Ta'Quan Allen's first role was Little Simba in a Camden elementary school production of
The Lion King
"I got up there," he recalls, "and I actually nailed it."
Now 19, Allen - a 2014 graduate of the city's Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy - is setting his sights on bigger stages.
"My job now," he says, "is freelancing my talents."
So far, so good. In February, Allen spent two weeks working for MTV in New York, where he was a production assistant for the stand-up, hip-hop comedy show Nick Cannon Presents: Wild 'N Out.
Allen was on the set as episodes for the forthcoming season were taped live at the midtown concert venue Terminal 5.
"I wanted to cry every second, because I was around everything I ever dreamed of," Allen says. "I did everything. I ran out to get batteries - 500 batteries! I would help set the stage. That beautiful stage."
I meet Allen, who's nothing if not exuberant, at Creative Arts, a school he credits with nurturing his talents. His mother, Tamika, sits in; family, faith, and community also have been essential in this budding young artist's life.
"I'm willing to learn, and I'm willing to work hard," says Allen, a rangy kid who sports a high-top haircut with a layer of blond at the crest. "You have to give it your all."
His work ethic was evident "the moment I met him," says one of Allen's mentors, Eric Mills, a former Creative Arts drama teacher.
"Ta'Quan is a really talented kid, and very bright. But what separates him from [others] is, he has a drive," says Mills, who lives in Haddon Township. "He loves this whole acting, art, theater, film business. And not only does he love it, he does it."
Often, Mills notes, Allen does it himself: He learned to make videos by watching YouTube tutorials.
And he used a camera his mother bought him to make Wake Me Up.
He wrote, directed, and stars in the powerful, surreal short film, which was inspired by a condition he has experienced called sleep paralysis, during which the person feels conscious, but unable to move.
Wake Me Up won top prizes in the New Jersey and national ACT-SO competitions sponsored by the NAACP.
Allen also attended two successive Summer Seminar programs for high school students at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, returning in 2014 as a counselor.
"He's was one of those lovely and outstanding students," Katherine Gosnell, the festival's outreach programs manager, says from Ashland. "Charming, very giving, and intelligent - those are the first three adjectives I would use."
Back in Camden, Allen has become a go-to guy in a growing community of young artists, says Samir Nichols, 19, a dancer, actor, and fellow Creative Arts alum.
"He's the guy who makes things happen for us," says Nichols, who's no slouch himself - having founded the Superior Arts Institute, a nonprofit that brings cultural enrichment programs to city elementary schools.
"Ta'Quan is an artistic genius," Nichols adds. "He's able to create a script, develop a script, and produce that script - with no money."
Allen hasn't exactly enjoyed a charmed life. In 2013, he was attacked by a group of young men as he walked on Ferry Avenue in the Centerville section.
"They hit me in the head with a gun and sent me to the hospital," he recalls. "It was a random thing, done for fun."
The injury sidelined him from rehearsals for a Creative Arts production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre ("I have a humongous love for Shakespeare," Allen says), but he recovered in time to perform.
That "show must go on spirit" has not been lost on the folks at MTV. On the job, "Ta'Quan always had a nice little hustle about him," says Melissa Spitzer, production manager for Wild 'N Out.
And when I speak to Allen on Monday, he's elated about another MTV gig as a production assistant.
"I'm waiting for the New York bus now," he says. "I'm meant for this, for all of it. This is the beginning."