Federal Theatre Project Promotes Live Theater Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From 1935 to 1939, the Federal Theatre Project brought live theater to the American general public by funding small and regional theaters all over the United States.

Summary of Event

In May, 1935, Vassar College theater professor and director Hallie Flanagan received a call from Harry Hopkins, head of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), asking her to come to Washington, D.C., to discuss what to do about unemployed theater people. Out of that phone call came the Federal Theatre Project, which was designed to provide subsistence income for unemployed theater workers. [kw]Federal Theatre Project Promotes Live Theater (Aug. 29, 1935-June 30, 1939) [kw]Theater, Federal Theatre Project Promotes Live (Aug. 29, 1935-June 30, 1939) Federal Theatre Project Great Depression;New Deal Theater;Federal Theatre Project [g]United States;Aug. 29, 1935-June 30, 1939: Federal Theatre Project Promotes Live Theater[08970] [c]Theater;Aug. 29, 1935-June 30, 1939: Federal Theatre Project Promotes Live Theater[08970] Flanagan, Hallie Welles, Orson Houseman, John

In 1935, there were fifteen million unemployed people in the United States. Unemployment;U.S. Six million were on relief rolls. An estimated forty thousand theater people across the country were out of work. The Federal Theatre Project’s aim was to employ as many theater people then on relief rolls as possible. Approximately ten thousand people found work with the project. By the time of its demise, nearly three thousand of those workers had found employment within the private sector.

In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;New Deal famous first hundred days in office in 1933, he set up a number of agencies to alleviate the conditions under which ordinary Americans had suffered since 1929. Businesses had gone bankrupt. Banks and savings and loans had failed, impoverishing the people whose uninsured savings were wiped out. Unemployed men sold donated apples on street corners. Many people were forced to ask for food at the back doors of those lucky enough still to have homes.

A scene from director Orson Welles’s Macbeth featuring an all-black cast, produced in New York through funding provided by the Federal Theatre Project.

(Library of Congress)

Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps Civilian Conservation Corps gave unemployed urban men work in rural areas, where they built roads, replanted deforested areas, and built picnic grounds along highways. The Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration Works Progress Administration built post offices, schools, community swimming pools, and recreation buildings in city parks. The WPA also found work for writers, who were assigned to write books about each state. Other writers and photographers documented the plight of farmers in the southern states. Under WPA auspices, interviews were conducted with former slaves and the interview transcripts archived in Washington, D.C. Artists painted murals for local post offices and other public buildings. The Federal Theatre Project, begun under the Emergency Relief Act of April, 1935, Emergency Relief Act (1935) as a measure to provide minimal wages for ten thousand unemployed theater people, was part of the same effort to combat unemployment as well as bring performance art to wider audiences.

From the time it officially came into being on August 29, 1935, the Federal Theatre Project kept thousands of future professionals in the theater. Many became famous in later years. They covered the spectrum of the arts, including among their numbers composers, set and costume designers, directors, playwrights, and actors. Among project employees were Will Geer, Canada Lee, Joseph Cotten, Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles, Arthur Miller, Sidney Lumet, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Dan Dailey, Gene Kelly, and Burt Lancaster (as an acrobat with a Federal Theatre circus).

The Caravan Theatre, with its portable stage, presented productions in New York City parks. Multilingual productions brought theater to Spanish Harlem and presented plays in Yiddish. Admission prices ranged from nothing to a nickel to, on Broadway, one dollar. The project also produced children’s theater, including puppeteers and magicians, as well as regional and community dramas.

The project’s national headquarters, directed by Hallie Flanagan, was located in New York City. There were five regional organizations, each with a regional director: East, Midwest, South, West, and New York City. In each region, there were various subgroups of theatrical performance. The regional organizations were either attached to already existing nonprofit theaters or, where those were lacking, set up as independent companies.

Flanagan had a plan for regional theater, to establish theaters that had the possibility of growing into social institutions in the communities where they were located. In addition to plays with nonregional content produced by these regional centers, some work based on local history and folklore was produced, such as The Sun Rises in the West, produced in Los Angeles, and The Lost Colony, produced in North Carolina.

The immediate impact of the project, in addition to removing thousands from public assistance programs, was to draw hundreds of thousands of people to performances all over the country. It is estimated that project performances drew audiences of half a million weekly and that by the project’s end in 1939, thirty million people had seen its productions. Approximately 65 percent of those people, it was estimated, had never before seen live theater.

There was trouble with Congress, the source of funding for the project, almost from the beginning; project employees were accused of “boondoggling” and of serving as fronts for New Deal and Communist Party propaganda. Attacked by the House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1938, the Federal Theatre Project came to an end on June 30, 1939, after the congressional committees in charge of appropriations decided not to continue funding.

In its brief life, the Federal Theatre Project brought free or nearly free live theater to new mass audiences and created work for thousands. Some few of them later became famous in the arts. Some production devices of its “Living Newspaper” productions were later used in professional theater. Its research division created histories of local and regional theaters. Its neighborhood ethnic productions, often performed on specially designed trucks, were the prototype for productions in the late twentieth century in New York City.

Perhaps most important, the project left a dream of the possibilities of a government-funded national theater. In television and radio in the last decades of the twentieth century, its closest counterparts may be the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.


Difficulties with Congress began before the first production opened. The directors of the Living Newspaper, Living Newspaper a subunit of the project, chose to do a piece about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Playwright Elmer Rice, Rice, Elmer selected by Flanagan to head New York projects, agreed with her that the productions should be fluid and timely, like a newspaper. Rice selected Morris Watson, Watson, Morris vice president of the American Newspaper Guild, to run the Living Newspaper group, and a staff of real reporters researched the material on which the plays were based. Employing devices of agitprop (agitation propaganda) plays Flanagan had seen recently in Europe, the Living Newspaper productions were total theater, using light, music, dance, mime, posters, graphs, charts, and direct speeches to the audience. Many of the techniques became staple devices of later Broadway theater. The first production, Ethiopia, nevertheless was killed by congressional fiat before it could open. Elmer Rice quit in protest.

Because the subject matter of Living Newspaper plays was contemporary social and political problems, these plays always found criticism from politicians and columnists. Triple-A Plowed Under dealt with the plight of the farmer; Power with Tennessee Valley Authority attempts to control floods and harness waterpower for electricity; One-Third of a Nation, taking its title from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s phrase “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” championed public housing for the urban poor.

Until the creation of the Federal Theatre Project, African American actors and playwrights who did not want to conform to white stereotyping of their lives had little access to theater. In New York, there were the Harlem Suitcase Theater and the Rose McClendon Players’ Theater Workshop, and in Cleveland the Karamu Theater. In addition to creating its New York group, the project set up black production groups in Chicago, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, and other cities and developed a repertory of fifty-five plays, nearly all original scripts.

The New York company, in particular, was highly successful. Orson Welles and John Houseman directed an all-black cast in a production of Macbeth set in Haiti in which the play’s witches were voodoo practitioners. Productions of works by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan by white project performers were popular, but the black group had a smash hit with an all-black cast and updated music in The Swing Mikado. It also produced W. E. B. Du Bois’s Haiti, depicting the rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture. Walk Together Chillun dealt with the need for unity among African American factory workers.

Critics of “that man in the White House,” as hard-core Republicans referred to Roosevelt, argued that the Works Progress Administration was created to buy votes by paying “boondogglers,” a word coined to describe workers who allegedly did nothing. Roads, buildings, and dams provided visible evidence that somebody must be doing something; it was easier to attack the arts, which had few such tangible products. Even the Federal Theatre Project’s Children’s Theatre did not escape the criticism that the project was full of Communists and that its productions were Communist propaganda. The Children’s Theatre performed free of charge in playgrounds, parks, and public schools and had some long-running hits, notably The Emperor’s New Clothes. A play called The Revolt of the Beavers, however, in which the subjects of an evil king throw him out so that they can remain nine years old and eat ice cream, was described by project haters as Communist allegory.

Among the project’s more striking socially conscious plays were the musical The Cradle Will Rock and It Can’t Happen Here. Technically, The Cradle Will Rock Cradle Will Rock, The (Blitzstein) is not a Federal Theatre Project play, because Congress canceled funding for it. Unpaid theater owners padlocked their doors on opening night, and Equity actors could not appear in roles in costume. Directors Orson Welles and John Houseman led the cast and the audience that had showed up to see the show down the street to a hastily rented vacant theater, where composer Marc Blitzstein played the score on a piano and actors in street clothes stood up in the audience and sang when their cues came. The performance received great publicity and gave impetus to the Welles-Houseman Mercury Theatre, which the directors left the project to form.

It Can’t Happen Here It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis, S.)[It Cant Happen Here] is remembered for the conditions of its staging. Novelist Sinclair Lewis, Lewis, Sinclair his political consciousness raised by his wife, columnist Dorothy Thompson, published a novel in 1935 that concerned the way in which a fascist pretending to be antifascist could be elected president and become a dictator. He adapted it for the stage, and on October 27, 1936, the Federal Theatre Project produced the work simultaneously in seventeen theaters across the country. Hallie Flanagan canceled productions in St. Louis and New Orleans; Louisiana politicians protested that the play was really about Governor Huey Long, and Missourians wanted script changes. Most reviews were favorable, however. The simultaneous productions reached the largest audience ever to see a play at the same time until the advent of television.

The project did not neglect the classics, performing works by William Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights, including the first performance in the United States of Euripides’ Lysistrata as well as medieval miracle and morality plays. George Bernard Shaw let the project produce his plays for only token royalties, and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral was given its premiere performance on Broadway by project actors.

Under attack from its inception by critics of Roosevelt’s New Deal relief acts and by those who labeled it a hotbed of Communist propaganda, the Federal Theatre Project was weakened slowly by financial cuts and attempts at censorship. In 1938, Martin Dies’s House Committee on Un-American Activities attacked the project and refused to allow Hallie Flanagan and other project officials to testify at the committee’s hearings. Republican Representative J. Parnell Thomas Thomas, J. Parnell accused the project’s plays of being propaganda for Communism or the New Deal. Flanagan finally was allowed to testify before the committee in December, 1938. When she managed to refute the so-called evidence, the hearings were ended, and Flanagan was not allowed to finish her testimony.

The end of the project came in 1939, after the committees in the House and Senate that controlled appropriations for the project debated ending funding. Republican Representative Clifton Woodrum Woodrum, Clifton said that “every theatre critic of note has expressed his disapproval of projects of this type.” The day following his statement, he received a telegram denying its truth, signed by every major critic in New York City. The House committee voted to end appropriations, but the Senate committee approved funding. A joint committee passed a compromise bill that omitted funding. On June 30, 1939, the Federal Theatre Project was killed.

Two project productions, Pinocchio and Sing for Your Supper, were still running on Broadway. As funding expired, Pinocchio was given a different ending. Instead of becoming a real boy at the end, Pinocchio died and was placed in a pine coffin bearing a death date of June 30, 1939. Leaving the curtain up, the stagehands struck the set; the audience then followed the cast and crew outside and down the street in a “funeral march.”

Representative Woodrum, attacking Sing for Your Supper, said that he would eat the manuscript if there was a line in it that “contributed to the cultural or educational life of America.” The next year, the closing song from the show, “Ballad for Americans,” was the theme song of the Republican National Convention.

Many people involved in the Federal Theatre Project went on to professional fame. Of the rest, Hallie Flanagan wrote, “The 10,000 anonymous men and women—the et ceteras and the and-so-forths who did the work, the nobodies who were everybody, the somebodies who believed it—their dreams and deeds were not to end. They were the beginning of a people’s theatre in a country whose greatest plays are still to come.” Federal Theatre Project Great Depression;New Deal Theater;Federal Theatre Project

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bentley, Eric, ed. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from the Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 1971. Reprint. New York: Nation Books, 2002. Collection of excerpts from transcripts of the testimony of artists, writers, and other theater people before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Includes Flanagan’s testimony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buttitta, Tony, and Barry B. Witham. Uncle Sam Presents: A Memoir of the Federal Theatre, 1935-1939. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982. Buttitta worked on the Federal Theatre Magazine and was press agent for some of the New York productions. Gives an eyewitness account of the project, particularly of the New York City center.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flanagan, Hallie. Arena. 1940. Reprint. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Limelight, 1985. Personal history of the Federal Theatre Project by its founder and director, written immediately after the project ended. Interesting and useful source, particularly for its eyewitness accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Himelstein, Morgan Yale. Drama Was a Weapon: The Left-Wing Theatre in New York, 1929-1941. 1963. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976. Chapter 5 concerns the Federal Theatre Project. Other chapters describe various efforts in the theater conducted by the Communist Party. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kazacoff, George. Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project as a Forum for New Plays. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Scholarly work focuses primarily on new plays produced by the Federal Theatre Project, including those criticized as political. Includes a useful bibliography, particularly for material in the Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Bonnie Nelson. Voices from the Federal Theatre. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Created as a tie-in with a public television special on the Federal Theatre Project, brief history presents interviews with actors, directors, and others who were involved in the project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Jay. Stage Left. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974. Chronicles the early years of left-wing theater in the United States, ending with a discussion of the Federal Theatre Project. Covers many of the theater groups involved in socially conscious drama. Includes index and photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Witham, Barry B. The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Detailed look at the project relies on archival sources, official correspondence, and interviews. Includes production calendar, glossary of names, bibliography, and index.

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Categories: History