From Page to Stage: Dallas Theater Center’s resident playwright Jonathan Norton is ready to lead

If you see Jonathan Norton at the theater, he wants you to stop and say, “Hi.” The longtime playwright is relishing the more public-facing opportunities that come with his new appointment as interim artistic director of Dallas Theater Center, and greeting audience members is definitely one of them.

“When I go to the theater, I always meet new people,” Norton says. “It’s like you’re compelled to chat with the people sitting around you and in the lobby—live performance allows us to actually meet our neighbors, and you just don’t do that at the movies.”

The Dallas-raised Norton has a long association with DTC, having seen his first play there (Adrian Hall’s production of A Christmas Carol) in sixth grade. “At the time, sixth-grade me could not have imagined that decades later DTC would become a cherished artistic home,” he said in a statement announcing his new position. Norton has been a playwright-in-residence at DTC since 2019, with his works penny candy (2019), Cake Ladies (2022), and I AM DELIVERED’T (2024) having all premiered at the Tony Award-winning regional theater.

Norton is a hot commodity elsewhere, too. His work has also been produced or developed by Actors Theatre of Louisville, La Jolla Playhouse, TheatreSquared, Primary Stages, PlayPenn, National New Play Network, and more. In 2015, Norton’s play Mississippi Goddamn premiered at the South Dallas Cultural Center and went on to be a finalist for the 2016 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, later winning the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award from the American Theatre Critics Association.

So how did such an accomplished playwright end up “on the other side”?

“Ever since I was 15 years old, I’ve wanted to be an artistic director,” says Norton, who during our interview is seated in front of a sign that reads, “Make art. Be awesome. Repeat.”

“I was 15 when I saw a production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Theatre Three,” he continues. “I met Jac Alder (T3’s then-executive producer and director) and that was the first time I learned what that was.”

Job descriptions now tend to be a bit more fluid, and Norton had already been working closely with DTC’s former artistic director Kevin Moriarty, who was promoted to executive director in 2023, and then-artistic producer Sarabeth Grossman, who recently departed the theater. DTC’s board of directors will launch a national search for a permanent artistic director this fall, hopefully to be appointed in late 2025.

“I did not see it coming,” Norton says. “When Sarabeth got a really great opportunity to continue supporting playwrights and new work in New York, it opened up conversations about restructuring the artistic office and put in motion the idea of having an AD again at the theater.”

Norton admits the “playwright part” of him was nervous about accepting the position but reiterates that he had already been sharing artistic duties with Moriarty and Grossman. His input was vital in planning DTC’s 2024-25 season, which includes a horror-comedy, a Western, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Primary Trust, and the regional premiere of the popular Sarah Bareilles musical Waitress.

But now he’s looking ahead to the next season, in which he will take the lead.

“When thinking about what 2025-26 might end up like, I first pretend that I am an AD that is new to the city,” Norton says. “There’s a temptation when you first step into a role like this, in a place that has been your home for so long, to say, ‘I know Dallas, I know the community,’ but how often do we get to do this? I’m allowing myself to rediscover my hometown and going forward with the goal of broadening and deepening our audience.”

Like all regional theaters, especially in the box office-shaking aftermath of COVID, DTC has been trying to balance artistically fulfilling new works with dependable audience favorites, and Norton admits it’s a wobbly line to walk.

“That’s the challenge we’re facing now in American theater: The things that appeal to us, excite us, and thrill us as theater-makers and artists often don’t translate to a general audience,” says Norton. “That can be frustrating and break my heart, but it’s a challenge to figure out the plays and musicals that can do both of those things. What do we have to do to make that connection?”

Norton disproves the idea that subscribers only want to see the classics—“they’ve been with us for such a long time, they’ve seen them all!”—and believes that audiences truly do have a much bigger appetite for something new and different than which they’re given credit. While he’s not yet able to reveal any specific titles in consideration, he does share how he’s approaching what is sure to be a delicate time in American history.

“In 2025-26, we’re all going to be recovering from the presidential election and its aftermath, however that turns out,” Norton says. “Folks on both sides are going to be incredibly bruised and battered. That’s when we’ll really need theater that can just bring people together for a few hours to share a meaningful experience. Theater gives us all the opportunity to just see each other.”