Actress, choreographer, director and producer Debbie Allen speaks to a new generation of artists at LMU
By Christina Campodonico
Debbie Allen is no stranger to fame, or challenging the status quo. The Emmy-winning actress, choreographer, director, producer and founder of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy became famous for her role as dance teacher Lydia Grant in the popular 1980s film and television series “Fame.”
But the road to stardom wasn’t easy. Allen, 66, grew up in a segregated part
of Texas and faced discrimination in the dance world when auditioning, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a Tony-nominated actress on Broadway for her performances in “Sweet Charity” and “West Side Story.” Allen broke more barriers by addressing the AIDS epidemic as director and producer for the groundbreaking television series “A Different World,” about student life on a fictional historically black college campus.
Yet Allen considers producing the Steven Spielberg-directed film “Amistad,” about the historical 1839 mutiny of 53 kidnapped Africans aboard a slave ship, one of her career’s crowning achievements.
Now Allen is an executive producer and director for Shonda Rhimes’ hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” where she also makes guest appearances as the smart and elegant Dr. Catherine Avery. Allen’s latest creative venture, “Freeze Frame,” which made its U.S. premiere at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month, tackles gun violence and race relations head on through music, dance and film.
Allen visits Loyola Marymount University’s campus on Friday, culminating a weeklong series of classes taught by professionals from her studio. She’ll talk about her career, the entertainment industry, dance and some musical theater history.
You’re a very busy lady. How do you wear so many hats?
I kind of launch them like planes taking off from the terminal. They don’t all take off at once. You just got to get the engine ready and be ready when it’s time to hit.
Out of directing, producing, acting and dancing, do you have a favorite one?
Ooh. I don’t know. Today I would say I like acting, because I like going to hair and makeup. I like being taken care of and I enjoy that. That’s today. [Laughs.]
What about directing and choreographing? You just had “Freeze Frame” at the Wallis.
“Freeze Frame” was so amazing. Oh my God. I think that’s probably the most important thing I’ve done since “Amistad,” honestly.
Why did you feel the need to confront issues of gun violence and racial profiling through “Freeze Frame?”
I think that anyone who is an artist is somehow connected to the world. Art is an expression and an imitation of life and an impression of life. All art is. The music that people hear or the paintings that people paint, the stories they want to tell — they come out of real life experience somewhere. And this is to me one
of the most important things to address right now.
What was the initial spark of inspiration for the show?
I just could not wrap my mind around the loss of innocent life every day to gun violence, gang violence, police violence, drugs and the entrapment of young people by virtue of their zip code. … So I felt compelled to really study it, and that’s a painful thing to look at. … But at the end of the day this conversation stands up tall for it — the value of human life.
Art can make a big statement. What advice would you give to young artists coming to Hollywood today?
The world of the arts and entertainment is massive. Here in America we are being imitated all over the world. Hip-hop culture is one of the greatest exports out of America for the last 10, 15 years. I’m just citing that in particular. It’s an art form. … So what are you singing about? What are you dancing about? What are you writing about? What is the story about? It’s hard to feel relevant if somehow you don’t have some point of view.
When you were starting off in dance, did you see yourself becoming a director or a producer when you were looking forward into your career?
I’m from Texas. You know everybody in Texas thinks big. It’s the truth. We have wide open skylines. Somehow Texas is its own country, and I just always thought I could go [anywhere]. … My mother, Vivian Ayers, is a writer and she always raised us to see ourselves as children of the universe. I’ve always kind of seen myself that way and known that there were no boundaries. I always felt like even though people would say there were boundaries, I always somehow believed that there were not. And that’s kind of how I’ve been living my life since I was a kid.
What do you think artists can do to help the next generation of artists to dream big?
Dream big and do. That’s what we say at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. That’s the mantra — dream and do. It’s good to dream, but you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to make it happen.
What are you looking forward to in your visit to LMU next week?
I’m looking forward to experiencing those young students and inspiring them about musical theater. That’s the class I’m going to teach. Musical theater is very strong in my life and there’s not enough passing [of] the history. It’s very important, and there’s too many of our young people that don’t know enough of the history. … So I’m looking forward to being the professor. I’m going to be Dr. Allen.
Debbie Allen speaks at 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, at Loyola Marymount University’s Murphy Recital Hall, 1 LMU Drive, Westchester. Free. Call (310) 338-5233 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.