Margaret Virginia (Margo) Jones, theater director-producer and pioneer of the American resident theater movement, was born on December 12, 1911, in Livingston, Texas, the second child of Richard Harper and Martha Pearl (Collins) Jones. After graduating from Livingston High School at the age of fifteen, she entered the Girls' Industrial College of Texas in Denton (now Texas Woman's University), where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in speech in 1932 and a master of arts in psychology and education in 1933. Her thesis was about Henrik Ibsen. In 1933 and 1934 she worked and studied at the Southwestern School of the Theatre in Dallas with John William Rogers, Frank Harting, and Louis Veda Quince. In the summer of 1934 she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse Summer School to study with the director and founder, Gilmor Brown.
After a directing stint at the Ojai Community Theatre, in 1935 Margo Jones traveled around the world seeing theater in Japan, China, India, Africa, England, France, and New York. She returned to Texas and became assistant director of the Houston Federal Theatre Project. In 1936 she attended the Moscow Art Theatre Festival, and on the boat home she met Brooks Atkinson, an influential New York Times theater critic, who championed her work throughout her career. Margo Jones founded the Houston Community Players in 1936 and directed the theater until 1942; during this time she discovered such talent as actors Ray Walston and Larry Blyden and writers Charles William Goyen and Cy Howard. She earned national attention as a member of the National Theatre Conference and in 1939 was named by Stage magazine as one of twelve outstanding theater directors outside of New York, the only woman selected.
From 1942 until 1944 Jones taught theater and directed plays at the University of Texas. In early 1942 she met playwright Tennessee Williams, and they began their personal and professional association. She directed his play You Touched Me (cowritten with Donald Windham) at the Pasadena Playhouse and at the Cleveland Playhouse in 1943, thus bringing Williams to the attention of national theater critics. In 1944 she directed Williams's The Purification at the Pasadena Playhouse. During this time she had been formulating an idea that would change the shape of theater in America. She wanted to establish a network of nonprofit professional resident theaters outside of New York-theaters presenting new plays and the classics. In early 1944 she met with John Rosenfield, Jr., Dallas theater critic and arts maven, who encouraged her to apply for a Rockefeller fellowship and establish her prototype theater in Dallas. She began her fellowship in 1944 studying theater around the country, but interrupted it to codirect Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. With the commercial success of this play Jones and Rosenfield had the impetus they needed to found the first nonprofit resident theater supported by the Dallas community and such wealthy and prominent Dallasites as board members Eugene B. McDermott (who later founded Texas Instruments) and oil geologist Everett L. DeGolyer (later the publisher of Saturday Review), as well as board members Tennessee Williams and noted theatrical designer Jo Mielziner.
The theater, incorporated in 1945 as Dallas Civic Theatre, did not open until the summer of 1947. In the interim Margo Jones raised money, looked for a suitable theater space, and directed Maxine Wood's On Whitman Avenue and Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine, staring Ingrid Bergman, on Broadway. In June 1947 the theater opened under the name Theatre '47 (the name to change with the year), and was housed in the Gulf Oil Building, a sleek stucco-and-glass-block building designed in the International style by Swiss-born architect William Lescaze, on the grounds of Fair Park in Dallas. The theater was the first professional arena theater (theater-in-the-round) in the country and was the first modern nonprofit professional resident theater. From the beginning the resident company performed new plays and classics of world theater. The inaugural season introduced the first play of William Inge, Farther Off from Heaven, later revised as The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Later seasons included classics by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov and new works by Dorothy Parker, Sean O'Casey, George Sessions Perry, and Joseph Hayes.
With her personal and professional partner, Manning Gurian, Margo took new plays from her Dallas season, including Williams's Summer and Smoke, and produced them with varying degrees of success on Broadway and on tour. While running the Dallas theater, she continued to work "to create the theatre of tomorrow today" and establish resident theaters like hers around the country. She lectured widely and in 1951 published Theatre-in-the Round, which inspired other theater leaders like Zelda Fichandler and Nina Vance to follow in her path.
In 1955, after it had been turned down by Broadway producers as too controversial, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play Inherit the Wind was produced by Theatre '55 in Dallas, then moved to Broadway. During Margo Jones's management of the theater, from 1947 to 1955, 70 percent of the plays she produced were world premieres. Many actors, among them Jack Warden, Larry Hagman, Brenda Vaccaro, and Louise Latham, got their start at the Dallas theater. The theater closed in 1959.
Margo Jones died in Dallas on July 24, 1955, accidentally poisoned by carbon tetrachloride that had been used to clean the carpet in her apartment. She is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Livingston, Texas. The Texas Historical Commission has declared her birthplace a state landmark. After her death Eugene and Margaret McDermott donated $200,000 for the founding of the Margo Jones Theatre at Southern Methodist University. In 1961 playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee established the Margo Jones Award, given annually to a producing manager whose policy of presenting new work continues in the tradition of Margo Jones. After twenty-five years the award was changed and now goes to a "theatre statesperson." Today, the commercial theater of Broadway depends on and showcases the work of more than 300 nonprofit resident theaters across the country, which constitute the national theater for America that Margo Jones envisioned and pioneered.