Using the stage to empower New York City’s young people

Nonprofit TADA! Youth Theater co-founder Janine Nina Trevens discusses the organization’s creative and free programming.

Janine Nina Trevens, TADA! Youth Theater executive and producing artistic director

Janine Nina Trevens, TADA! Youth Theater executive and producing artistic director Courtesy of TADA! Youth Theater.

Founded in 1984, TADA! Youth Theater has provided a space of creativity for New York City youth, helping them hone talents that they will carry throughout their lives. Based in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, the nonprofit produces musicals for family audiences, performed by their in-house youth ensemble troupe. 

TADA!’s pieces touch on issues relevant to young people. The organization’s new spring musical Common Ground, which runs through May 11, centers on issues of immigration and integration. In addition to their flagship resident youth ensemble theater, Tada! offers a free audition-based program for children ages 8 to 18, as well as on-site and in-school arts and education programming, including semester-long programs, summer camps, after-school programs and residencies taught by teaching artists in both schools and community centers.TADA!’s scholarship program, Arts For All, also aims to reach families of color championed by the nonprofit’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Justice Committee within aspects of its programming and artistry. 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to TADA! co-founder Janine Nina Trevens on the merits of youth theater. 

Why did you feel like there was a need for Youth Theater, especially for underserved children in New York City?

I believe growing up is difficult for all kids, whatever neighborhood you're from. TADA! has always been about bringing groups of kids together from all over the city and from all different backgrounds. Our program isn't just for those who are underprivileged, it's for anyone who is talented and interested, and can make a commitment to the program. I also believe that kids have a lot to offer, they have a lot to say, they have a voice, they have creativity. And for those who are interested in performing musical theater, I didn't want them to have to wait until they were grown-up to explore that. So it's very much giving these kids a voice and a sense of self, and a place to be accepted while working with like-minded people. And then I just loved musicals. There’s a lot of musical theater, but there's not necessarily a lot of great musical theater for young people to play characters of young people, and for it to be relevant and mean something. So we have original works, written by theater professionals, by playwrights, composers and lyricists who are commissioned and paid to write pieces, and they get a royalty of box office. And then all the other staff working with them, directors, choreographers, musical directors, set lights, costume designers, scenic artist, wardrobe – all of those people are theater professionals, who have credits in theater and have experience working with youth. 

Beyond gaining a sense of self, what other benefits have you noticed among students by integrating theater into their lives? 

Our young people all gain a number of things. Time management, in terms of the resident Youth Ensemble and commitment, in terms of learning to be a part of a group, to be collaborative and work together. But putting themselves into someone else's shoes is really important to the workforce, no matter where you end up going. We also have a job readiness apprenticeship program for our teenagers, where they can get paid doing off-stage jobs at TADA. We’ve had assistant stage managers, production assistants, assistant directors, assistant choreographers – where they're learning skills and exploring different possibilities, because not all of them will stay on stage but they might want to stay in the theater world. Another program we started is called AMP, which is the Arts Mentorship Program, where we match our older teenagers with mentors and theater professionals, so they can explore careers outside of TADA. So they get a mentor in playwriting, directing, business management or marketing, to see if those careers are of interest to them with someone who looks like them, who has had some success in the theater world. 

I’m curious to learn about the anti-racist work championed at TADA? Why did you feel like there was a need to have this discourse within your programming? 

TADA! has always been about bringing people together from different backgrounds, races, economics, neighborhoods, religions and sexuality – all of which have always been part of the work and casts that you see on stage. A a lot of this came out of Black Lives Matter, where there was a big push to look at equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, and so we created a group of 18 people, of current members, alumni, past staff and board members for our EDIAJ plan (Equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, justice) which is on the website. And we started to focus more on the diversity of our teaching artists, of our writers, composers, designers. I can say we've always had, and probably because it's theater, a large number of people represented in the LGBTQIA community. 

Does this affect just the hiring, in terms of the people you staff for your programs or the projects as well? 

We’re really looking at who's writing the pieces, what stories are we telling, and are the right members involved in that. They're part of the workshops, part of the readings, part of the development process. So we listen to what they have to say. We also look at material that we're using when we have classes, to make sure that these are BIPOC inclusive. 

With youth mental illness on the rise, especially throughout New York City, have you seen symptoms of this among the kids that you mentor? Do you feel that youth theater helps kids with those struggling with mental health?

I think anxiety and depression are huge. Not only did we have COVID, but social media plays a big part in this. For the kids that are involved with us, I do think their involvement is key to helping them manage their day-to-day. And because they are interested in musical theater, they're interested in performing, having a place to go, where they are accepted for who they are, where they are with like-minded individuals, where they are supported and given a brave space to be. I think those things really help. I don't think musical theater solves all their problems, but I have seen people who come out of their shell, and get re-energized to focus more on school. 

Why should youth theater be a part of New York City kids’ lives?

The arts are extremely important. Their lives could just be about work, work, work in terms of homework. But for kids, especially for kids who are creative, who have talent in musical theater, they need to be fed these things. It’s just as important as food, because it helps your mind, it helps your soul, it helps you physically to go somewhere and work together with other people. And it’s important to be involved in something that is collaborative, where you see how every person is integral to making that final product successful. By providing new art for people to come and see, and providing an outlet for these artistic kids to realize they have a voice is important. That’s what we all want. We all want to feel important. We all want to feel valued. We all want to feel seen and heard, and that's what TADA! is doing for them.