Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell is a genuine Los Angeles hyphenate; dancer, choreographer, actress, educator and entrepreneur.  She has carved out a successful career by following her heart and soul, connecting experiences and collaborators and weaving them together to create a tapestry of creativity, artistry, education, altruism and family.

Bell is a force in the world of dance and opera, especially as it intersects with young people and both children and adults with different needs. A quick rundown of her current job titles illustrates her lifelong love of music, dance and activism.  She is the founder and creative director for Performing Arts For All, providing arts opportunities for and specializing in working with those who have special needs and limitations. She is a lead educator and the managing director for KIDS/IQUE, a division of www.muse-ique.com, an organization which provides artistic opportunities for those in foster care facilities, at-risk youth and those with additional special needs. PAFA partners with LA Opera, LA Ballet, MUSE/IQUE, Center Stage Opera and is Fiscally Sponsored by the 501c3 Dance Resource Center. Her programs are unique in that they do not separate nor isolate participants by challenge. Rather, all dancers work together and use their different strengths and weaknesses to create a stronger whole.

Bell has worked with the LA Opera since 2008 as a teaching artist, choreographer and assistant director for their in-school and community programs.  She is a dancer and choreographer who works consistently.  She has performed in over ten concerts with the New York Philharmonic, two of which she both choreographed and danced and which will be kept as part of a new online platform, nyphil.org/ypcplay. She performs regularly and has film and theater pieces in all states of production. Recent work includes dancing at the Ford Theater, at the Pageant of the Masters, choreographing and co-producing the short film Halfway, which she and her partner Christine Deitner (They also created the award winning “Freeze! Try Again) are now developing for presentation at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Finally, with co-artistic director Tom Dulack (www.teatrofilarmonico.org) she is planning on touring their concerts and also in development on 2 other theater projects: Extravaganza (based on the life and work of Vivaldi) and Aphra (a play he’s written about the fabulous Aphra Behn that Bell would choreograph).

Lastly, Bell is a mom who home schools her two young children and also serves as their audition chauffeur. Final note: Heather Lipson Bell is busy.

We met for hot drinks on a rainy Thursday morning for a freewheeling conversation that circled around the ideas of art as a source of inspiration, community and service, making it as a freelance artist in Los Angeles and the immense value of the support of friends and family.

The phenomenon of dance as a tool for work with differently abled people is relatively new to the general public but has been part of Bell’s career path from early on. Her first major foray was her senior showcase at Boston Conservatory, with a project that involved blind and deaf dancers. Although the artistic director was “completely not on board, she thought it a terrible idea…,” Bell and her creative partner stayed committed to their idea and eventually found an enthusiastic mentor in their Laban professor. They focused on research, teaching classes and small workshops at both the Perkins School for the Blind  and Caroll Center for The Blind.

“For me it was specifically a movement inspired thing. How do different people move? How do they understand movement?” She continues, “it became really interesting because we met people who were born with different levels of disability. Then also those who had lost their vision – one man who had so much anger but agreed to do our little movement class, and he was able to find movement, spacial awareness and comfort in this new sightless world.” Eventually they combined sighted dancers into the project and her path, curvy and indirect though it would be, was set. “It was this huge vast world that I had never been exposed to…..that kind of sparked my interest in movement study.”

Bell and PAFA at The Hard Rock Cafe in 2016

Bell moved to LA in 1999 “not to dance, but following a boyfriend.  I thought I’d hang out for a year and go back to New York.” But she she stayed, “I was lucky when I came to LA – to meet a really good group of people right away who were not competitive in the typical sense of what I grew up with, but really supportive and were like, well if I don’t get the job, it’s good because you got the job and we all kind of came up together.” She adds, “To this day – I find this a really unique group of women and that has been a great support under everything I do.” Her circle of friends and collaborators continues inspire and support her. When casting dancers for a short film she recently choreographed and co-produced, she invited people to simply take part, without telling them exactly what they would be doing. “I expected five or six people to show up and over 25 beautiful dancers came to give of themselves.”

Bell and Gary Franco dancing with City Ballet of Los Angeles at the Ford Theater in a piece that she choreographed.

Bell talks a lot about community and friendship; of the give and take of this industry. She credits much of her success to friends looking out for one another and mentions job after job that she earned after a recommendation from one friend or another. The path to creating Performing Arts for All started with a job vacated by a friend who went to go dance on a cruise. Bell was hired as a dancer by Zina Bethune and Bethune Theatre Dance, a company that created work with both traditional and differently abled dancers. When Bethune later saw Bell’s resume, she hired her as an educator which led to 10 years of teaching dance to people with all kinds of challenges. After Bethune was killed in a tragic hit and run accident, some parents approached Bell because they missed her classes. This inspired the creation of PAFA.

What stands out when listening to Bell speak is the fluidity with which she adjusts the focus of her work. There is equal value given to performance, teaching, choreography and activism – all fueled by a constant search for new and inventive ways to create movement stories. Each feeds the other. For example, when choreographing a film scene with Marines who were uncomfortable with the entire premise of dancing, she drew upon what she had learned teaching those who were blind, having them do movement they were already familiar with, then guiding that movement into patterns to create dance. In this way, she essentially allows her dancers to make their own dances. She sums up her philosophy by saying, “there was never a break, I started teaching at 15, following the concept, from an Ailey dancer, of; I am not your teacher, we teach each other.”  She is also vocal in visualizing, setting goals and manifesting what she wants. For example, when auditioning for a beer commercial she asked in the moment if they had a choreographer. They said no. She got the job.

Bell is pragmatic about the ups and downs of the industry. She revealed her disappointment in coming to the realization that she had limits as a choreographer; that creating new movement vocabulary was not among her skills. Initially she mourned what she considered a failing but then turned that liability into an asset. Becoming an expert at research, she studied organic movement and approached her work that way instead. Her work for the NY Phil was based in flamenco, a dance form that she was unfamiliar with at the beginning of the process yet by the time she came to the performance, the world renowned musician with whom she was partnered thought her an expert.

How does she get through the downs? “In regards to fighting depression, a simple thing to do is find one thing, one small thing a day to be joyous about,” says Bell. “We all experience depression and feel stuck or powerless. For me, it seems my nature is to be happy – I am drawn to laughter and beauty and stories of strength and resilience like many, and shy away from darkness and evil and blood and guts.” For example, “I choose not to go out for roles playing parts of victims, etc.” Adding, “I am drawn to other projects and have been lucky to have opportunities that support this. For me I try to always:  Explore. Learn. Play. Move. Connect. I’ll continue to set goals, and take on too much, and procrastinate and enjoy my craft and community and family more than I could ever express.”

Bell is quick to credit her family for their ongoing support. Her parents, her husband, even her young children all support and participate in her process. “I was a performer when I met my husband. He knows that it is not about the money.” She recounted her dad’s reaction when she turned down an opportunity to create a health oriented business when a much less lucrative but much more artistic performance opportunity arrived. “He was like, of course you’ll go dance!”

“We seem to all strive for this ‘balance’ or even for ‘perfection’ – and it is a fleeting thing. If it wasn’t I’m sure I’d be bored by the stillness. I have always been grateful for the language of dance, for experiencing and appreciating on a very deep level the impermanence of what we do. And for the voice and opportunities it has given me. Balancing creative work, work, a marriage and motherhood is a dance. I am constantly reminded what a gift it all is and that I’m not perfect – and that is perfect.”

“What I’m doing now, who I am –  was present in me as a very young child. I really have always been an artist and activist and as I’ve been thinking the examples go so far back. I’ve always loved human movement and storytelling and history and music and art and elephants and trees and collaboration and community and the connections of it all and just the complexity of this world.”

Performing Arts For All has a full schedule for 2017.
Two 6 week workshops culminating with a showcase.
Session 1: 1/7/17 – 2/11/17, Session 2: 2/25/17 – 4/1/17
Additional inclusion workshops at Olive Middle and High Schools (Baldwin Park)
KIDS/IQUE outreach visits us: 2/11/17 & 4/1/17
MUSE/IQUE Concert Field Trips: 2/12/17, 4/2/17
Performing with LA Opera – Community Opera Noah’s Flood – shows 5/6/17

To keep up to date on Bell’s work, visit her Website



Female Fusion Spotlight on Debbie Devine

Female Fusion — At the intersection of art and action

A column highlighting and exploring the careers of women creating art and changing the world, one community at a time.

Debbie Devine
Artistic Director of 24th Street Theatre, Director of Drama at the Colburn School and a director for artistic programing at the LA Philharmonic

Debbie Devine

Debbie Devine Directing Hansel and Gretel, Bluegrass with Caleb Foote (Hansel) Angela Giarratana (Gretel)

Debbie Devine has a great laugh. Deep throated, full and infectious, it invites you to actively take part in the conversation. When you do, what a joy ride you will experience! The discussion ricochets between theater, music, education, and human rights – illuminating all of the places where they intersect in a gorgeous kaleidoscope of life and one woman’s astonishing career.


Debbie Devine. Photo courtesy of 24th Street Theatre

Ms. Devine is a director, an educator, a writer and an advocate. She moves seamlessly from one to the other, often occupying several spaces at once. She is the founder and artistic director of 24th Street Theatre, whose mission statement reads, “To engage, educate, and provoke our diverse community with excellent theatre and arts education.” 24th Street Theatre creates gorgeous work that is family inclusive, but in no way simplified or generic. The work is multi-layered, innovative in its content and vision and without fail intensely moving. The list of awards and accolades is much longer than this column can accommodate. In addition to what would be, for most people, more than full time job, she is the Chair of Drama for the Colburn School (both dance and music) and an artistic director for the LA Philharmonic, where she creates content and programs that bring the music and process of creating music to life for young audiences.

When I asked Ms. Devine how she found her calling she recounted that, like many people in the theater community, she was a painfully shy kid, someone absolutely unable to communicate. Her mother was concerned and as a last resort put her in a summer theater program. It worked. She found her life’s passion, saying that “it was such an incredible experience for me to understand how the voice is used…how making believe and then actually being able to believe what is make believe can change lives.” She began working professionally as an actress while still in high school and started her teaching career while still quite young.

It was as a high school drama teacher that she found her path. She was working in a school for deeply troubled kids when Jack Black walked into her room. Ms. Devine’s relationship with this incredible actor, singer, musician and comedian is well documented. He has, as in this LA Times quote, often credited her with saving him. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met Deb Devine, who inspired me and for the first time gave me a reason to really love going to school. [She] opened my mind and soul to an exciting world of literature and communication…. All of a sudden I knew all these new things.” She was able to get past his rough exterior and helped him uncover the brilliance that was hidden inside. They have stayed close over the years, even sharing a Rose Bowl float in 2015 in honor of their joint initiative, Thank A Million Teachers, which does just that.

It is easy to go down the celebrity worm hole and focus on this ongoing and charming partnership, but Ms. Devine has saved, and I don’t use that word lightly, many many people over the years. After she broke through with Mr. Black she said, “I started to look around and I realized that this is happening with all of these kids and I started to realize that this art form [theater], it’s magic.” In 1997 she founded 24th Street Theatre with her partner Jay McAdams. It has grown into an internationally recognized organization dedicated to blending professional productions presented by world-class artists with quality arts education. In addition to these critically acclaimed shows, many of which debut here in LA and then tour nationally and internationally, there are arts education programs, community outreach programs and continuing arts education and professional development programs for school teachers.

We spoke in depth about the theater’s production of Mike Kenny’s Walking the Tightrope, which premiered 24th Street in 2012 and went on to win numerous awards, including a best direction award from LA Weekly for Ms. Devine and Best Production from the LA Drama Critics Circle. It is currently touring the country. We spoke of the power and beauty of the piece, which is the tale of a grandfather who is not quite able to bring himself to tell his 5 year-old granddaughter that Grandma is gone and in the process goes about building a beautiful new relationship with her. The play is incredibly moving, in a truly visceral way. Ms. Devine explained the process of approaching the story not as a child’s tale but rather as the grandfather’s story. The grandfather is suicidal and believes he cannot go on, but in trying to explain his wife’s absence to this child, he finds a way to continue. That is really the mission of the theater and the method to building family friendly productions; tell a simple story in a truthful way that has meaning and sophistication.

One of the programs at the theater which speaks directly to the community at this moment in time is called Enter Stage Right. A part of the Field Trip series, it is a 90 minute show about the magic of theater. The show culminates in a scene set in 1870 at a train depot at which a Mexican mother and her child are stopped from getting onto the train by a racist Irishman. Many issues are explored through music and improvisational acting throughout the show. Ultimately you find a relatable dynamic for modern audiences between the mother and child; the child can read and is able to navigate the situation by standing up for their rights. Literacy and standing up to injustice are illustrated in a very familiar way to the 10,000 students a year see this show, as many of these children are in a similar situation with their own parents, serving as translators for them in Los Angeles. Teaching artists go to the children’s classes before and after the field trip to share and explore why the Irishman is so cruel, how to speak truth in intimidating circumstances and how history can teach us about the present.

24th Street Theatre occupies an amazing old building in the predominantly Latino neighborhood near USC. The theater is an old carriage house originally built in 1928. This is truly a community space; always open so that people can come in for a tour, a cup of tea or simply companionship. In addition to the Field Trip programs there is an after school program, After ‘Cool which brings teenagers into the fold and helps them develop into ambassadors and translators to help with bilingual programing. There are additional leadership programs and The Teatro del Pueblo series which brings the parents of all of those kids into the theater and has them create a play. This serves to further strengthen ties to the community and increases the number of Spanish speaking audience members exposed to live theater. Finally, there is a professional development program for teachers. They basically get to experience a three hour acting class with both a live musician and film/technical director in order to create stories. Part of this process is curriculum based and connected to the core standards so that they can take what they learn back to their students. The second and arguably more important piece reminds teachers why they became teachers in the first place. The process of creating art reconnects teachers, these teachers who get so caught up in the day to day bureaucracy of the school system, to their hearts and reinvigorates them as they re-enter the classroom. This is a theater that is as much about life as it is art.

How, then, does her work at 24th Street compare to her duties at both the Colburn School and the LA Philharmonic? She works with composers, musicians and conductors, at both venues and with symphonies around the country, teaching workshops on how to communicate about music with people. Many musicians don’t naturally talk about their art and Ms. Devine helps them bridge the gap between their solo work and the people that they work with and for. She points out that a musician can practice solo for six or eight hours at a time and never have to speak to another soul! Speaking to other artists, audience, members and donors can take practice and the workshops facilitate that. The second part of her work in these venues, which is similar to her work with 24th Street, involves building, as a director and co-writer, original theatrical pieces which support library cuts of music that the Philharmonic is playing. She directs and co-writes a theatrical story which supports the music. The current piece that she is working on with Joanne Pierce Martin, the head keyboardist at the Philharmonic, is called The Art of the Piano. The piece is about the relationship between the pianist, the piano tuner and the piano. This is one of three pieces this year. She does similar work at Colburn, both coaching musicians and creating stories.

When I asked jokingly asked her about hobbies or outside interests, knowing that she couldn’t possibly have time for them, she laughed that awesome laugh and agreed that maybe she needs an outlet, but that she loves what she does and that is everything.

Ms. Devine’s current show is Hansel and Gretel, Bluegrass, currently running through December 11 (with a possible extension) at 24th Street Theatre. It has received rave reviews. The LA Times says, “ Masterful staging by 24th Street co-founder Debbie Devine situates the fine performances within a stunning visual tableau. ….The play’s message about interdependence may seem simple enough, but this is no kiddie show. The siblings’ trials are a rite of passage to adulthood, one with intentional implicit relevance to today’s headlines about desperate parents in troubled regions trying to send their children out of harm’s way.” It appears to be exactly what is needed in these dangerous and uncharted times.