Federal Theatre Project (FTP)

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The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was a New Deal initiative that was spawned by hard times. Part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Federal Theatre Project democratized modern American culture, signaling a distinct openness to new formats and ideas. Devised in part as a welfare measure, the American theater in the 1930s gained a major infusion of federal money, fostered an explosion of new talent, and stimulated wide public involvement. The actor, director, and producer John Houseman later saw this as "the most creative and dynamic approach that has yet been made to an American National Theater." Although the project was terminated in 1939 due to its political vulnerability and the overall erosion of support for the New Deal, its influence as a model for expanding the public sphere remains.

The Depression accentuated a broad set of problems affecting the theater industry. More than twenty thousand theater workers were unemployed. Half of New York City's theaters closed and regional theaters across the nation were hard hit. Yet the Federal Theatre Project also grew out of the inadequacies of American commercial theater, inadequacies that had become clear to many by the early 1930s. Syndicates and the star system had grown powerful, reinforcing formulaic productions that standardized content, form, promotion, and distribution of the theater industry's product. The movie industry had also siphoned off much of its market. Vaudeville, as well as regional and repertory theater companies, was badly hurt by the growing Depression. Yet even within this context there were signs of creative vitality: the "little theater movement," the Group Theater, and the attractions of European and Soviet theater all created an atmosphere of expectation, experimentation, and the politicization of social issues in American theater.

Although some theater workers had earlier received minor assistance from the Civil Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), funding for a full-scale Federal Theatre Project was funneled through the WPA, which was created in April 1935. The Federal Theatre Project was officially launched that August when the directors of the writers', music, art, and theater projects, collectively known as Federal Project Number One, were announced. President Roosevelt's close associate and WPA head Harry Hopkins chose Hallie Flanagan, an old friend from Iowa, to be director of the Federal Theatre Project.

Hopkins made an inspired choice. Born in 1890, Flanagan was a gifted drama teacher and producer who had worked at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Upon taking office she noted that "while our aim is to put to work thousands of theater people, our more far-reaching purpose is to organize and support theatrical enterprises so excellent in quality, so low in cost and so vital to the communities involved that they will be able to continue after federal aid is withdrawn." She later noted the novelty of the government getting into the theater business, saying, "We all believed that theater was more than a private enterprise, that it was also a public interest which, properly fostered, might come to be a social and educative force." Energetic and politically sensitive, Flanagan originally worked out of the old McLean Mansion in Washington, D.C., and dealt with a welter of bureaucratic nightmares—workers needed to prove residence for a year in a city where they would collect their checks, for example.

The Theatre Project employed more than twelve thousand theater workers at its peak, including numerous actors and directors who later became famous, such as Orson Welles, E.G. Marshall, Sidney Lumet, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, and Will Geer. Units were established in thirty-one states and New York City. Overall the Federal Theatre Project produced more than one thousand productions and one thousand performances each month before nearly a million people. Seventy-eight percent of these audience members were admitted free of charge. Major radio networks carried the Federal Theatre of the Air to an estimated ten million listeners, while the Federal Theatre Project's National Service Bureau provided research, consultation, and play-reading services to all the units. It even created a Federal Theater Magazine and an Audience Research Department in October 1936 to track public interest in its productions.

Numerous productions were staged that raised provocative questions about the social and economic conditions of the time. Classic or ideologically conservative dramas such as Shakespeare's Macbethand T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral were counterpoised with contemporary themes and new formats. One of the most controversial was a production of It Can't Happen Here, based on Sinclair Lewis's novel about fascism in the United States. The "Living Newspapers" productions were derived from social issues of the day and were often produced simultaneously in several cities. They used photographs, short films, animated sequences, and other novel techniques to gain audience attention.

The Federal Theatre Project placed special emphasis on promoting minority culture. Black theater companies were established in a dozen cities. Foreign language companies performed works in Yiddish, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Although Flanagan wielded power from Washington, the Federal Theatre Project allowed considerable regional variation in its productions. States experimented with theaters for the blind, and puppeteers toured CCC camps. Some project employees assisted local dramatic clubs, while others provided historical information for playwrights.

However, the Federal Theatre Project was the most vulnerable of all New Deal cultural programs when it came to censorship. Its productions were sometimes provocative and many theater workers were outspoken advocates on the political left. Some Federal Theatre Project employees demonstrated when the government cut the project's funding. WPA chief Harry Hopkins had originally said that "what we want is a free, adult, uncensored theater," but that proved difficult to accomplish, especially after southern committee chairmen in Congress began voicing their concerns. Censorship quickly reared its head against the first Living Newspaper production, Ethiopia, which addressed the Italian invasion of that African nation. The White House feared international repercussions and sought to constrain elements of the production, which led to the resignation of the Federal Theatre Project's New York director, the playwright Elmer Rice.

Issues surrounding federal cutbacks, censorship, and criticism of the leftist political content of some of the Federal Theatre Project's productions grew after the 1936 election. By 1938, the Dies Committee held hearings into what some of its members labeled communist subversion of the Federal Theatre Project. Newspapers provided few opportunities for the Federal Theatre Project to defend itself against committee allegations of workers' association with the Communist Party. On June 30, 1939, the House Appropriations Committee suspended use of WPA funds for any theater activities, and the Federal Theater Project ended abruptly. A grand experiment had ended in a manner that presaged the red-baiting of the postwar era.



De Hart, Jane Sherron. The Federal Theater, 1935–1939: Plays, Relief, and Politics. 1967.

Dworkin y Mendez, Kenya C. "The Tradition of Hispanic Theater and the WPA Federal Theater Project in Tamp-Ybor City, Florida." In Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, Vol. 2, edited by Erlinda Gonzalez-Berry and Charles M. Tatum. 1996.

Flanagan, Hallie. Arena: The History of the Federal Theater. 1940.

Fraden, Rena. Blueprints for a Black Federal Theater, 1935–1939. 1996.

Mangione, Jerre G. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943. 1972.

Manning, Susan. "Black Voices, White Bodies: The Performance of Race and Gender in How Long Brethren." American Quarterly 50, no. 1 (1998).

Melosh, Barbara. Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater. 1991.

Redd, Tina. "Birmingham's Federal Theater Project Negro Unit: The Administration of Race." In African-American Performances and Theater History: A Critical Reader, edited by Harry J. Elam, Jr., and David Krasner. 2001.

Schwartz, Bonnie Nelson. Voices from the Federal Theater. 2003.

Sporn, Paul. Against Itself: The Federal Theater and Writers' Projects in the Midwest. 1995.

Witham, Barry. "The Economic Structure of the Federal Theater Project." In The American Stage: Social and Economic Changes from the Colonial Period to the Present, edited by Ron Engle and Tice L. Miller. 1993.

Gregory W. Bush

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Federal Theatre Project (FTP)

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Federal Theatre Project (FTP)