These kids love being onstage

TADA! Youth Theater in New York offers kids an opportunity to learn what a theatrical career is all about.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Grabriela Gross (left) and Logan Riley Bruner rehearse a scene.
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    Cast member Taylor Hogan receives instruction backstage.
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    Young actors rehearse for a performance of the musical, ‘Everything About A Day (Almost),’ at the TADA! Youth Theater in New York.
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Most mornings, Taylor Hogan, a 15-year-old with a singing voice three times her size, wakes up at 5 a.m., and is out the door by 6. (Breakfast? Well, maybe not.) During the school year, when the academic grind gets especially intense, she does half her homework in the evenings, and the other half during lunch, before afternoon classes begin.

But Taylor, who lives in what she calls "a very, very remote part of Queens," in New York City, saves most of her energy for a dimly lit stage on the second floor of an office building in bustling midtown Manhattan. The performance pace – some 10 shows a week, double that on the weekends – is in many ways soothing, she says.

"We're kids, just like you. And we're doing what we want," she says with a smile. "I want people in the audience to relate to that. I want them to say, 'I can be that kid.' "

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In this case, "doing what we want" involves a frenetic one-hour montage of singing and dancing called "Everything About a Day (Almost)," which is now in its second week of performances at the TADA! Youth Theater (www.tadatheater.com).

Founded in 1984 by Janine Nina Trevens – now the organization's executive and artistic director – "TADA!" describes itself, in part, as a "theatrical training ground." And for up-and-comers like Taylor, who live and breathe theater, the steady roster of classes and shows is an invaluable outlet.

It's also, Ms. Trevens explains, a stage program uniquely tailored to reach a broad cross section of the greater New York population.

According to figures provided by TADA!, more than 1,000 children between the ages of 8 and 18 – hailing from all five boroughs and a variety of ethnic backgrounds – have performed in the TADA! Ensemble.

Roughly half of all participants come from economically disadvantaged communities; between 25 and 30 percent are offered class scholarships.

"The majority of kids wouldn't get this anywhere else," Ms. Trevens says. "Growing up is hard anywhere, and I think you could have all the money in the world, and it wouldn't help that process."

TADA! provides a place "where you're accepted for what you are, where you can feel good about yourself," Ms. Trevens says. "That's the philosophy of the ensemble. If this is a part of you that needs to come out – being up there on the stage – then by all means, you should do it. You don't need to wait until you're an adult."

Not that most of the ensemble would be much good at waiting. "Before joining TADA!, I knew I wanted to be on stage, but I didn't know what to do with myself," says Merce Jessor, an effusive 13-year-old from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.

"Here, I can take classes; I can be in shows. It's much easier," he says after a pause, "than stressing out about what to do with myself."

In "Everything About a Day (Almost)," Merce has a ferociously funny scene about really longing – ineffectively, it turns out – for a predinner snack: On cue, 10 TADA! Ensemble members, dressed as moms, burst onstage, performing a jazzy tune called "You'll Ruin Your Appetite."

Merce dances around them, dashing underneath their aprons and sprinting toward the plate of brownies.

Eventually, the moms surround him, and he cowers on the ground, singing through his frustration.

"I think a lot of kids can relate, actually," Merce says with a laugh, sitting in the empty theater after a recent performance. "I know a lot people who can't eat before dinner." ("I'm not one of those people," he later confesses. "I eat all the time.")

Providing a point of identification, of course, is what "Everything About a Day (Almost)" does best. The show follows the everyday existence of an average American kid, from breakfast to the classroom to recess to a night spent shivering under the blankets, waiting for scary monsters to burst out of the closet.

Conceived by a TADA! alumnus, Emmanuel Wilson, "Everything About a Day (Almost)" lets the youthful audience know "that could be me up there, that could be my day," says Ms. Trevens. "Those are the things that make me nervous or make me happy."

The best parts of the show combine elements of tap-dancing, choreography, and singing.

In the skit on "Useless Information," for instance, a handful of kids trapped in a classroom wonder, "Will we use this in real life?"

They carefully list their grievances: subjects and predicates; the Pythagorean theorem; the Dred Scott decision.

"All this stuff is so demanding," runs one refrain. "I can feel my brain expanding." Which is the point of the scene, really: Even seemingly useless information helps us learn faster.

"It gets to the point that you've sung so much" in all these performances, "that you [feel you] can't sing anymore," says Sophie Silverstein, 12, of Manhattan. "But you know there are going to be people in the theater watching, and you want them to understand how great it can be. Hopefully they go home and sing and dance about the stuff they do all the time."

Ms. Trevens says that after a performance, kids in the audience often inquire about joining the ensemble. And she tells them: All it takes is an audition.

"Some kids have a feeling inside: If I could only play this sport or that musical instrument," she adds. "For these guys, it's being on stage. It thrills them."

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