Developed in July and August of 1935, the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP) became one of five programs under Federal Project Number One (itself under the Works Progress Administration). It was created to provide job opportunities for unemployed “actors, stagehands, designers, light technicians, and other workers of the theatrical profession,” in plays as well as “marionette shows, circuses, musical comedies, light operas…and foreign language productions” . FTP was funded directly by the federal government and was “most active in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago,” where the majority of unemployed theatrical workers were concentrated; but performances, of one kind or another, were held all across the nation .
Many FTP productions were very popular. For example, the play One-Third of a Nation—inspired by President Roosevelt’s famous statement that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” —played in New York City “for ten months in 1938 to a total audience of 217,458. Nationally, it played 7,641 times on stages in cities including Detroit, Cincinnati, Portland, Hartford, New Orleans, Seattle, and San Francisco” . With respect to the quality of the productions and performances, Fortune magazine wrote, “From any point of view save that of the old-line box-office critics to whom nothing is theatre unless it has Broadway stars and Broadway varnish, the Federal Theatre Project is a roaring success” .
The FTP embraced diversity. There was a “Negro Unit” for African Americans, a “Yiddish Unit” for Jewish performers and theatre workers, and units for several other ethnic groups . The FTP produced plays with white and black Americans on stage together, which set off alarm bells with many conservative members of Congress. U.S. Senator Robert Reynolds (D-NC) spoke for many when he declared, “Through such material the cardinal keystone of Communism—free love and racial equality—is being spread at the expense of the god-fearing, home-loving American taxpayer” .
Hallie Flanagan was the director of the FTP for its entire existence and believed that the theatre program could be a medium for social change and advancing New Deal reforms, especially through the FTP’s Living Newspaper productions . These plays took current events, dramatized them, and even proffered solutions. While they made for exciting theatre, the Living Newspaper productions provided more fuel for FTP critics–many of whom became politically agitated by solutions that promoted, for example, public control of energy production. Flanagan vigorously defended the FTP before Congress in 1939, but, ultimately, to no avail. Congress cut off funding and the program was terminated on June 30, 1939, sending theatre workers back to the unemployment lines .
Though the FTP lasted only four years, it “performed plays, vaudeville acts, puppet shows, and circuses before 30 million people” , and “for a brief time in our history, Americans had a vibrant national theatre…What began as a relief project, without big names or one grand theatre, found a vast new audience, ready to laugh and cry and cheer and hiss and even, dangerously, to think” .
Sources: (1) Federal Works Agency, Final Report of the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 65. (2) Ibid. (3) “‘One Third of a Nation’: FDR’s Second Inaugural Address,” History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5105/, accessed June 4, 2015. (4) Sharon Ann Musher, Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 107. (5) Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times,” New York: Walker & Company, 2008, p. 141, citing Fortune, May, 1937. (6) “The WPA Federal Theatre Project,” American Memory, Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp/ftwpa.html, accessed June 4, 2015. (7) See note 5, p. 278-279. (8) See, e.g., Sheila D. Collins and Naomi Rosenblum, “The Democratization of Culture: The Legacy of the New Deal Arts Programs.” In Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg (Ed.), When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 215-217. (9) See note 6. (10) Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA; When FDR Put the Nation Back to Work, New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (pp. 523-524, 2009 paperback edition). (11) See note 5 at p. 284.