I can put it. I know the lane that I’m meant to be in.
And many people say to me, “But Tara you could be a director or a choreographer on Broadway” and my response is “No actually if you really know me, I’m a really good maintainer of people’s excellence. I can better the excellence every day but I’m not a creator like that, it’s not in my being.”
So Susan saw all that, and it was wonderful for her because every director, every choreographer, needs a person like that.
I have made a career out of it. I don’t care so much about the awards, the fame or being in the spotlight. It’s strange because the older I get, the more people ask to know about me and it’s so fascinating because it’s never about me, it’s always about the show and the people I am working with.
We met when I visited The Han Show by Franco Dragone in 2014 and you were the Artistic Director, I saw your commitment to the process and the team during these last weeks of creation. You care very deeply about the show and the people within it.
Tara Young: Well if we care for the people in life, they will care for us.
If we speak about where I am now. It’s really easy to take care of the current 51 cast members that are here. They are beginning to count on me. After 5 months, they are watching a consistent behaviour. It doesn’t come from what your words, it comes from a consistency of follow through, a continuity and a general care over long-term. It then creates a floor that they can have a foundation to build from. I think this a strength I have adopted over the years. When I hung the tap shoes of performing, I actually never looked back. I always say to myself “Trust in the future Tara. Trust in, however, this goes. Trust the timing of your life.”
I don’t wish my upbringing on any child but I also don’t regret my upbringing because it gave me the resilience and a compassion that I have. Deeper than some people can understand unless they grew up in that environment.
I thank my parents every day. Practising gratitude will help me get through any situation that is difficult and I really believe there is NOTHING TO PROVE, ONLY TO SHARE. In every part of life, I don’t want to walk around proving, I want to share.
Who cares if you are a multimillionaire and you have lots of money or your body looks amazing or you have the most beautiful children, who cares? Share your beauty. If you have a beautiful body, or a beautiful physique, share how you got it that way. Eating clean food or doing yoga, just share. In our industry, we are always challenged by people wanting to prove.
I was a doing a master class with a group of 10-year-olds at the American school in Dubai. I was asked to come to talk to the 10-year-olds, which is one of my favourite things to do. And they were really nervous about going onstage and I said, “What if you actually just share your gift instead of trying to prove how great you are.”
Their little faces were looking back at me like, “I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what she’s talking about.” I realised my audience were 10 years old.
I went and saw their show and they did remember it. I was quite touched when they said to me, “We did what you said Miss Tara, we tried not to prove anything and only share, nothing to prove, only to share”.
People learn when they learn.
What are main differences between being a resident director for musicals versus the genre of a circus?
Tara Young: There are definitely differences. It’s basically the same job description – maintain the integrity of the show. In circus genres, some of the artistic directors want to change the show. It’s their mission in life. They want to put their stamp on the show. I respect that. But that’s not how I do my job. I am not a “put my stamp on a show” kind of director.
If the director’s name is Franco Dragone, he’s the director. It’s his show. I don’t need to add a stamp. When I joined Cirque they did offer me the freedom to put my stamp on the show. I said, “Oh well that’s not actually what I do. If you need me to enhance the show, absolutely. I would do that with my team of people, but it wouldn’t be my stamp.”
In New York when you do a show on Broadway, they do a term called “freezing the show”. The show is frozen in the 3 weeks of previews, and once it’s frozen, that’s our show. The Music is the music, the script is set, the cues are set. The only time it changes is when something has to change. This is when the production stage manager meets with the resident director and says, a piece of scenery is broken, this is what I think would be safe, and we discuss it.
But the shows are quite small in comparison to large Circus shows. Essentially care and maintaining the integrity of the show is always been my role since I have been 25.
There are not many people that do that really, it’s because most people want to become directors. I never want that. I’m good. I know the lane I’m in.
Do you have standout projects in your career?
Tara Young: I will talk about China but not in the way you and I lived it together. I moved to China when I was 44 years old and I was really confident as a woman. I kind of knew what made me tick. I knew the people I liked to be around. I thought I knew myself. How grateful I am that I chose China because all of my learning that I have today is probably due to being placed in a country where nobody speaks English. And my usual go-to’s to be happy in life, couldn’t happen there. I’ll give you an example of a go-to that Tara does. I say, “Hello, how are you”, to pretty much everybody. I don’t know people, but I always greet them. If see someone in the elevator I will say hello.
If the girl at Starbucks has a cute haircut, I say, “Oh my, that’s a cute haircut, good for you”.
I have done this my whole life. I couldn’t do that in China at all. Nobody listened to me. Nobody cared. Nobody understood me. And I thought, now what am I going to do? Nobody wants to talk to me. Nobody even looked at me and it stripped me of my thing.
I learned about attachment. I was attached to things. I have learned since then, it’s so much better to have a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing. I think I learned that in China. I am using one example of saying hello to people but it became everything.
I had expectations of what I thought China was going to be based on what I saw at The House of Dancing Water and quite frankly, it wasn’t any of that. But I think I succeeded in having an open mind. I think. I’m sure I’m doing better now here in Dubai because I lived through China. I would never have learned that in the 10 block radius of Broadway because on Broadway, people know who I am, they know what my skill is, people know what they get when they hire Tara.
Imagine if you were put in an environment where you think you know what is going to happen but it doesn’t happen like that.
Even touring Cirque du Soleil, Immortal (Michael Jackson) didn’t prepare me for what China was on a human level.
China is another way of life but geography doesn’t change how we are feeling. If I’m really depressed, I’m going to be depressed where ever I go.
In 2010 I took the whole year off, I went to Hawaii. I had achieved so many goals and I thought; I have enough money I am just going to move to Hawaii. I took money out of the bank and I went to Hawaii because my therapist said I needed to learn to “go with the flow”. The best thing you can do to learn how to “go with the flow” is to literally float in water and I thought he was crazy but I thought, ok.
I went to Hawaii and I tried to float and I sunk.
I thought, “This is horrible”. I was crying on the beach by myself. I called my therapist and I said to him “This is not working.”
There were many lessons in that. It was awful.
The world saw Tara go to Hawaii to chill out but I was having an awful time. But it became not awful.
Following Hawaii, I joined Cirque du Soleil in a good place in my life and if I was to give advice to any young people (maybe not 10-year-olds); trust the timing of your life. Trust the timing of your life. Period.
China happened at exactly the right time and the crazy thing, even how hard it was, I ended up falling in love and I am still in that relationship today and its probably one of the most honest, kindest, strongest relationships I’ve ever been in. Three years later it’s still going.
Where is home for you?
Tara Young: If we were doing this interview five years ago in China, I would have said, New York. I am a New Yorker. But since then, after China, I went back to New York and it didn’t feel so home-like anymore. So I went back to Canada where I was born and I went to the mountains. I would have to say now I don’t know where my home is exactly from a geographic standpoint but I think anywhere near some water and mountains. I do think with my partner, and where that is, is probably where I feel home is. But that is still to be defined, so stay tuned.
Where I am now, does not feel like home. It’s a furnished apartment, it makes me a little sad, a little lonely. Dubai is lonely. Women here are not respected and I am fascinated by that. It’s strange here. It’s a strange place. I do not advise it for people who are in a transitional phase or for people who can’t see the colour gray. I don’t advise it. I won’t hire anyone who doesn’t see gray here.
When you transitioned from performer to director to artistic director, you had to go from something you trained your whole life for and then step into management. A lot of the time that I see people transition from a practical application of their craft to a more managerial standpoint, they struggle. What did you do during your career transition to be “successful” with your change in roles?
Tara Young: I always had mentors that I looked up to and I studied them, I studied their human behaviour. I studied how they did their job. Susan Stroman was one of those people. I would also study managers that I came across, I have to say, I, even studied you (Anna). Every step of the way, I study people I feel respect for and I like that very much. And then I study the difficult people in my life because the difficult people have taught me who I don’t want to be. You and I have worked with some people who are very difficult. I thank them and I study them because I do not want to be like them.
There’s a book I got when I was very young, its. It’s called The 4 Agreements. There was something very helpful in one of those agreements. All four are good. “Don’t take anything personally” was very helpful for me because when I became a manager, my feelings got hurt a lot.
As a young manager, I realised I couldn’t please everybody. You can’t be a good manager when you are pleasing everybody.
My feelings got hurt, so I went back to study the book and I use that book as my “bible”. I have it on all of my devices. I have the hard copy. I can tap into it when I need it. Still today. I still take things personally. It’s something I constantly have to work on. But as a performer, that took years. I didn’t figure it out in my 20s. I was a great worker. I was a great taskmaster. If you give me a task I would achieve it, but I wouldn’t say that from a human level I had figured out management. I don’t know if I have figured it out.
We are so lucky living in this generation because when I was younger, we didn’t have the world of podcasts and positive thinking. Today, we can wake up and put on a Wayne Dyer podcast or we can have Brene Brown tell great stories about vulnerability on YouTube, there really is no excuse for us to not learn and not become the very best of who were are. If I’m struggling I will use these resources.
Touring or resident shows, do you have a preference?
Tara Young: No. I just love the work. There are pros and cons to both but all in all, it’s about the work, if I’m not working, I’d rather be learning to float. I can almost float now.
Where do you love to vacation?
Tara Young: I like anywhere with water. I like the sound. I like the idea of going with the flow. I like mountains because they are very grounding. It doesn’t matter where it is. It matters who I am with. I am really careful about who I let in my circle these days because I am affected by negative energy. I always want to help them but if they don’t hear me, I don’t do well with it. That’s what I have to work on.
A lot of people lean on you for support. Who do you lean on?
Tara Young: I definitely lean on Eric (Tara’s partner), for sure. I lean on my sister. I have an older sister. She’s probably the closest person in my life. She has seen me through everything. I have some very close four friends that I would lean on, but not on a daily basis.
I trust in myself. I try to find one or two people in these big shows that I can lean on. I sit here in Dubai and I ABSOLUTELY have some great people in my circle!
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