Marsha Norman on playwriting

Playwright Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother; Getting Out, the books for the musicals The Secret Garden and The Color Purple) was at Rollins College’s Annie Russell Theatre Friday morning to talk about working in the theater.

Norman is co-director (with Christopher Durang) of the playwriting program at the Juillard School in NY, where she’s been on the faculty since 1994. As a speaker, she’s funny and direct, and I got the feeling she’s probably a terrific teacher for aspiring playwrights. Here’s a little of what she had to say:

On how she found the beginnings of the plays she would go on to write from an aging relative who moved into her family’s house:

Granddaddy’s stories were the shaping of my career. There are these rivers of stories that live underneath everything we do – and they are the reasons we keep going to the theater because those are the stories we want to hear.

On the play that made her realize she could become a playwright, Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (which, not so incidentally, was “full of half-naked guys”):

I thought, I could do that. I could do better than that.

On the three pieces of advice she received from Jon Jory, then the artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville, who took her out for three lunches to set her on her path as a playwright:

  • Don’t write a passive central character.
  • On page 8 you have to tell everyone when they can go home.
  • Go back 10 years in your life, pick a time you were really afraid and write about that. Write about how to get free of that fear that has you paralyzed. [Norman talked about the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.[ There’s a tornado in every great play. The story is how the character, who is you, gets through that trouble. The plays that are written out of some urgency are the ones that tend to work.

On how she describes herself as a playwright:

To be a playwright, you have to be filled with anxiety and kind of a hermit.

On what the best plays have in common:

The stories we love are a search for X – and X can be anything. We live our lives in a search.


A fight is the single best way to convey information to the audience.

On the difficulty women playwrights have getting their work produced. Norman said that there were a lot of successful women playwrights just after she came along, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, but that for a long while afterward women playwrights had a hard time.

It’s been really tricky for women to be seen as playwrights, not women playwrights. We did really well for a while, and then it got bad again and women’s plays were not being seen and the stories of half of human life were not being told.

That tide seems to be turning again, she said: Two years ago, 87 percent of plays produced in America were by men. But this year, at least in New York,  plays by women are up to 40 percent.

On how to respond to theaters and the public:

Stop being grateful. They are the ones who need you, who need what you can write.

On surviving a life in the theater:

The true way to survive a life in the theater is to stay in the audience.

(Photo by Jill Gable of Marsha Norman and former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins at Rollins College.)

7 responses to “Marsha Norman on playwriting

  1. Mikki Scanlon Kriekard

    that was such an inspiration…you covered it perfectly and i became motivated to finish the two i have started. thank you once again. a real gift. it also made me want to be a student.

  2. Elizabeth Dean

    Betsey – thank you for the excellent coverage. I was unable to attend as I am out of town, and was hoping to get a re-cap. This is perfect.

  3. I wish I could have been there. But, your coverage is very helpful and I can use all the help I can get.

  4. Yes. Thank you. I REALLY wanted to go to this.
    Next best to being there- your coverage.

  5. Thank you for the recap.

    “On page 8 you have to tell everyone when they can go home.”

    Did she elaborate on this? Is this related to plot development or audience engagement (or neither or both)?

    I like the idea she gave the theater student at the talk that evening: Write your own private conversations, act them with your friends in a public space, and let people eavesdrop.

  6. She didn’t elaborate, Viet, but I am looking forward to reading an essay she mentioned in her Collected Plays in which I hope I’ll learn more. I, too, thought she gave great advice Friday night to the student who asked for help. It was good to hear such a concrete assignment — something the student can do, and something that will put him on the right track. It made me want to enroll at Juilliard!

  7. Thanks, Elizabeth. I’ll be sure to check out her collection. I love that feeling of wanting to be a student again. It’s a great teacher that can ignite that in us. I want to try that assignment sometime. Any actors with me on this?

    Also, I had no idea Billy Collins had an appointment at Rollins. I’d like to enroll in one of his classes too!