TADA! Youth Theater started with a small lie. Janine Nina Trevens knew she wanted to work with children and creatively in the theatre. In 1984, her mother was directing a show in a theatre festival and the festival producer was in search of a children’s show to fill a slot. Naturally, Treven’s mother said that her daughter had a children’s theatre company.
The name TADA! Evolved when Trevens thought of calling it DATA for Dance and Theater Alliance. Still, she worried people would associate the acronym with computers. Those letters led her roommate to suggest TADA, which turned out to be fitting for a company whose accomplishments now include performing at the White House and winning a Drama Desk award — the first youth theatre to do so. This month, TADA! celebrated its 30th anniversary season with the original musical The Gumball Gang: Crime-Solving Kids.
Though a lot has changed since those first shows, the mission hasn’t. “Part of my vision comes from when I moved to New York, and I had heard about this melting pot and everybody getting along, and then I moved here and found it really different from what I had heard,” Trevens says. As a result, she wanted to create a company that would bring families of different backgrounds together. TADA!’s Resident Youth Ensemble is made up of 80 kids from the ages eight to 18. They perform in mainstage shows and take musical theatre classes, all free of charge. “It’s an amazing thing that is offered to this city. And, as a result, the kids are wildly diverse and from all different races and socioeconomic backgrounds because they’re the talented kids who show up to the audition and not necessarily just the privileged ones,” says composer Georgia Stitt, whose daughter Molly is part of the Resident Youth Ensemble.
Stitt’s history with TADA! began in graduate school when she worked as a teaching artist. Years later, she was commissioned to write a musical premiere for the company—Samantha Spade, Ace Detective. (Stitt’s husband, Jason Robert Brown, also started his career there, as a music director.) With an Artistic Advisory Board boasts names of industry notables such as Chita Rivera, Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Schwartz, Charles Strouse and Leslie Uggams, TADA! produces original work commissioned by Trevens. It’s important to her that kids play kids and not adults or parents. “I want them to be characters that they can really identify with, so their acting is genuine,” Trevens says.
The education expands beyond acting. TADA! provides everything from job training to assist in applying to colleges. “We’ve become a second home for a lot of kids,” Trevens says. “It’s more than a theatre company.”
That’s why Stitt was comfortable dropping her daughter off and leaving her there—her first experience doing that in New York City. “She’s grown up a lot. She came home talking like a teenager, but I’d rather her learn it in a place where I feel she’s safe. She has adults who care about her, and, at the core, what they’re trying to do is create theatre. That’s something our family values, too,” Stitt says. “That’s a great way for her to grow up safely in the city.”
That ties into another part of Treven’s mission, which is to make getting older easier for children. “Our kids like to perform and that’s where they get their sense of self and they feel good about what they’re doing, and they’re with like-minded people,” she says. “You need that growing up.”
For actress Ricki Lake (“Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby”), TADA! was a place of refuge as a teenager. “It felt very special to be accepted into this group of talented kids,” she says. “There was always a sense of camaraderie at TADA! We were able to goof around and be silly, but, when it got right down to it, do work necessary to make each show a success.” It’s also where she learned the skills she continued to use in her acting career as an adult, such as professionalism and a determined work ethic.
Trevens is happy that TADA! Alumni, like Lake, have gone on to successful careers in the arts, but Trevens is just as proud of the doctors, teachers and those who have gone into other professions. “It’s never been about just that stepping stone to Equity or Broadway,” she says. “It’s very much about helping kids feel good about who they are and knowing they have a voice.”
As the anniversary celebrations continue, Trevens is looks towards the future, and her goals all involve resources to impact even more kids: more space (TADA! is currently located at 15 W 28th Street, but she would like a whole building), more programs (she hopes to start TADA! Academy in the fall to offer one-on-one training and classes open to anyone) and more shows (four or five a season instead of three). One thing’s for sure, TADA! is changing lives and that’s no lie.