Anne Thurman (1919-2012) was a giant in our field.  She would cringe reading those words, but they are true.  Her career spanned six decades – she was a pioneer, a mentor, a force for good.  Her impact remains indelible, and so we tell her story.  To remember.  To celebrate.  To be grateful.  To be inspired by her words and accomplishments.

The very last piece of correspondence from Winifred Ward to Anne Thurman begins, “Dear Anne, I have so many things to thank you for, I scarcely know where to begin.” Like many, many people who were touched by Anne’s generosity and mentorship, I know exactly how Winifred Ward felt—so many things to thank her for, we scarcely know where to begin.

We know she was born in 1919 and grew up a self-described “farm-girl” in Indiana. Later she wrote that she wasn’t always crazy about the heat on that farm, in the hayloft or the silo, but that there was much about it that she loved. She learned about hard work. She learned about the necessity of people coming together to get the work done, because some jobs are bigger than any one person can accomplish. And she learned that the work on a farm is never finished. Oh sure, you get to rest at the end of the day, but the work remains for the next and the next and the next days after that. The work is ever-evolving, ever-changing, never finished—on a farm, in a garden, in teaching children.  These lessons she applied to her work in our profession for the rest of her life.

Anne Thurman wrote of her deep gratitude to her parents, who found a way, somehow, to send her from that farm in Indiana to study at Northwestern University in the teeth of the Great Depression. Anne began her work at Northwestern in 1936. And there she met a charismatic professor and an inspirational teacher, Miss Winifred Ward. “Winifred Ward,” wrote Anne Thurman, “introduced me to this thing called creative dramatics and children’s theatre, and the rest is history.”

Anne actually was very open about this next story. She published it in a tribute to Miss Ward.   Anne wrote, “Miss Ward wanted your best, in every way. Her comment on my midterm paper read, ‘Anne, I’m disappointed in this. You are capable of so much more.’”  Coming from Miss Ward, that might have crushed some people, but listen to Anne’s response: “Well, that did it. If this wonderful teacher thought I could do better then it must be true. How often I think of this, and realize that people will work hard to fulfill the expectations of someone they believe in, and admire, and who encourages them.”

Anne became one of the early teachers of this thing called “creative dramatics.”  Created in the shadow of experiential theorists John Dewey and Hughes Mearns, it was very different from the rote memorization and recitations that had preceded it. This approach had everything to do with the children.  Anne Thurman wrote, “It starts with trying to meet the needs of children, giving voice to their individuality, framing their ideas, and using the power of drama to excite them.”  Anne wrote, “It’s our hope to kindle the imagination, challenge the intellect, stir the emotions, and relate drama to the human condition, all while developing the child’s inner and external resources.”

There’s a great photo on the cover of a Northwestern magazine of Anne surrounded by very young children, 5-year-olds maybe.  We see her charisma, her spark; Anne was great with 5-year-olds. But that photo might be misleading, as she also taught high school—she was on the faculty of New Trier High School. She also taught middle school. She also taught undergraduate students. She also taught graduate students. She also did pioneering work doing dramatic activities with senior citizens. Anne Thurman taught through the lifespan. She taught every age, so perhaps a photo of her with young children barely begins to capture the breadth of her remarkable teaching.

Perhaps the greatest influence she had was as a teacher of teachers. In 1960, after having earned her Master’s degree at Northwestern, and now having 20 years of teaching experience under her belt, Anne was not only a teacher of creative dramatics in the Evanston/Skokie District 65 schools, she was the head of the program. She was the supervisor of all of the teachers of creative dramatics. She was responsible for developing curriculum, and for nurturing and evaluating these new teachers.  She possessed a talent for teaching others to plan well-structured lessons, and nobody had classroom management skills like Anne Thurman.  She shared one of her secrets—she had a gift for hooking the troublemakers, getting them engaged and involved. “And once that’s done,” she asserted, “The rest of the group is likely to follow.”

Anne continued to hold the District 65 supervisor position, even as she began as a lecturer at Northwestern University in 1968. So here she was, like Miss Ward, providing leadership in two highly visible settings.  In years to come, it would require at least two fulltime positions to do the work once done by the indefatigable Anne Thurman.

In the Northwestern University archives, there are many letters from people writing to thank Anne for the difference she made as a teacher in their lives. Some of them are now teaching creative drama. Some are directing Children’s Theatres.  Some are university professors.  Others are award-winning screenwriters, or as one wrote, “I can’t imagine doing what I do in advertising without studying with you.” Some are working in children’s museums. One wrote to say, “I’m storytelling in Australia.” Anne had a gift for empowering people to do what they most loved to do. She taught them to follow their bliss, and to make a difference.   So many wrote to say that they are living happy and fulfilled lives, and they credit Anne as their master teacher.

In addition, while at Northwestern, Anne became aware of an extraordinary teacher of creative drama in Great Britain.  She created the Dorothy Heathcote Workshop at Northwestern University in 1972.  It was the very first time that Dorothy Heathcote had come to the United States to teach. She taught several summers of workshops that transformed teachers; this was a watershed moment for American creative drama.  In fact, B.J. Wagner, who witnessed the work, said, “Yes, it was Anne Thurman who introduced me to Dorothy Heathcote.” B.J. Wagner then wrote the seminal books and articles about Dorothy Heathcote that transformed the way creative drama is practiced in this country.

When Anne retired from Northwestern University, she wrote to her dean Roy Wood, “I want you to know that these 13 years as a faculty member of the School of Speech have been among the happiest and most productive days of my professional life. I thank you for bringing me to Northwestern, an environment in which initiative and creativity are nurtured.” She also wrote that she was particularly proud of the fact that during her time, she had reinstated children’s theatre production work at the university.

Upon her “retirement,” Anne remained as busy as ever in the field. In part, she remained active in professional associations: the Illinois Theatre Association, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, and TYA/USA … a veritable alphabet soup of professional associations. I t is important to understand that she was active at the local level, at the state level, at the regional level, at the national level, and at the global level. Anne believed passionately that if we are professionals, we must have something to profess, something important to say, and that we must join with others in a professional association that is bigger than ourselves, to lift up our ideals, and hold the virtues high.

In 1978, Anne received the Creative Drama for Human Awareness Award, from the Children’s Theatre Association of America. In 1984, students at Northwestern voted her one of their outstanding professors, particularly meaningful because Anne was known for being fiercely rigorous, even as she was supportive and nurturing.  In 1993, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education awarded her the prestigious Campton Bell Award for Lifetime Achievement. This award isn’t given for one publication, or for one position held, it is given for an accumulation of accomplishments, a body of work that has occurred over a lifetime of distinguished service to the field.

In 2003 came the award from the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, presented to her at Sardi’s in the heart of the theatre district in New York, right there at 44th and Broadway. Here she received the Medallion for Lifetime Achievement, and she was dubbed in an eloquent presentation by her long-time colleague Wally Smith, “a national mentor for creative drama and children’s theatre.” With humor, Anne in her acceptance speech said, “My journey as mentor could be subtitled, ‘From Indiana farm-girl to Sardi’s—in eighty-four years.’”

In a letter that she wrote to the CTFA board afterwards, thanking them for the honor and the celebration, she wrote, “I’m so grateful that so many friends and colleagues were there.” The truth is, the who’s who of the field gathered to pay tribute to Anne Thurman. But she also added, “I’m especially pleased that my beloved son Bruce was able to attend. Of everything I have done, he is my greatest accomplishment.”

Remember that moment when Anne was first in the class with her mentor, Winifred Ward? That moment when she received the comment on her paper that Miss Ward was disappointed?  I’d like to share a subsequent letter from the archives that Miss Ward wrote to her upon learning that Anne would be accepting a faculty position at Northwestern.  I can only invite us to imagine how happy she must have been reading these words. That part we can surmise, but the part we don’t have to imagine is the fact that Anne kept this letter all her life.

Dear Anne,


I don’t know of a better time to tell you what I really think of you than on your birthday. But what I really think is difficult to put into words without sounding overly effusive. Even when you were in my courses, I guessed your potential, and told you that I was disappointed that you were not living up to it. Then, through the years, I’ve seen you grow steadily, through happy times, and through terribly hard ones, until your big opportunity came, and you were worthy of it. Today, I am utterly convinced that of all the people I know—

(And I have to stop and add for moment—Winifred Ward knew everyone in the field—everyone.)

—of all the people I know, you were the right person to be chosen for this job. You truly have exactly the right qualifications, Anne. High intelligence; a realization of drama’s ever-widening possibilities; the tremendous energy necessary for research and experimentation; the open mind which keeps you from ever becoming small; an appreciation of beauty, both in children, and in things; a warm understanding of the people with whom you work; and perhaps best of all, the grace never to think too highly of yourself. I never can tell you, Anne, how grateful I am that you came my way, and that you are you.


With love, and admiration,


Winifred Ward

Anne would be uncomfortable with all this praise.  With her ready laugh, she would dismiss all this and say, “Oh c’mon, I’m a farm girl.  I don’t need all this froufrou.”  And I can hear her exhorting us, as she often did long past her retirement:

• Are we keeping our standards as high as we can?

• Is our professional network as strong as it could be?

• Are we committed to learning new things, remaining ever-fresh, always evolving and growing?

• Are we listening to what the children have to teach us?

• Are we empowering scholars and playwrights and artists and teachers the way we should be?

• Are we committed to welcoming fresh faces into the field?

• Are we listening to the research?  The neurological research?  The gender research?  The pedagogical research?

• Are we learning from an international community of artists and scholars?

• Are we keeping young people in mind in all of our choices?


The very last piece of correspondence from Winifred Ward to Anne Thurman begins, “Dear Anne, I have so many things to thank you for, I scarcely know where to begin.”  She is dearly missed – her big laugh, her sense of adventure, her steadfast devotion, her love of life – she is dearly missed.  But that farm girl taught us the work is never finished. And so we carry on.  As we do, we can say, like Miss Ward said, “I never can tell you, Anne, how grateful I am that you came my way, and that you are you.”



 All citations are from the Winifred Ward holdings and the Anne Thurman holdings in the Deering Special Collections Library at Northwestern University.

Rives Collins is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University.  A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Colorado College, he received his MFA in Child Drama from Arizona State University.  Currently a Fellow in the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, he was the recipient of the Charles Deering McCormick Professorship for Excellence in Teaching. A long time Illinois Theatre Association member, he is also a Trustee of the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, and an active member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.  As the immediate past president of AATE, he works with an international community of artists, educators, and scholars to champion the cause of drama and theatre in the lives of young people.


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