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Breaking Barriers: Marsha Norman

Celebrating Women’s History Month at Center Theatre Group


The cast of "The Secret Garden" in the revival production of “The Secret Garden” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre February 19 through March 26, 2023.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade


The cast of "The Secret Garden" in the revival production of “The Secret Garden” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre February 19 through March 26, 2023.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

This article contains references to sexual harassment.

Throughout the United States, March is recognized as Woman’s History Month, which highlights the contributions, inequalities, and experiences women have faced throughout history and contemporary society. It’s an important step in uplifting women of all backgrounds and ensuring their stories are amplified. This week, we will be exploring the life and continuing legacy of Marsha Norman, a playwright and novelist who has opened the door for women in the arts and has worked with Center Theatre Group on productions at the Taper and Ahmanson.

Born in 1947 in Louisville, Kentucky, Norman described her childhood as isolated, which she notes as a positive attribute for a future writer. She attended Agnes Scott College for her bachelor’s degree and received her master’s degree from the University of Louisville soon after.

While working with young children and adolescents in mental health institutions, Norman was influenced by the stories around her, leading her to her first play, Getting Out. Inspired by a 13-year-old girl Norman had worked with,Getting Out follows Arelene, a female prisoner who returns home and attempts to lead a normal life while balancing her past experiences. Getting Out had its West Coast premiere at the Taper in 1978.

The show premiered Off-Broadway in 1979, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award and leading Norman to move to New York City. Following the success of Getting Out, Norman continued to write, eventually finding critical acclaim and recognition in her next play, ‘night, Mother. Dealing with the subject of suicide, the show follows Jessie, a daughter planning her suicide, and her mother Thelma, who unsuccessfully attempts to reason with and understand her daughter’s intentions. The play received four Tony Award nominations, winning both the Tony Award for Best Play and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Despite her success, Norman received scathing reviews for her next play, Traveller in the Dark, causing Norman to shy away from theatre and turn to writing screenplays, including the 1986 movie adaption of ‘night Mother starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. Despite the harsh criticism, Norman ultimately did return to theatre. She wrote the book and lyrics for The Secret Garden, which garnered the Tony Award for Best Book in 1991 and is a part of the Ahmanson 22/23 Season.

Although Norman has worked tirelessly for her accolades, the award-winning playwright had to blaze trails and persevere against those who didn’t believe in her. In a conversation with Playbill, Norman recalled a meeting where she left the room after becoming enraged by comments made by her colleagues. The playwright was withdrawing from a collaboration but voiced that she still hoped to be involved with the production conversationally.

A male colleague responded, “Well, at least you'll get to say whether your stuff gets us hard or not.”

The experience was not new for Norman. The playwright has since dedicated her life to making the playwriting industry more equitable for women. She is a founder of the Lilly Awards, which honor the work of women in American Theatre while also improving their working conditions.

For Norman, the solution to these barriers is to get into the control center of how choices are made. She finds that, in order to uplift the work of women, it must be made abundantly clear that their work is breathtaking and needs to be done.

Norman cites multiple factors for the lack of plays by women on Broadway–including industry leaders working with the same people repeatedly, and the belief that works by women do not make money. She notes that female writers find difficulty creating their art when raising a family, but questions why women are conditioned to feel that they must make a choice between their careers and their homes.

“If somebody said to you in advance, 'Do you want to have children or be a playwright [what would you say]?'...The demands are simply so much more difficult for women in those early childbearing years” she shared while reflecting with Playbill. “Men don't have to make this choice, and women shouldn't have to make this choice either.” The solution? Norman finds that the issue of family and work could be addressed by writing colonies hosting families rather than just writers.

The award-winning playwright continues to write, most recently having collaborated with Warren Carlyle and Center Theatre Group on a new production of The Secret Garden, a longtime dream that Norman shared with her musical partner, Lucy Simon. Through her work and accomplishments, Norman continues to be a pioneer to women playwrights and artists in the industry. She reminds us that regardless of barriers, women are able to push through when we all give a living thing a little chance to grow.

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