Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Interview: Theatre Life with Debbie Allen

The multi-talented goddess of the arts on receiving a Kennedy Center Honor and more.

Interview: Theatre Life with Debbie Allen
Debbie Allen. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Debbie Allen is one of those arts types that simply doesn't fit into one category. I think it is safe to say she is an all-around goddess of the arts. Her list of achievements includes being directed by Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, directing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, choreographing the Oscars, being an executive producer and actress on the long running Grey's Anatomy, and running a dance academy that bears her name.

You can now add to that partial list of achievements receiving a Kennedy Center Honor. Ms. Allen was recently awarded this prestigious award in a class of recipients that included Dick Van Dyke, Midori, Joan Baez, and Garth Brooks. You can watch the 43rd annual edition of The Kennedy Center Honors this Sunday June 6th at 8pm Eastern time on CBS.

I have been following Ms. Allen's career for a long time. I first came to know her work with her performance of Anita in the 1980 Broadway revival of West Side Story. To this day it is still the best performance of the role I've ever seen. Since then, I've always been amazed at the consistent high quality of her work. I could be watching an episode of Grey's Anatomy with her performing surgery or footage of her in West Side Story or Sweet Charity and it wouldn't matter because the result is always the same.

If you want to watch a master of her craft in action, you need to check out a Netflix documentary about her dance academy mounting their yearly holiday attraction called Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. The show features well over 100 kids plus an adult company of dancers. Even though Ms. Allen has a team helping her mount the show, you can tell that she is in total charge of every production aspect. It's quite remarkable to watch.

No matter how you know the work of Debbie Allen one thing is for certain. This multi-talented arts titan definitely deserves all of the accolades that have been and will be continued to be bestowed upon her. You can't help but be awe inspired by her long career.

I am thankful that Ms. Allen was able to give me a few minutes out of her always jam-packed schedule and I will be forever grateful to be in her presence (over the phone).

Congratulations and BRAVA Ms. Debbie Allen on your Kennedy Center Honor and thank you for all you have given us over these many years.

Interview: Theatre Life with Debbie Allen
L-R Front Row- Debbie Allen, Dick Van Dyke, and Midori.
L-R Back Row- Joan Baez and Garth Brooks.
Photo by Michele Crowe/CBS.

What was your initial reaction when you were told that you were going to be receiving a Kennedy Center Honor?

I was really emotionally overwhelmed. I never expected it.

You had been very successful on Broadway before switching into film and TV. Was it a conscious choice to move away from performing on Broadway?

No and I've been trying to come back ever since. I really wanted to do the revival of Hello Dolly after Bette Midler left. That would have been fun.

Interview: Theatre Life with Debbie Allen
Debbie Allen with dancers, Destiny Wimpye and Jalyn Flowers in Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.
Photo courtesy of Netflix. Copyright 2020.

With all of your performing/directing/producing projects, how did the Debbie Allen Dance Academy come to be?

My daughter went to train at the Kirov Academy in DC. She had a horrendous experience with a Russian teacher making a racist comment. I wanted a place where that would never be an issue. Barry Gordy Jr. gave us our first donation. We are now in the middle of an expansion. Because we simply have outgrown where we are now.

Interview: Theatre Life with Debbie Allen
Left- Debbie Allen at center and the female ensemble of the 1980 Broadway revival of West Side Story.
Right- Debbie Allen in the 1986 Broadway revival of Sweet Charity.
Photos by Martha Swope.

On Broadway you were directed by Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Can you please tell us something that you learned from working with each of these Broadway legends?

Jerome Robbins loved to experiment and explore. My performance was changed every day. It was like a master class. After working with him I had many options.

No one rehearsed like Bob Fosse. He was very specific but was a lot of fun. He taught me how to feel my transitions. He was very big into lighting.

Were you intimidated at all directing James Earl Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

I went in with that expectation but he was the biggest kid in the room. He was always willing to try whatever I suggested.

You've worked at the Kennedy Center many times over the years. What do you think makes it one of the top arts institutions in the country?

It is a place that is very inclusive by nature of its existence. It is truly a national treasure. It takes chances artistically and I love all of the world culture stuff that they produce. Its mission is to include all and there is truly something for everyone. That's why it is so special.

When we are all able to get back to performing live again, what are you most looking forward to?

There are so many shows on Broadway that I need to see. Hadestown with Andre de Shields, Six, Take Me Out which stars Jesse Williams who played my son on Grey's Anatomy and a new production of The Piano Lesson with Samuel L. Jackson.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's always en pointe Press Representative, Ballet/Dance and Education Brittany Laeger and Ms. Allen's personal assistant Rio Contrada for their assistance in coordinating this interview.

Additional photos provided by AJ Hunsucker.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

Regional Awards

Related Stories

From This Author - Elliot Lanes

Elliot Lanes has been working in theatre for over 20 years as a PSM, Sound Designer, Board get the idea. He has had the pleasure of working with some of DC's finest artists at venues ... (read more about this author)

Interview: Theatre Life with Adrian RiesInterview: Theatre Life with Adrian Ries
July 15, 2022

Adrian Ries is currently living his theatre life as the musical director for the U.S. National Tour of The Band's Visit. The show runs through July 17th in the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center. For those who can't see the tour in DC, it will conclude in Richmond VA playing from July 26th to the 31st.

Interview: Theatre Life with Bree LowdermilkInterview: Theatre Life with Bree Lowdermilk
July 14, 2022

Theatre Life chats with Bree Lowdermilk, one of the most talented modern-day composers working in the musical theatre. You might know her work from her long association with book writer/lyricist Kait Kerrigan. 

Interview: Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter on Her Long Association with Legendary Film Composer John WilliamsInterview: Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter on Her Long Association with Legendary Film Composer John Williams
July 6, 2022

Deborah F. Rutter is the President of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. A post she has held since September 1st, 2014. 

Interview: Theatre Life with Melanie MooreInterview: Theatre Life with Melanie Moore
June 30, 2022

Today’s subject Melanie Moore is currently living her theatre life playing the iconic literary character Scout Finch in the U.S. Tour of To Kill a Mockingbird. The show is currently in performance at Kennedy Center’s Opera House and will play through July tenth.

Review: BROADWAY IN THE PARK at Wolf TrapReview: BROADWAY IN THE PARK at Wolf Trap
June 28, 2022

What did our critic think? This past weekend Signature Theatre and Wolf Trap teamed up for the second annual edition of Broadway in The Park which like last year featured some of Signature Theatre’s best performers, two Broadway headliners and a 25, yes, 25-piece orchestra. The result was a truly lovely evening of showtunes from multiple decades.