"I decided when I was 15 that I would move to New York, from Florida, to pursue the whole child star thing," says Nicole Johnson, now age 20, with zero arrogance. In conversation, she's gracious, articulate, and passionate about her long career (again, just age 20), as a performer in musical theater and the director of a production company she started when she was 13, called Javanna (Nicole's middle name) Productions. Her cast bio for a recent production of Hairspray lists some of her performing credentials: "New York-based productions of A Chorus Line, Bye Bye Birdie, and Into the Woods, which earned her three National Youth Theater Awards for Best Lead Actress in a musical. In 2011, Nicole was featured on Season 8 of So You Think You Can Dance.
"I was building both passions at the same time," Nicole describes the hefty feat of balancing a production company and performing career as a teenager. Despite all her success as a professional performer, and her youth, she now feels pulled more toward wanting to be a producer and manager of the arts. "I've seen a side of the industry that was jaw dropping for me. I couldn't believe people allow themselves to be treated that way, instead of quitting, but they want to perform so badly. People often say, 'that's just the way business is,' but I don't think there's any reason for the arts to be a negative business that breaks you down. I want to innovate the industry and provide a place where people can perform their art and feel great about it."
Javanna Productions accomplishes this ambitious goal by channeling art for social causes. Nicole started a program called MOVE -- Motivation Opportunity Vision Entertainment -- that asks members to fundraise through their arts. "Throughout the year, members will put on showcases, sell visual art pieces, and host events to perform whatever they do." The proceeds go to a different cause every year. MOVE has been so successful that the organization was able to pay for the building and opening of a school in Cambodia. Other MOVE causes include a solar power project in Liberia, diabetes, and autism.
The autism project was the first cause MOVE undertook, while Nicole was a junior at Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) in New York. She was inspired by her brother Grant, who has mild autism. "I felt guilty for leaving home to come to New York. It disrupted his environment when I left, and I was missing home. I needed to do something to bridge the gap and feel more connected to my family." Her response? Produce a dance showcase to benefit autism. PPAS provided studio space for rehearsals during Nicole's lunch hour and a theater for the performance. She and dancer school friends training at SAB, ABT, and Ailey, all of which send students to PPAS for academic work, set to work preparing for the show.
"I ask my artists to think critically and engage with the theme of our performances. For the autism show, we thought about what we wanted to say about autism. Instead of just saying that it's a disability and leaving people with that, we wanted to call attention to the abilities of people in the autistic community. We put together a thesis: autism isn't something to be afraid of; it's something to be inspired by. That thesis inspired events for the entire year."
The main show featured Nicole's brother as the narrator, demonstrating his astonishing capacity to memorize animals. "That's his savant quality," explains Nicole. "He can memorize animals like crazy, from all over the world. The showcase was titled 'Grant's Safari,' and my dancers enacted the animal parts." The dancers also learned about autism, how to interact with autistic children, and participated in movement therapy classes for autistic kids. And Grant had a blast. "The dancers made it their responsibility to make him feel comfortable, and he just shined," says Nicole.
Nicole choreographed all but two of the 14 pieces that made up the program and delegated marketing responsibilities to friends. "I had just dedicated my time to the show and the choreography. When it was finally tech time, I was hearing all these voices outside while we were running through things. I didn't realize what was going on, and one of my friends pointed out that it was the audience gathering. It hadn't dawned on me that we'd have such a big audience for opening night. We ended up raising over $2000 that night!"
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In New York this month? Catch MOVE's first performance of 2013! All proceeds will go toward solar energy projects in Nemiah, Liberia.