The memorable advice Debbie Allen gave as teacher Lydia Grant on the television show “Fame” — “Right here is where you start paying, in sweat!” — is probably similar to what she gives at her Debbie Allen Dance Academy, whose proteges join Tony nominees in her latest work, “Freeze Frame . . . Stop the Madness,” a work about violence in America.
Allen wrote, directed, choreographed and appears in the fusion of dance, music, film and theater, which is receiving its East Coast premiere at the Kennedy Center on Thursday through Sunday.
A Howard University grad, Allen, 66, has won three Emmys for choreography and a Golden Globe for acting, and she was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanity in 2001. Allen has been a guest judge on “So You Think You Can Dance,” and Shonda Rhimes hired her as executive producer on “Grey’s Anatomy,” where she has had the recurring role of urologist Catherine Avery and directed more than a dozen episodes.
In fact, we spoke to Allen recently just as she was just pulling into the studio lot to direct two episodes of “Grey’s.”
Q: When did you first start thinking of “Freeze Frame”?
A: I guess it was in my childhood, growing up in Texas and even then being shattered by news of the horror of President Kennedy’s assassination, which affected us all as children. That act of violence that happened so close to us all. You know, one day we saw him waving in a motorcade and the next day he was gone. And then there was this terrible shooting at the University of Texas when I was a young girl. A man went into a tower — we never heard of anything so violent — just shooting people. And then, when I moved to Los Angeles to do “Fame” and inspire all the world with all that joy and dance, it was the height of the gun and gang violence here in Los Angeles. Every day, there was some innocent child killed in a crossfire, or mistaken identity. It was just too much. I was never desensitized to it. . . . It affected my whole spirit.
So I started thinking about writing something called “Rage,” which was the way it started, and this was going to be from the perspective of mothers who have lost children in a support group.
Q: How did its first incarnation end up in Australia in 2013?
A: The artistic director at the Brisbane Festival and I had talked many years ago about doing something. He was a big fan of mine from “Fame.” He loved the idea of what was happening in urban America with American youth, and he invited me to do this project in Brisbane. So I fast put it together — fast meaning seven months writing the music, writing the script, then I did a workshop and I actually went to Brisbane.
We were nervous because there had just been a shooting [in America] of a young tourist from Australia, and the whole country of Australia was outraged that one of their citizens was fallen for no reason. It was senseless. It didn’t need to happen.
But when we went there, [the show] was full every night, and there were kids in the front row. This is an edgy piece — edgy meaning it’s realistic. The language of the piece — some of it is very hard. They loved it, they embraced it, and I knew we had to go further.
Q: How is the revised version, which ran in Los Angeles in February, different?
A: It was a fusion of everything that I do. It starts with a film that leads into stage, that then turns into dance that then turns into song, that goes into monologues and spoken word and drama. And it tells the story of these people whose lives are getting ready to intersect because of this act of violence, and how it’s going to impact them, it remains to be seen. I guess you could say it’s a musical, but I don’t know. We’ve got to come up with a new idea of what to call this piece because it’s so many different things.
Q: The tragedies happen so often nowadays. Do you have to update it?
A: That’s what’s heartbreaking. I had to go back and talk about Orlando, Nice [France]. I mean, I don’t know if it will ever stop being updated. The dream of this is that it will work at the Kennedy Center in a way that will bring big conversation and people together.
This whole conversation is something that is so relevant to everyone in this world. No one is safe from it; everyone is vulnerable. But at the same time, how do we address it? What can we do right now? Right in the middle of the political storm that’s going on, so many issues. It’s like a referendum. It’s very telling as to who we are as a people.
You know, when Sandy Hook happened — you don’t think your child is going to die. You don’t think that’s going to happen. But this also expresses where our policeman are. There’s a song that we wrote that’s a rap song. It’s called “What Am I Supposed to Do?” It humanizes the police. I got hundreds of letters back. A lot of them said thank you for what you wrote about the police because we never think about them that way.
Q: You’re one of the few regularly working female directors in Hollywood, a place that is criticized for using so few. Do you think that’s changing?
A: I do. Because those of us who have gone the distance and those who have risen to a place of authority and decision-making can make those changes. Shonda Rhimes has been very influential in how she’s diversified what happens behind the scenes. At “Grey’s Anatomy,” half of the episodes this season will be directed by women.
Q: What is the role of art in making societal change?
A: The role of art is so vital, because you’re able to touch people where they feel safe to experience it. If they love it and they find beauty in it, they may also come away with something that can touch their heart and get into their head and make them realize they have to do something.
Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame . . . Stop the Madness Oct. 27-30 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets: $29-$109. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.