As the cofounder of TADA!, a nonprofit youth theater in New York City, Janine Nina Trevens has been helping kids find their voice since 1984—and finding her own in the process.
Trevens wasn’t always destined for the theater; she studied psychology and education in college and originally aspired to be a teacher. After working as a stage manager, though, she wanted to combine her studies with her newfound love of the theater—and TADA! was conceived. The organization puts on three original musical revues per year with casts of children ages 8 to 19 (it just wrapped up a run of Everything About a Day (Almost)) and has a preprofessional Resident Youth Ensemble and an arts-in-education program, in which it works in public and private schools around the tristate area. Since its inception, TADA! has seen more than 50,000 kids graduate the program, including well-known talents like Ricki Lake, Kerry Washington, and Jordan Peele.
We sat down with Trevens to discuss her journey with theater and TADA!, the importance of allowing children to embrace their creativity, and all of her favorite places in New York City.
What Should We Do?!: Tell us more about your inspiration for TADA!
Janine Nina Trevens: I wanted to do something that would help make growing up easier. I wanted to be a part of the [theater] community, but growing up I had always wanted to do something that helped kids. I was originally either going to be a first-grade teacher or go into social work. But I started working in theater and couldn’t stop. When I was working at First All Children’s Theater, I thought, I want to do this, but I’m also creative and want to be involved with that side as well. At the company, I was a stage manager and associate to the producer, and that’s where I was going to stay. So I needed to find another way to do theater with kids. I also wanted to do work with children in my way. I wanted to give them more freedom and work on a variety of different pieces.
WSWD: Do you write all of TADA!’s shows?
Trevens: Not all of them. If I did, I’d be a genius. I’ve written four or five shows for TADA!, but I commission all of them. They’re all original works written specifically for child actors. Vocally, they’re able to sing it, and the characters featured are ones they can identify with. They don’t play married people or adults of any kind, unless it’s meant to be a commentary. I want them, as actors, to be able to do what they know and to relate so they can actually have the emotion and thought behind what they’re doing.
WSWD: That’s delightful. It’s important for young actors to play roles that are close to themselves and within their age range so they’re not reaching too much.
Trevens: Exactly! I feel like a lot of times when kids are doing the abbreviated version of Les Miz or a Broadway Jr. show, they are imitating what they saw another actor do. They’re not really given the opportunity to create a character from the ground up and from their own point of view. What’s important to me, and what I love about theater and coming from an education background, is allowing kids to use that creative part of their brain and to explore outside of the box. I tell kids: “You’re working together with a group and you’re bringing something unique that you have to offer to make the show what it’s going to be.”
WSWD: What can kids get from theater that they don’t get anywhere else?
Trevens: What we’re doing, education-wise [in the U.S.], is kind of counterproductive to what we want in society. I don’t think we’re allowing kids to think in their own way and at their own speed, and I think that’s really unfortunate. So TADA! has become a second home for these kids. We know the families and we know what’s going on. I want kids to feel like they have a voice and that they don’t have to wait until they grow up to try things. These kids know they want to perform, and they want to perform now. So I say, let them do it and see if they like it. For some of them, it will be a career, and for some of them, it will just be something they will do now. It offers different groups of people a chance to collaborate in a way you don’t get to in school. It gives them the opportunity to talk about issues and relationships and grow as people as much as they grow as performers. It is allowing them to put themselves in other people’s shoes and really know what it’s like to feel a different feeling or just think a different way.
WSWD: It’s great because TADA! goes beyond your space on 28th Street. Can you tell us more about the arts-in-education program and what you’re doing with schools?
Trevens: We have education classes, camps, performances, and rehearsals on-site. Then we have programs at schools during the day and after-school programs at community centers and schools. We also perform around the city. Last week we were performing out on the street in Flatiron. For those kids who love performing, they should have an opportunity to try it, even if they can’t get to our 28th Street location.
When we go into schools, some of it is covered by the Department of Education or through grants, so it allows kids to try things that they couldn’t necessarily afford to try. We have programs that relate to curriculum or allow kids to write their own shows. I remember when I was younger, I wrote a play about Christopher Columbus. The fact that I remember doing that in elementary school was because it was a creative part of learning, which I think you hold onto more so than memorizing dates for a history test.
When my daughter was younger and in school, she did after-school dance. The days she had dance, she was more willing to go to school because she wanted to participate in that program. When TADA! goes into schools, there are kids who are like, “I want to go to school, I want to do TADA!” I think that kids get through the day easier, because the school day is long and they have so many responsibilities, and giving them the opportunity to be creative is really important.
WSWD: So many of your graduates go on to be professional actors. How do you attract such talent?
Trevens: It’s through our Resident Youth Ensemble, a preprofessional and positive youth development program for ages 8 through 18. Kids audition to be members of the ensemble, and they can be a part of it until they graduate high school once they join. Members of the ensemble get free training through classes, rehearsals, and performance. We have gatherings for them where they have to get together and do community service, college tours, and college prep. We help them with auditions if they want to go to performing arts middle or high schools. It started in 2000, and all of the shows we do are cast from our ensemble. So it’s very all-encompassing. This year, we have 84 active members, and most of the kids who are in the ensemble are kids who think or know that they want to perform professionally.
WSWD: What’s next for TADA!?
Trevens: I love what we do with kids, but I also want to expand and do pieces with kids and adults together. I think some of the stories I want to tell need that. I think our actors would learn a lot from working with adults and vice versa. Because sometimes, depending on the kind of work you’re getting or doing, you can lose touch with the passion that brought you into it [acting] in the first place. It’s one of my wishes for TADA!’s future.
Janine Nina Trevens’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Slice of pizza?
&Pizza. It just opened, and it’s different from New York–style pizza. I really like it.
Jing Fong in Chinatown.
28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue.
Kazunori. The salmon hand roll is my favorite. If I don’t go at least twice a week, I feel like I’m going through withdrawal.
Place to watch the sunset?
The piers on the West Side Highway near Battery Park City.
American Museum of Natural History; it’s where I had my first date in New York City.
New York City–themed movie?
Night at the Museum. One of our alums, Mizuo Peck, plays Sacajawea.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.