Birth of The Federal Theatre Project — Coast to Coast
National in scope but regional in emphasis, the FTP was composed of many different units in charge of stage presentations in specific geographic areas. Larger nationally overarching units were responsible for the general administration of a sizable federal bureaucracy, which employed more than 12,000 people within 150 regional administrative units that produced more than 2,700 stage productions.
National Director Hallie Flanagan (1890–1969) administered the FTP from Washington, D.C., under the oversight of Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), director of the Works Project Administration and one of President Roosevelt’s closest advisers. The United States was divided into numerous theater regions that provided professional and technical direction for a nationwide program. The Federal Theatre Policy Board, which met every four months, decided on policies and selected plays and performances for the upcoming months. At the meetings, the regional directors presented reports from their state and local directors, allowing a pooling of local, state, and regional ideas.
Projects were set up in cities and towns in the majority of the states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and in Washington, D.C. Performances toured to virtually every corner of the nation—coast to coast—often traveling to rural areas where live theater was seldom seen, with some shows performed outdoors using portable stages. Read more about Birth of The Federal Theatre Project — Coast to Coast »
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The Plays and the Players
In its four short years the FTP presented an extraordinarily varied fare. Performances ranged from productions of sacred plays of the Middle Ages to classic plays by William Shakespeare and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and modern works by George Bernard Shaw, Gerhard Hauptmann, Lillian Hellman, Eugene O’Neill, and Anita Loos. The FTP also premiered the work of writers who later achieved fame, such as Arthur Miller and Mary Chase, later author of the comedy classic Harvey. The FTP fostered the careers of lighting and set designers now important in American theater history and actors and directors, among them the legendary Orson Welles, John Houseman, Joseph Cotton, Arlene Francis, and Burt Lancaster.
National Director Hallie Flanagan had a strong interest in theater that kept abreast of social change. She fostered the genre known as “Living Newspapers,” highly innovative stage productions inspired by headlines of the daily newspapers. These performances addressed social issues of significance such as housing (One-Third of a Nation), electrical power availability (Power), and public health (Spirochete).
The FTP managed numerous highly successful sub-projects, the most successful perhaps being its Negro Theatre Units, which employed African American actors, playwrights, directors, and craftspeople. In addition to performances that focused on social issues, these units produced novel creations of classic plays, such as an Orson Welles production of Macbeth—known as the “Voodoo” Macbeth—and a “swing” version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. The Children’s Theatre Units mounted highly popular productions, often with marionettes. The FTP production of Pinocchio was seen numerous times by Walt Disney and was the inspiration for his 1940 Academy Award-winning animated film classic. Many FTP units presented plays in languages other than English, including productions in Yiddish, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and German. Read more about The Plays and the Players »
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Final Curtain: The Legacy
Influential far beyond the few years it lasted, the Federal Theatre Project stands as a watershed moment in the history of American culture. Prior to the FTP and its predecessor the CWA, federal funding for fine, literary, or performing arts was nonexistent, with funding coming from private sources. Suddenly, in 1933 the nation saw the entry of the federal government fully and directly into the arts. That the federal government did not merely provide financial support but ran the program directly was a revolutionary shift.
During its brief existence, the FTP managed to generate controversy with its productions aimed at delineating social and economic issues. A series of congressional hearings focused on its programming, costs, and apparent successes and failures of productions, and questioned its imputed communist influence. Although the FTP came to an abrupt end on June 30, 1939, with congressional removal of funding, in subsequent years the federal government played an increasingly vital role in the nation’s cultural life. Over the years, the efforts to support the arts have included the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities (1965–1991) administered by the former Department of Health Education and Welfare, the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, and indirect support in the form of the national cultural center, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1971.
The Federal Theatre Project Collection, in relation to all of the performing arts collections at the Library of Congress, continues to attract some of the greatest interest among scholars, students, and artists. FTP has inspired recent documentary and feature films. Theatrical revivals of numerous FTP productions continue today, while notable works await rediscovery. The Federal Theatre Project remains exemplary of the lasting contribution of the federal government in the cultural life of the nation. Read more about Final Curtain: The Legacy »
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