Special Reports

TADA! Youth Theater Celebrates 30 Years of Play Time

Why the award-winning company came to be and how it’s been “making growing up easier” for three decades of young New Yorkers.

TADA! Artistic Director Janine Nina Trevens accepting the Coming Up Taller Award from the President's Committee on the Arts & Humanities.
TADA! artistic director Janine Nina Trevens (third from left) at the White House accepting the 2008 Coming Up Taller Award from the President's Committee on the Arts & Humanities.
(via Janine Nina Trevens' Facebook page)

As Joni Mitchell likes to say, "the seasons, they go round and round" — but in the money-strapped world of nonprofit theater, this is sadly not always the case. Yet despite the odds, this year marks TADA! Youth Theater's 31st spin around the carousel — an impressive life span for any theater company, let alone one dwelling in the less glamorous world of children's theater. But the vision that cofounder, executive and artistic director Janine Nina Trevens sculpted for TADA! over three decades ago was not your typical archetype of footlights and starlets.

"It goes beyond just these kids at this moment doing this show. It's a bigger-picture feeling," says Trevens. "There are a lot of families who don't have that community helping you raise your child. We're trying to be that."

This broad "it takes a village" concept at the foundation of the company stems primarily from the innate helper in Trevens, rather than her inner thespian. "I wanted nothing to do with theater," she says recalling her upbringing with an actress for a sister and a theater critic, press agent, director, and writer for a mother. Distinctly avoiding that route, she instead went to college to study psychology and education, contemplating careers in teaching, social work, and family law. Leaving college after only three years, she fell into a career as a stage manger — a path in the theater that she appreciated for both its nocturnal schedule and its needy artists:

"It's like being a social worker or psychiatrist to the actors. It was that nurturing thing that I wanted to do."

But there was one unfulfilled constant throughout. "I knew that I wanted to work with kids," remembers Trevens. "Some teachers can be very inspiring and some can be detrimental. I wanted to be one that was inspiring."

It wasn't until she began stage-managing at the First All Children's Theater that Trevens realized she could marry her desire to teach with the career she had carved for herself in the theater — and in 1984, a festival on 28th Street became her first opportunity to put that realization into action. The festival producer was in the market for a variety of entrants, so Trevens' mother, who was directing another show in the festival, suggested her daughter's then-nonexistent children's theater company. "She said to him, 'Nina has this theater company. She does children's theater.' Well, I didn't have a company. So a friend of mine [Linda Reiff], who's a choreographer, and I went away for a weekend and created TADA!"

(© David Gordon)

For the festival, they entered a dance piece, followed by a musical, which Trevens wrote in collaboration with a composer she met through an ad she put in Backstage. "I really wanted to keep it going and so we became a nonprofit [in 1986] and just kept going from there."

Thirty years and a Drama Desk Award later (the first youth theater ever to win the accolade), Trevens finds herself at the helm of a company that offers an extensive array of classes, youth development services, and an ensemble program for kids ages 8-18. She attributes all of TADA!'s growth and success to its function as a "second home," "a place to play," and "a place to feel successful" — resources she observes have been rapidly depleting from children's lives since she founded the company.

"Even in kindergarten you're not really playing anymore," she says, marking the trend toward rote memorization, burdensome homework schedules, and unfair systems of standardized testing that pervade the schools her young company members attend. "You have these goals you have to meet, so by the time we get third-graders, there's this intensity of testing…Just to be somewhere where you can try something and you can act silly and making mistakes is OK and you learn from those…TADA! is really filling a void."

As important as this supportive environment is to TADA!'s identity, Trevens puts her standards for excellence on equal footing. "The quality of work that we do has to be really good. The design elements, the rehearsal process, everybody working on the show are theater professionals. It's commissioning that work and working with the writers and making those pieces come to life that's really important, as well as giving these kids a place to be."

TADA! alum Mizuo Peck as Sacagawea in Night at the Museum.
TADA! alum Mizuo Peck as Sacagawea in Night at the Museum.

Mizuo Peck — a TADA! alum who joined the company in 1988 at age 11 and is now widely recognized for her role as Sacagawea in the Night at the Museum films — remembers both sides of the TADA! experience. "It was extremely professional," she recalls. "It was straight discipline. They treated us with as much respect as adults, so we really had responsibility for what we were doing…We were expected to put on this great professional performance…[But] first and foremost it was a lot of fun."

TADA! has recently expanded beyond the walls of the theater and into youth development and job readiness apprenticeship programs. Trevens explains, "We take them on college tours to see different schools, we help them get their applications done, or help with their essay…We were [also] finding that some of them had to go out and get jobs and we didn't want them to have to leave the company, so they can now apply for jobs here and we help them develop a résumé…We're really here as that second family."

For Peck, the TADA! family is one she's held on to for nearly 30 years. She still remembers her first audition for TADA! singing an innocent rendition of Frank Sinatra's "That's Why the Lady Is a Tramp" ("I certainly didn't know what a tramp was but I definitely gave it a little swing") and continues to visit TADA!, naming Trevens one of her most influential mentors. "She was the one who saw me singing Frank Sinatra at eleven — who believed in me, this scrappy little kid…Nina has been a constant throughout."

"It's always been about bringing people together and helping make growing up easier," says Trevens, looking back on her decades of work and the impact she's had on generations of theater artists who have blossomed out of TADA!

"We have to realize how much we need to give to kids and how important they are as a resource to the world. In terms of theater, youth theater is low on the totem pole. If you think of a tree, we're the roots. We're underground. We're not going to be the leaves that everybody's commenting on. But we're so important to the growth of this art form."

The country may still be grappling with the idea of youth theater and its place in the greater theatrical landscape, but anyone who passes through TADA! feels its immediate thumbprint. And at the end of the day, as Trevens points out herself, the proof of TADA!'s value is in the pudding: "After thirty-one years, we're still here."