Cover of the March/April 2022 issue of The Dramatist
Marsha Norman: What I’m Teaching Now
Photo of Marsha Norman
Marsha Norman, playwright and teacher

Having taught at Juilliard for 25 years and Yale for six, plus given assorted talks at the KCACTF and other college festivals over the years, there was one question I was still curious about. And that was: Those high school students who think they want to work in the theatre, what do they think the theatre is? Or said another way: How can we know how to start them off in college if we don’t know what they are bringing to us from high school? And so, this winter, I got myself hired to teach musicals to smart high school students. But what I learned was not what I went there to learn.

Thing 1: I learned that high school drama teachers have the hardest job on the planet.

And thing 2: Do not dare try to teach them something called the Hero’s Journey, or you will be shouted out of class, even though all the heroes you’ve spent your whole career writing about have all been women. The word hero is now the word that makes these kinds of otherwise inspiring theatre students walk right out of the room.

What happened was that one day, I gave them three pages of the H’s journey, gathered from a lifetime of teaching it in college, only to hear roars of rejection, see pages stuffed in their backpacks and watch arguments coming at me from all directions. Apparently, you cannot talk now about women as heroes without being laughed out of your classroom. Heroes are men. Stories about men are not interesting to them, regardless of their gender identity. The word heroine is a diminutive of hero, and so is even more disgusting than hero, and she-ro is not good because it is a really silly word.

So, when they all left the classroom, I sat and pondered and then went home, where after a few days, I gave in and wrote my own non-binary version of “The Main Character’s Journey,” which is shorter than Campbell’s name for the You-Know-Who With a Thousand Faces. Here is the beginning of the new version of what I am calling The Main Character’s Journey.

“A lonely person is trying to find themselves. A sudden and unexpected journey, promising adventure and peril, appears. A test of character, strength, and skill ensues. An ultimate battle that tests the main character’s resolve is won, and then the triumphant main character returns home.” This is the point. Dorothy from Kansas is not normally called a hero. But she IS one. She is as much a “hero” as Frodo or Odysseus or Luke Skywalker. But you better not call her that.

So, as I finally understood, the students are right. Heroes are men. And that rules out half of the people who want to work in the theatre. So, we will not call these central players the word that starts with “h,” they are all called MAIN CHARACTERS now. And that is my lesson for the year, for myself and anybody else trying to teach high school sophomores in this moment in time. 

Photo of Marsha Norman
Marsha Norman

won a Pulitzer Prize for ‘night, Mother and was co-chair of the Playwriting Program at Juilliard for 25 years. She won a Tony for The Secret Garden and wrote two other Broadway musicals: The Color Purple and The Bridges of Madison County. She is a former vice president of the Dramatists Guild and current President of The Lillys.