Debbie Devine is an award-winning theatre director, teacher, and renowned leader in Theater Arts Education for over 30 years. As a California native, Devine has been working in the California performing arts scene as the Director of the Drama Department at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, theatrical director with the Los Angeles Phil where she has directed shows for the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and is the artistic director and founder of 24th Street Theater, an award-winning professional theatre that serves as a model for Arts Education programs. Devine has won multiple awards from LA Weekly and the LA Drama Critics’ Circle, as well as the USC Rossier School of Education’s Innovation and Leadership Award.
Aside from the multiple awards and recognition that are associated with her name, Devine stays true to her mission of using theatre as a means of self-discovery. Devine alongside her husband, Jay McAdams, and other world-class artists founded a community theatre in the heart of Los Angeles called 24th Street Theatre. 24th Street Theatre is a community theatre that focuses on serving, educating, inspiring, and improving the lives of inner-city kids and members of the community surrounding the University Park, Los Angeles area through engaging theatre classes and performances. It has gained a reputation as a place that brings families and the community together, whether it be for a sophisticated theatre performance, or anytime their big green doors are open.
I have had the great privilege of working alongside Debbie for six years, starting in 24th Street Theatre’s After ‘Cool Program and later transitioning into their Leadership Academy Program. She has directed me in three original productions and has inspired me through her passion and artistic vision. Debbie has taught me the power of empathy and how theatre is one of the most powerful empathy machines that exist. I met with Devine at 24th Street Theatre to discuss the history of the company and her extensive career in the performing arts.
The following conversation has been edited.
Rebecca Flores (RF): You have an extensive career in the arts. What attracted you to the art form of theater in the first place? When did you know you wanted to dedicate your life to a theatre?
Debbie Devine (DD): I was very shy, I mean crippling shy. My mother enrolled me in an acting class when I was in the 5th grade because I couldn’t raise my hand or participate in class. It was a summer class, and by the end of six weeks, it just changed everything. I realized that there was another person; I realized that there were millions of people inside of me and just how powerful the artform was and how I not only wanted to experience it as an artist, but I wanted to become a missionary and share it. And so I did that and started to teach it and saw the impact it had. You’re familiar with my story about Jack Black and how he was a kid who had the same symptoms that I did, very sullen and very depressed. He came into my acting class when I was working in a non-public school, and I watched theatre transform him and every student that I was working with. There is excellent magic and miracle in the theatre that allows you to be able to make believe that you are someone else and then speak through that and find yourself in the process. The success stories, like Jack Black’s, became messianic of that and so I can’t stop talking now, and I can’t stop celebrating theatre as an art form.
RF: That’s amazing! Now as a working artist, you have worked in several things from directing actors to musicians. What has been your best experience thus far? Because you’ve worked with the LA Phil and the Hollywood Bowl, what have you liked best?
DD: Working with youth is very satisfying, whether they’re five-year-olds or teens, it’s very satisfying. But having had the experience of working with musicians, who are serious musicians, who are on their way to classical orchestras, who have spent their days not communicating with anything that is not their instruments and having to help them discover their voices and watching them through their transformation. Whether it be a student or a professional musician, or a conductor, has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced because it further supports my joy on how powerful this artform is. Now I don’t know what the alchemy of it is. I can’t tell you honestly why it works. I’m sure some teachers go, “Oh it works because…!” I don’t have any idea. I know it’s magic and I get to deliver it and what an honor [it is] every day.
RF: What an honor it is! I read multiple articles online that label you as “one of the biggest advocates of arts education” living in Los Angeles. You already kind of touched on why you believe the arts are a big part of changing our world but to what extent besides finding yourself do the arts have the capacity of changing the world?
DD: Woah that’s a big question. If we find ourselves individually though, if we can feel that we have something to say and we can stand up for others in an empathic way, that’s a world-changing thing. That’s the power of it. And you know, you can’t go to the gas company if you have a dispute with your bill and dance your issue or sing your issue or play your bassoon around your issue. You have to talk. You have to speak to someone, and you have to be persuasive and powerful around that. And so the language and the power of language and knowing that you can use it and how to use it, and when to use it with integrity, to me that is an army of possibilities in changing the community and changing the world.
RF: You have been working with the Colburn School of Performing arts for 30 or so years, what has made you stay so long and what specifically do you do there?
DD: What’s good about it is that it is the West Coast Julliard for musicians, it’s very prestigious. It gives me the opportunity to work with musicians and to hone my craft as a coach and teaching artist in a different way than working with actors or youth. It also teaches me so much about another discipline, which involves serious instrumental musicians, dancers, and singers. It teaches me about how the brain works in those disciplines and where the commitment is in those disciplines and how the communities are like in those disciplines. And as much as I can share my skills, it teaches me so much just being there.
RF: Aside from Colburn, you are one of the founders of 24th Street Theater. But I also read an article that said it was initially a community initiative posed by Stephanie Shroyer and the current USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean of the time? How did this come to be?
DD: Yes, it was Dean Robert Scales who was the Dean of the Theater school, like David Bridel is now, it was Scales, who is also an honorary board member and emeritus of 24th Street Theatre, who went to Stephanie Shroyer and John White Spunner and said,
“Look I want to have a professional theater in the neighborhood, and I think you guys may be able to deliver that.”
And he said, “There’s an old warehouse, a 1928 warehouse, and I want you to come in and look at it.”
In that window of time, my husband Jay [McAdams] and I went because Steph and John were working at the Pacific Resident Theatre, which is another small theatre [in Venice].
And we said, “Look we love your work, and we want to be a part of this. We want to do what we do for youth and families what you do for adults.”
And they said, “Come on board!”
So we all came to this space, where you are sitting in now, and it was just a 7,000 sq ft. of a 1928 old warehouse and we imagined it. So the four of us founded it as a professional theatre, that was the goal of it. After about three years, Steph went off and had a family and John went to Pennsylvania and said,
“Well you guys, here you are. It belongs to you.”
Jay and I looked at each other, and we knew we had understood the community. We had understood where we were, and we realized that just doing plays at night was not going to cut it. It was not going to meet the needs of the missionary that was in our hearts.
RF: It’s perfect that you started to talk about the community surrounding this theater because it leads to my question of: what was your first impressions of the community surrounding 24th Street Theater?
DD: It was scary. I mean this was 22 years ago and it was a community in which people didn’t leave USC and people didn’t come by, they only passed us by on the 10 [freeway], so we were just on this block. The Harpys are the local gang, and they still are the local gang, but they have never bothered us. They have never done so because of all of the nieces and nephews, and sisters and brothers that we have served over the years. We’ve heard on the streets from Harpys affiliates that it is because they know we are making a difference in the community and that our big green doors are always open to the community. And we knew we needed to do world-class theater, world-class teaching and community outreaching.
RF: Were you ever met with confusion from the members of the University Park community that had no idea what you guys were doing?
DD: The biggest issue we had was that the local community felt attacked by USC. And USC has been a partner- like I said Dr. Scales helped founded it. Because USC wasn’t always sensitive to the community and since we had a partnership there, the local community felt betrayed. So it took us a while to convince them that USC and 24th Street Theatre had a consciousness, and eventually, USC had to change their consciousness and view of the University Park community. USC now reaches out to the community and encourages all its faculty and staff to donate to the local community through a funding pool specifically for the neighborhood.
RF: You mentioned that the typical evening play was not going to cut it for this theater so what urged you to create an Arts Education program for kids specifically in the community?
DD: Our origin story on that was that a kid walked in here when we were converting the space, and said:
“What are you doing here?”
And so Jay and I went to talk to him and said, “We’re doing plays.”
And he said, “What is a play?”
And we tried to explain it to him, but he said, “But will there be beer? Will there be girls?”
And we both said ok, we can’t just do plays, we have a more significant obligation and he was the reason behind how the after-school program started […] That’s why we went to Stephanie and John and discussed how theaters should have more value than just plays.
RF: In addition to your Arts Education program, you host field trips for students in the LAUSD district. What is a typical field trip like and why do you host them?
DD: My God! Do we really do all these things? You’re asking me these questions, and I realize the boatload of work that we do. I’m tired just thinking about it! We’ve been doing them for 15 years, and it’s called Enter Stage Right. It’s an introduction to the magic, history, and wonder of the theater, and it is very sophisticated, very interactive. It’s a wrap around program in which we have a teaching artist go to their school to brief and prep them so that when they come here, they can get the full picture of theatre and be exposed to the magic of it… We also have a program called Teaching as a Performing Art in which we bring LAUSD teachers here to 24th Street Theatre and use music, tech, and sound to allow these teachers to experience what it feels like to be an artist. We show them how to integrate art into their teaching while celebrating themselves as artists.
RF: 24th Street is obviously known for serving the community, like you’ve mentioned, and specifically children, but it is also known for putting on “Sophisticated theater productions for the whole family.” Can you expand on this concept of sophistication and how it is employed in whichever play you choose for your mainstage shows?
DD: Most theater for young children, it’s called TYA (Theater for Young Audiences), and it’s crap in my estimation. It is stuff that has not changed since 1957. However, children, as the wonderful Mister Rogers realized in 1967, can feel, go through the catharsis, and understand and manage their feelings. That’s why we believe that a theater experience is live, it’s right in front of you, and it gives you the opportunity to empathize with a character, to make you feel. So the subjects that we deliver can range from death, loss, hope, and justice. These are all themes that we are not afraid of sharing with children, and we do them with all the elements of music, dance, sound, etc.—as long as we are allowing them to feel something. The biggest obstacle to doing so are teachers who are afraid to bring their kids to a field trip in which the kids might cry a little bit. Parents never want to see their kids sad, even though kids laugh. [Our] structure for TYA is to “Make them laugh, make them cry, and then make them laugh again.” But the goal is to feel, and if we do not recognize that as human beings if we can’t access our feelings, then we have a divided nation where there is anger everywhere and the only sort of permission people seem to have in this country is the permission to feel angry. There’s no forgiveness or empathy which is why it’s so important to do this type of work.
RF: You already do so much for arts education–but if financial limitations knew no bounds, what would you do to expand arts education?
DD: I don’t know what those words mean. You know, you’d think that if someone said, “Here are 30 million dollars,” that I would do summersaults but, you know, that could be a problem. It’s, in fact, the very limitations that we are faced with financially, physically, geographically that have allowed us to grow and find our purpose and mission. If it’s boundless, then I think we might lose our way. It’s forced us to focus on what is the most important thing, a singular thing we could do on our mission that if we had no money, we could still accomplish. Am I just saying don’t give me any money? Did I just say that?
Interviewed by: Rebecca Flores
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.