Most of us never saw an original production from the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP). But we’re not completely out of luck. Every spring and summer, at North Carolina’s Waterside Theatre at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, audiences can attend a staging of The Lost Colony, a 1937 musical by Paul Green dramatizing the true story of 115 ill-fated English colonists struggling to survive in the land that would eventually become North Carolina. What ultimately happened to the so-called Roanoke colony, which lasted from 1585 to around 1590, remains a mystery to this day.
I went to a performance in August 2016—my first time seeing The Lost Colony—and it was fantastic, with plenty of action (including pyrotechnics), comic relief, and outstanding choreography. (I’m not too much of a song-and-dance person, but I was highly impressed with the musical numbers. In fact, they could have thrown in two or three additional dance sequences!)
In her 1940 book Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre, FTP Director Hallie Flanagan discussed how she, her staff, and WPA workers helped produce the musical: “It came true. The buildings were restored with assistance from the W.P.A. and other agencies, the play was written, the music composed, the actors and musicians assembled, the stage set, and on a July night in 1937, a thousand people gathered to see events re-enacted in the arena in which 350 years ago those events had actually taken place. Everyone watching seemed to feel a relationship to the theme… For three years, from July 4 through September 16, an average of a thousand people a week made a pilgrimage to see the play” (p. 111). What Flanagan did not know at the time was that The Lost Colony would run, with occasional changes from year to year, for another 80 years, a fact discussed in Susan Quinn’s Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times (p. 283).
So, what are you waiting for? The 2017 season begins on Thursday, May 25th. Information on tickets, show times, and more can be found here.