born august 27, 1890 redfield, south dakota
died july 23, 1969 old tappan, new jersey
theater educator, administrator
"Fred [Hallie's father] began organizing home talent shows in the family living room on weekends.… Once Hallie had discovered the pleasure of thrilling an audience…there was no stopping her."
from hallie flanagan: a life in the american theatre
Hallie Flanagan, multitalented in the theater arts, exhibited her abilities in acting, playwriting, and directing while teaching at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, and then at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1935 Flanagan was appointed director of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a program established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) administration. The FTP was one of the many New Deal programs designed to put people back to work and bring the nation out of the 1930s Great Depression. The FTP put unemployed theater personnel to work and allowed Flanagan to present high-quality theatrical productions to the general public. In carrying out this task, Flanagan introduced major changes in American theater: Theater became more relevant to everyday life and was a source of entertainment and inspiration for a wider audience than ever before.
Growing up in the Midwest
Flanagan was born Hallie Mae Ferguson in Redfield, South Dakota. Her father, Frederic Miller Ferguson, was a traveling salesman who urged his daughter to express and use her unique talents to their full potential. Her mother, Louisa Fischer, stressed the importance of helping others. Hallie's father had a difficult time maintaining a steady job, so the family kept moving from one place to another—from South Dakota to Nebraska to Illinois and then to Sonora, Iowa, where her grandparents had a farm. By late 1900 Frederic was selling telephone switchboards in nearby Grinnell, Iowa, and the family finally enjoyed a permanent residence.
Hallie graduated from Grinnell College in 1911 and began working as a high school teacher. In 1912 she married her college boyfriend, Murray Flanagan, and they had two children before his death in 1919. As a young widow and single parent, Hallie Flanagan returned to high school teaching and also assisted in classes at Grinnell College. Tragedy struck again in 1922 when Hallie's oldest son died suddenly of spinal meningitis.
Building a career in theater
To ease the grief she felt after losing both her husband and her son, Flanagan poured herself into theater, her first love. She accepted a position teaching theater at Grinnell College and began directing plays for the college theater, the Colonial Theatre. She also began writing plays and acting. While at Grinnell she wrote The Curtain, which won an award for playwriting and was subsequently produced in Des Moines, Iowa. She was accepted into 47 Workshop, a training ground for playwriting, headed by noted Harvard University professor George Pierce Baker (1866–1935). Flanagan also entered nearby Radcliffe College for women and earned a master's degree in the arts in 1924. After briefly returning to teach again at Grinnell, Flanagan accepted a teaching position at the elite Vassar College for women in New York. In addition she received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study theater in Europe for one year.
While traveling in Europe, Flanagan observed and studied many new forms of theater and innovative techniques, including the use of theater in Russia to influence political and social change. Inspired by her journey, she returned to Vassar and established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Productions at the Experimental Theatre caught the attention of both critics and scholars. One production was in Greek, which led Flanagan to her second husband, Philip Davis, a professor of Greek studies at Vassar. They married in 1934 but had no children.
Federal Theatre Project
In March 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second president of the United States. The Great Depression, the most severe economic crisis in U.S. history, was at its worst: Up to 25 percent of America's workforce was unemployed. President Roosevelt immediately began introducing programs to bring relief and recovery to the nation, programs that were collectively called the New Deal. In 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency, was established to put people to work on public works projects that would benefit the country. Although 75 percent of the jobs were construction related, the WPA also set up programs for unemployed artists, including painters, writers, musicians, and actors. Harry Hopkins (1890–1946; see entry), the head of the WPA, had been Flanagan's classmate at Grinnell College, where he had the lead in the senior play. Knowing Flanagan's sterling credentials, he called upon her to be the director of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project (FTP).
Flanagan seized the opportunity to provide relief work to unemployed actors and theater workers; she also hoped the project might lead to the development of a national theater for the United States. Flanagan sought to establish theater groups in many local communities so they would become part of the fabric of those communities and last well beyond the FTP.
Flanagan had some definite ideas about what a national theater should be. Early American theater reflected the interests of the social elite, but Flanagan believed theater must relate more to the common people of the communities. By reflecting everyday life in theater productions, she sought to reach a diverse public. Flanagan also believed that for theater to remain vibrant, it would have to continually push the boundaries of what people found acceptable or comfortable. Accordingly, the FTP tackled all the major topics of the
day, including many controversial issues, through its "Living Newspapers" productions. Flanagan dramatized the struggles of Americans caught in the Depression, in hopes of enlightening her audiences and moving some people to action.
The conservative U.S. Congress soon became alarmed with the kinds of topics being addressed in FTP productions. The House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating many New Deal programs and made the FTP one of its primary targets. Flanagan was invited to testify before the committee to plead her program's case. Despite her testimony in defense of the FTP, Congress ended the program's funding in June 1939. The committee considered the FTP potentially too heavily influenced by communists. Flanagan's dream of a national theater had been shot down.
Federal Theatre Project
Part of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was designed to bring work relief to unemployed actors, directors, playwrights, stagehands, technicians, and others associated with theater production. Established in June 1935, the FTP employed over 3,350 people by December. The FTP was composed of four major divisions: the Popular Price Theater, the Living Newspapers, the Negro Theater, and the experimental theater. There was also a Yiddish theater unit, a children's theater unit, a dance unit, and a puppet unit. The units performed not only in theaters, but also at parks and hospitals in an effort to bring theater to the people. Some of the most successful productions were T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, which the FTP staged simultaneously in eighteen cities. The Negro unit employed almost nine hundred blacks and produced seventy plays, including a highly acclaimed "voodoo" version of Shakespeare's Macbeth in New York. The Living Newspapers unit was the most innovative and controversial part of the FTP, tackling foreign affairs and domestic politics. The Popular Price Theater presented original plays by new authors. Free or fairly inexpensive, FTP productions reached a large audience. It was estimated that 65 percent of attendees were seeing theater for the first time. An average of five hundred thousand people attended FTP performances each week. Over thirty million people attended FTP performances before the program was shut down in 1939. In its four years of existence, the FTP employed over twelve thousand people in 158 theaters located in twenty-eight states. Though she was not able to establish a national theater, the dynamic leader of the FTP, Hallie Flanagan, greatly influenced American theater by making it relevant and accessible to the common citizen.
Life after the FTP
With the demise of the FTP, Flanagan returned to Vassar College and the Experimental Theatre. She soon wrote the story of the FTP in Arena, published in 1940. She also suffered another personal tragedy, in February 1940, when her second husband died suddenly. Flanagan continued her teaching career. From 1942 to 1955 she served as dean, director of the college theater, and full professor in drama at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1955 Flanagan retired at age sixty-five.
Flanagan received a number of awards during her retirement, including a 1957 Creative Arts Award from Brandeis University and a citation from the National Theatre Conference in 1968. Following her death from Parkinson's disease in Old Tappan, New Jersey, in July 1969, a memorial was held at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
For More Information
bentley, joanne. hallie flanagan: a life in the american theatre. new york, ny: alfred a. knopf, 1988.
flanagan, hallie. arena: the story of the federal theatre. new york, ny: duell, sloan and pearce, 1940.
o'connor, john, and lorrain brown. free, adult, uncensored: a living history of the federal theatre project. washington, d.c.: new republic books, 1978.
federal theatre project collection.http://www.gmu.edu/library/specialcollections/theater.html (accessed on september 8, 2002).