New York is show biz, and kids with an interest in working in the theater couldn't possibly ask to live in a more appropriate place. The big marquees are back on 42nd Street just the way they used to be; Times Square is as glaringly exhibitionistic as it's ever been; and despite the economic bump on the head delivered by September 11, live theater is still the mainstay of the city's creative life — from the Winter Garden, to the tiniest theaters in the East Village, to Shakespeare in the Park.
For young actors, the TADA! Youth Theater has been the place to start for nearly 20 years. The not-for-profit theater enables children to learn directly from professional choreographers, directors and designers; and gives them the chance to throw their dramatic and musical skills into gear for the audiences they're most likely to be comfortable with: their families and peers.
Working in the theater doesn't necessarily mean being an actor — a point TADA! acknowledges in its educational programs. This is also reflected by the fact that co-founder and executive and artistic director, Nina Trevens, began her own career in the theater not as an actor, but as a stage manager. While her mother worked in theater, Trevens opted instead to study psychology and education. Later she discovered, practically by happenstance, a satisfactory outlet for her duel interests behind the curtain.
"Working as a stage manager is like being a psychologist, and with a theater like TADA!, I get to put both my interests in psychology and education to use," Trevens says. The experience is handy, to say the least, given TADA!'s ensemble of 50 active members. The number may seem a little large, but TADA!'s shows have made use of up to 30-plus young cast members ranging in age from 8 to 17. They produce all-original musicals, commissioned from professional librettists and composers for children age 3 and over.
Although TADA!'s current facility on West 28th Street contains only office and rehearsal space, Trevens says that a theater will be rented later this year to stage productions. Despite the lack of a permanent stage, TADA! is nevertheless known for taking its shows "on the road", performing at venues as diverse as Bryant Park and the Circle Line.
Live performances, however, represent only a third of TADA!'s programs. Its ‘Arts Education Program’ takes place in 40 public schools throughout the city, both during the school day and after school, and weekends at TADA!'s facility. Last year, over 35,000 city school children and 500 city teachers listened to and picked the brains of TADA!'s instructors in the areas of musical theater, playwriting and drama. (The theater has a pool of about 40 teaching artists, with music directors providing live music during classes).
Education in the theater, especially as practiced at TADA!, isn't exclusively for the extrovert. "Theater is a neat field because it allows for the hams and the quiet ones, too," says TADA!'s director of education Peter Avery. "Most parents think their kid is a hoot, Jim Carrey incarnate, but theater is also for the quiet and shy ones who respond to it. We need introverted people — we're not out to make extroverts here. You can tap into shyness; you just need to know that every kid has his or her strength. Some kids do sound design or lighting, and then maybe sometimes they get the bug and want to be up there on the stage."
For preschoolers, Avery says instructors use what the theater calls "Creative Dramatics", in which storytelling is combined with creative movement exercises. "We don't try to create stories," he emphasizes. "We do an interactive exercise within the story, like having the kids go on a safari. We're trying to encourage comprehension and to be active — 6 months to 5, 6, 7 years old is a great developmental period, a great time to be read to, to listen, and to move." He also points out that the very activity of getting very young people together in the same room offers a considerable social benefit. "Preschool is a very selfish age — you have kids saying ‘I want food, I want this, I want that,’” Avery says. "But a situation like this, where you have them all together and doing things together, alerts them to the fact that there are other small people around, too, who might need things and want to do certain things."
TADA!'s third program is its Ensemble, its core group of creative young theater people. Getting into the Ensemble (for ages 8-17 only) requires membership — meaning, an audition. Ensemble members rehearse for main stage productions for seven weeks, both after school and on weekends. There are no fees or dues required, and members also receive free year-round advanced training in dance, music theory, and acting. On September 10, the theater will hold an open audition for grades 4-8 for its "Yearlong Musical Theater Writing and Performance Class", which is scheduled to begin September 21. For more information on the class and TADA! Youth Theater, call (212) 252-1619.