Seven-time Tony winner Jamie deRoy had some great advice for budding directors, actors, stage managers and dramaturges at Carnegie Mellon University last month.
In fact, the advice was pretty good just for life in general.
“I like to keep everything positive,” said deRoy, a Pittsburgh native, CMU alum and longtime producer and performer.
In her Oct. 24 talk in CMU’s Philip Chosky Theater, deRoy urged the students to refrain from “bad-mouthing” other people’s work in public, and to adhere to what she called “the three-block rule” after leaving a performance.
“If you don’t have anything positive to say, don’t say it within a three-block distance of the theater,” she said, because, with everyone leaving a theater at the same time, it is likely that someone who worked on that show will overhear the comments.
In an industry that is hyper-competitive, deRoy stressed the importance of taking the high road, and implored the students to, above all, be supportive of each other and everyone else making art.
DeRoy, whose family was affiliated with Rodef Shalom Congregation, was raised in Squirrel Hill and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School. Her mother was the famed artist Aaronel deRoy Gruber, whose large metal sculpture “Steelcityscape” is installed in Mellon Park. She still has family in Pittsburgh and comes to visit from time to time.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, deRoy acted in community theater and school plays, but caught the theater bug in a serious way after her father — an investor in the Broadway production of the “Pajama Game” — took her backstage to meet the cast.
“From that point on, forget it,” she said. “I was hooked.”
She attended CMU for a year before heading to New York in 1967 to find her place on the Great White Way.
She is currently co-producing nine Broadway shows: “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Inheritance,” “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Tootsie,” “Beetlejuice,” “The Great Society,” “Slave Play,” “TINA” and the upcoming “The Lehman Trilogy.”
It’s not necessarily easy to get started in show business, and it takes hard work and persistence to succeed. DeRoy shared the trajectory of her multifaceted career, from her early years after leaving CMU, to studying with Uta Hagen in New York and taking advantage of summer stock in Westport, Connecticut.
Her talk was peppered with stories from her decades working in New York and Los Angeles, and included lots of fun insider tidbits, including her experience opening for Joan Rivers at the Improv in L.A. DeRoy, at the time, was a comedic singer, and her act got big laughs from the audience. After her performance, she saw Rivers’ husband, Edgar Rosenberg, beelining in her direction. She was scared that she was going to get fired.
Instead, he said, “Joan loved you,” and the two ended up working a lot together.
It’s important, deRoy, said, to have that sort of graciousness in wanting to see others succeed.
It is also imperative to perform as much as possible, even if the projects are not as glamorous as being in a Broadway show. She advised the students to be open to taking non-equity tours, or doing a “cabaret act just to be seen.”
“You get your feet wet that way,” she said. “The most important thing is to be seen. You’re not going to be discovered at home.”
Those seeking a career in theater also should make it a point to attend lots of shows, she said, and she offered advice on how to do that on a budget. She reminisced about “second acting” shows, and shared tips on other ways to see theater “not at top price.”
Hitting the off-Broadway theaters is a great way to do that, she pointed out, as those shows often end up as big hits on Broadway, including Tony-winners “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Avenue Q.”
DeRoy has kept up with many of the folks with whom she attended CMU; she suggested the students make it a point to do the same.
“A lot of people who come out of this college are making a positive influence in the world through theater,” she noted.
In fact, five CMU alumni were nominated for Tonys last year, including deRoy, who chalked up six nominations.
Although she has enjoyed great success as a Broadway producer, she emphasized that she chooses the shows she supports based on their artistic merit, not their likelihood of financial success.
“I go with what I’m passionate about, not what’s going to make the most money,” deRoy said, noting that although not all shows that end up on Broadway are successful from a financial perspective, they may still deserve to be there.
“The rate of success on Broadway leans toward failures,” she acknowledged. “Breaking even is a win on Broadway. If you’re not happy breaking even, don’t invest in the theater.”
After five decades in the theater, deRoy has no regrets in making it her life’s work.
“It’s wonderful to be in the theater,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at