Alumni Spotlight on Donna Leavy '73: For the Love of Theater

Kristina M. Jenkins
Donna Lynn Leavy ’73 may not be a household name, but the Shipley alumna probably looks familiar to anyone who watched episodic television in the 1980s, ’90s and up to the mid-2000s.
With over one hundred acting credits on stage, screen, and television and thousands more voice credits to her name, Leavy has enjoyed a successful career in Hollywood for more than 30 years. However, before appearing on television shows like Benson, The Practice, What's Happening Now!, The Twilight Zone, Designing Women, Full House, and Gabriel's Fire, just to name few, Leavy began her artistic life as a student at The Shipley School from the eighth grade through her graduation in 1973.
Looking back, Leavy indeed credits her Shipley education and her parents, who were patrons of the arts, with forming an indelible love of the performing arts that would propel her throughout her life. “Shipley really shaped me,” says Leavy. “Without question, it shaped my acting career and certainly my singing career.”
A Monumental Transition
West Philadelphia born and raised, Leavy attended the Henry Charles Lea School through the seventh grade before transferring to Shipley, where her educator parents felt their four daughters would receive the finest education. Leavy began her tenure at Shipley in 1968, when Shipley was not only an all-girls boarding and day student institution, but also practically an all-white school.
“It was one of the most monumental transitions of my life, going to The Shipley School,” says Leavy, whose fondness for the School was not diminished by her status as the sole African-American student in her class for three years.
Though Leavy’s family was highly educated and relatively affluent, the culture at Shipley and in Bryn Mawr was different from the lifestyle to which Leavy was accustomed. Leavy recalls a swift acclimatization to life at Shipley, but her experience wasn’t entirely without friction. “There were a couple of glitches here and there,” she says, recalling some uncomfortable moments. “However, I loved The Shipley School from the moment I stepped onto campus.”
Ultimately, the lack of racial and economic diversity did not deter Leavy from being an excellent student. “Being a fly in the buttermilk—the first black person in my class, was not going to stop me, since I had gone to an integrated, albeit predominantly white, church,” she says. “Shipley was a great fit for me.”
Developing a Deeply Rooted Love of Theater
Like all Shipley students, Leavy received an extremely well-rounded education, not focusing on one specific subject, but rather experiencing all the School offered—from academics and sports, to music and theater. Leavy recalls a very balanced academic and extracurricular experience, but it was also a Shipley teacher who first recommended focused arts training for Leavy, who up to that point had been playing violin since age eight. “In eighth grade, the head of the music department told me about this wonderful singing coach,” says Leavy. She then proceeded to study classical voice privately every week for the next five years.
Moreover, Leavy attributes the late Richard Brewer, Shipley's beloved theater teacher, with first instilling in her a love of the theater. “It was Richard Brewer who helped create that yearning in me and created a nice connection with my classical voice training. He was the best director a young artist could ever have. Mr. Brewer taught me properly: how to break down a script, how to create the I could become a good, well-rounded actress,” she says.
According to Leavy’s parents, though, the rule for college and career was, “No entertainment, no sports, and no California.” So, Leavy dutifully set aside her singing and acting and went off to study English at the University of Pennsylvania after graduating from Shipley.
Following a Dream
Once at Penn, Leavy’s drive towards a career in acting was set in motion, if almost by accident. She wasn’t exactly looking for theater classes, but nonetheless, Leavy enrolled in Penn's one and only course covering acting and directing during her sophomore year. “I guess I knew I was on the way to becoming an actress,” she says. “I was a straight-up English student who took this one yearlong course, and I fell in love with the theater all over again.”
Though she did not take any other acting classes as an undergraduate and had not done a single play since her years at Shipley, that class at the Annenberg School and starring in Isreal Horowitz' play Rats on the Annenberg Stage, were enough to strike a deep chord, and Leavy knew she wanted to pursue an acting career. Thus, she prepared to audition for graduate drama programs—including the Yale School of Drama, where she eventually enrolled. Again, she recalls the foundation laid by Richard Brewer at Shipley. “It was his teaching that clearly helped shape me to apply to drama schools throughout the United States and England,” she says.
The leap from the University of Pennsylvania to the Yale University School of Drama wasn’t a common one. “At that time, I was only the second person ever to go from University of Pennsylvania to Yale Drama School,” she says, but Leavy’s passion for acting compelled her to follow her heart. So, after her Penn graduation she moved to Connecticut.
“Yale Drama was great, but it was hard,” says Leavy, “I think it was my first real-world experience.” Leavy received superlative theatrical training, with actors and lifelong friends Polly Draper, Tony Shalhoub, and Kristene Nielsen among her classmates. But, whereas many of her fellow actors sought the stage, Leavy was interested in the small screen. “I always wanted to do television, and I was berated harshly at Yale for wanting to do television,” she says.
From the Stage to the Small Screen
With an unwavering enthusiasm for a career in television, Leavy went straight from Yale Drama to Los Angeles, where she ended up taking the stage to get her start: her first contract in L.A. was with the Mark Taper Forum, one of the top resident theaters in the country.
With a platform so highly regarded, it was only a short time before Leavy was able to achieve her goal of acting on television. “Because I was on stage at the Taper, I instantly became a commercial queen, booking spots like crazy and then booking my first guest-starring role on Benson. My television career just flew from there,” she says.
That first episodic television job was in 1982, and the work flowed in from that point on, with few lulls. “I did a lot of episodic television,” says Leavy, whose numerous guest-starring and television movie roles amounted to a successful television career, one she continues to reap the benefits of through residual royalties. “I wanted to have a career. I wanted to work. That’s it. I never wanted to be a star, not even first coming out here,” says Leavy. “That was my Yale Drama training.”
Though Leavy may not have wanted to be a star herself, she has worked with her share of big names—including James Earl Jones, Barbra Streisand, Denzel Washington, Farrah Fawcett, Sidney Poitier, Robert Altman, Roger Vadim, and Oliver Stone—often as a voice-over actress, in movies and commercials. "The great director Buzz Kulick hired me one day just for my laugh! In the case of James Earl Jones, I had the honor of guest-starring with him on television and a commercial voice-over.”
Wide Professional Horizons
Nowadays, Leavy continues her work as both a voice-over actress and on-camera commercial actress but has added Speaking Engagement Manager for fellow Shipley alum Robb Armstrong ’81, as well as board member at several regional theaters, and theatrical producer to her resume.
With Armstrong, a celebrated cartoonist best-known for his comic strip Jump Start, the Shipley connection united them in California, and Leavy works on booking him with engagements all across the country. (Read an alumni profile about Robb Armstrong ’81.)
In addition to her efforts assisting Armstrong, Leavy has served as a fundraiser for various philanthropic and political causes and as a national board member of such organizations as Jack and Jill of America Foundation, Inc. For a time, Leavy was greatly involved as an active alumna of Shipley, too, and organized the first reunion for all African-American alumni in 1990, for the Class of 1970’s 20th reunion.
Her current endeavor, though, is to help small theater companies as a producer of new works. “I really want to get back to producing plays and see if something hits and goes on to regional theater and then, perhaps to Broadway,” she says.
That drive to encourage new works and create something new, still, Leavy attributes right back to Shipley, crediting her education with her continued thirst for creativity, knowledge, and success. “I wish everyone had the education that I had,” she says. “You never lose your lust for learning.”
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.