It’s an age-old question: from where does passion come? At what moment does the heart, mind, and spirit converge around something that becomes an integral part of one’s identity? What sparks one to become, say, a writer, a painter, an actor?
Exposure to the arts, typically at a tender age, ignites passion. Debbie Bell, executive director of the South Carolina Children’s Theatre (SCCT), knows this truth. She was introduced to the theatre through her parents’ involvement in the Greenville Little Theatre, and at eight years old, she played a role in The Music Man. She developed a stage and theatre of sorts in her basement and cast neighborhood children in her plays. “I guess I should have known where I’d end up,” Bell admits.
Plot Twist // Sitting centerstage at the SCCT, Debbie Bell’s passion for theater nourishes children’s lives with her own form of therapy: performance.
But, as is the case with so many, Bell got busy with life and other priorities. A graduate of Greenville High School, she studied psychology at Converse College. She took additional business courses after college, served as a bookkeeper at various retail establishments, and worked at a family business, Caine Company. Then, in 1989, perhaps when she wasn’t expecting it, that passion for theatre came flooding back.
“My children auditioned for Dracula Spectacular at SCCT. I started volunteering and realized my heart was here,” she says. A volunteer position quickly progressed into a staff position, and eventually Bell was implementing her vision for SCCT.
During Bell’s 28-year tenure, the theatre—which operates under a three-pronged mission of performance, accessible outreach, and year-round education—has grown into a thriving, well-respected community stronghold, a place where children find their passions and their self-esteem. Today, the theatre serves more than 47,000 young people and their families, and of these, 15,000 young people are served by the organization’s outreach, a mission dear to Bell’s heart.
“What truly inspires me is to see how one class, one audition, or one show can change a child’s life. How we are able to help a child’s self-esteem, help them feel wanted and needed and welcomed. How we can help a sick child forget about his or her difficulties for a day and be somebody else. How a child that has not spoken can become vocal through our work. How we can help young people stand up to the bullies in their life. We are making a difference for so many every day,” Bell says.
Bell’s work to make theatre accessible to all children hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Debbie believes in the mission of SCCT with all of her heart and tirelessly advocates for the theatre. She has built a wonderful organization that goes far beyond five productions a year at the Gunter Theatre,” says Michelle Seaver of United Community Bank. “She believes in the power of the performing arts and the impact it has on our children’s lives.”
Community leader Minor Shaw concurs. “Debbie is one of the most passionate, dedicated, and caring people I have ever known. Her commitment to the SCCT for the past 28 years has made it what it is today—an unbelievable asset for not only the Greenville community but also the entire Upstate. Debbie is the heart and soul of the South Carolina Children’s Theatre.”
Traysie Amick, 17-year principal SCCT teaching artist, credits Bell for impacting her life: “When Debbie hired me, she believed in my capabilities more than I did. It was through her patient training and encouragement that I am able to live a life I would have never dreamed possible. Her belief in SCCT and what it can do to change lives has become part of my own value system,” she says.
Across Greenville, Bell’s name is synonymous with the great works being done at SCCT. The passion she found as a child now inspires her work in exposing so many children to their own possibilities. “Each workshop, production, and outreach program touches someone, while shaping the future of our citizens and our community. Theatre is life altering for a child. I had to be part of it.”