The Federal Theater, Where Art Went Live

Hallie Flanagan, Director of the FTP

Hallie Flanagan, Director of the FTP
Flanagan on CBS Radio for the Federal Theatre of the Air, 1936. Courtesy, Wikipedia Commons.

A brief but spectacular achievement, the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP) (1936-1939) not only provided jobs for some 13,000 destitute people at its height but also created and produced 63,600 performances of 1,200 major productions. It reached audiences of more than 30 million people in cities, towns and rural areas nationwide, the vast majority of whom had never before experienced live theater.

Congress funded the Federal Theatre Project primarily to provide economic relief. But WPA administrator Harry Hopkins and the FTP’s dynamic director Hallie Flanagan had a much broader mission: to create a publicly funded national theater, accessible to all, that would both entertain and strengthen public dialogue and democracy.

Flanagan had achieved noteworthy results as director of Vassar College’s Experimental Theater, largely with amateurs and at low cost. Along with her wide knowledge of the theatre, including European dramatic experiments, she was well prepared for the challenges of founding a national theater.

Harry Hopkins and Hallie Flanagan

Harry Hopkins and Hallie Flanagan
In the lobby of the Experimental Theater, New York City, 1936. Courtesy, NARA.

But the task was daunting—meeting the primary goal of employing jobless theatre people and at the same time achieving quality productions; surmounting funding and bureaucratic hurdles; and responding to union demands, while striving for her own broader artistic vision and social goals that evoked criticism and even charges of subversion.  

The FTP was meant to create jobs. Ninety percent of those employed by the FTP came from the relief rolls. Though a number of future stars got their start with the FTP, it was not easy to hire top talent. It could be more time-consuming to determine eligibility for a FT hire than a construction worker. Plus, there was the need to hold auditions.  

Witches in Voodoo Macbeth

Witches’ scene from Voodoo Macbeth
Adapted by Orson Welles, New York City, 1936. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The repertoire of the Federal Theatre and its national scope are astounding. Productions ranged from circuses, puppet shows, children’s plays and vaudeville to classic works—both traditional and reinterpreted, such as Voodoo Macbeth, set in Haiti with the witches invoking voodoo to conjure up their “toil and trouble,” and Swing Mikado, set on a Pacific South Sea island, instead of Japan.

There were also modern dramas unlikely to play commercially, such as T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and the staging of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

It Can't Happen Here

It Can't Happen Here
By Sinclair Lewis, Jewish Theatre Unit production, 1935. Courtesy, Federal Theatre Project, FDR Library.

The Lewis play opened in twenty-one theatres in seventeen states, and was performed in English, Spanish and Yiddish—a significant step toward Flanagan’s goal of a national theatre reflecting the ethnic diversity of the country.

The FTP also found creative ways to take theatre to new audiences. New York City’s Caravan Theatre used tractors to tow collapsible trailers storing costumes, props and stages for outdoor performances at parks, baseball fields and blocked-off streets.

The FTP’s accomplishments extended to experimental theater. “The Living Newspaper,” for example, dramatized current events using newsreels, still photographs, live actors, music and song.

Living Newspaper, One-Third of a Nation

Living Newspaper, One-Third of a Nation
Depicting a tenement fire, New York City, 1938. Directed by Arthur Arent, setting by Howard Bay, costumes by Rhoda Rammelkamp. Courtesy, Coast to Coast: The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, Library of Congress.

Playwright Arthur Miller, who joined the Federal Theatre as a jobless college graduate, considered “The Living Newspaper” “the one big invention of the theatre in our time.”

Despite scrupulous adherence to the facts, and even cancelling some of the more “hysterical” productions, the FTP came under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  HUAC’s charged that the plays were “propaganda for Communism.” Flanagan called them “propaganda for Democracy.”

As HUAC’s attack on the FTP and the consequent defunding of the theater show, government support for a national theater likely would be as problematic today as it was then. Some large, public-spirited foundations would need to sponsor such a revival.

Swing Mikado, Negro Unit, Great Northern Theatre, Chicago, 1938.

Swing Mikado
Directed by Harry Minturn. Courtesy, Coast to Coast: The Federal Theatre Project 1935-1939, Library of Congress.

The FTP still stands out for its enlightened racial policy that differed significantly from some other New Deal programs. African Americans received equal pay for equal work in every aspect of theatrical production. Audiences were integrated. If a theatre refused to seat Blacks and whites together, the Federal Theatre canceled the performance. Moreover, some of the plays dramatized African Americans’ resistance to white oppression, previously unheard of in American theater.

Federal Theatre Circus 

Federal Theatre Circus 
New York City, probably 1936. Courtesy, Coast to Coast: The Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939, Library of Congress.

According to Rosetta LeNoire, who acted in one of the Negro Units, “It was the Federal Theatre who gave us so many of our great actors, because they were permitted to play roles that they would never have been offered on Broadway.”

Flanagan stars not only as a revolutionary force in the American theatre but as one who recognized the role of art and culture in democracy and strengthening the national character.  Under Flanagan’s leadership the Federal Theatre became such a force—albeit for too short a time. 

Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project, by Susan Rubenstein DeMasi

“The 1930s was the most creative period in American cultural life” claimed actress Toby Cole when I interviewed her shortly before her death at 92. I thought she was exaggerating because she had worked for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) during the New Deal.  But after reading Susan Rubenstein DeMasi’s absorbing biography of Henry Alsberg, who headed the Federal Writers Project (FWP), I’m inclined to agree. It is virtually impossible to imagine such inventive individuals as Alsberg and Hallie Flanagan, who headed the Federal Theater Project during the New Deal, being hired by government today—even in a Democratic administration. 

A rumpled bear of a man from a secular New York Jewish family, Alsberg was born in 1881 in New York and died in Palo Alto 89 years later after spending a lifetime necessarily hiding his homosexuality from all but radical friends like Emma Goldman.

DeMasi calls the 1920s “arguably his most active period, [when] he energetically segued from journalism to refugee relief work to theatrical pursuits to political endeavor,” but it is the work he did as head the Federal Writers Project for which, thanks to DeMasi’s book, as well as David A. Taylor’s 2009 Soul of People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, Alsberg will be gratefully remembered for the FWP’s volcanic output under his inspired leadership.  

In 1934 Alsberg edited the large format book America Fights the Depression whose more than 200 photos showed the myriad of ways in which the new Civil Works Administration hired more than four million people to wage constructive war against the economic calamity during the winter of 1933-34.

It was probably on the strength of that book that WPA chief Harry Hopkins entrusted Alsberg to muster his own army of thousands of unemployed writers. Alsberg wanted to use that talent to reflect Americans back to themselves just as photographers of the Farm Security Administration, notably Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, were doing at the same time—even when that meant lancing popular mythology and telling the stories of those left in the dust. 

The most famous outcome of the FWP was the now classic WPA guidebooks to all 48 states and many American cities. It also spawned hundreds of other books as well as transcripts of thousands of interviews including those with ex-slaves at the end of their lives and countless pages of research never published but now an invaluable resource to historians, ethnographers, folklorists and others.

Often difficult, utopian, and self-described as a “philosophical anarchist,” Alsberg was himself surprised to find himself working as an administrator within the government. A lifelong progressive in his politics, Alsberg had much to hide from the New Deal’s enemies, and DeMasi does a splendid job not only of resurrecting a secretive man’s life but delineating the reactionary forces in Congress that ultimately brought him and Hallie Flanagan down in a Communist witch hunt that foreshadowed the McCarthy era.

In her introduction, DeMasi admits that in writing her book, she fell in love with Alsberg. You will, too, in reading it.

So What’s the Deal? Yiddish at the Federal Theater Project

David Pinski’s 1937 satire about a shopkeeper extolled labor unions.

Yiddish Play Poster
David Pinski’s 1937 satire about a shopkeeper extolled labor unions.

When the Federal Theatre Project was created in 1936 as one of the New Deal’s programs to put unemployed Americans back to work, it became a virtual national theatre. Hallie Flanagan directed the Federal Theatre Project, but different cities had their own district directors so that creativity would be decentralized and local.

Theatre units in cities throughout the country staged classics—Shakespeare and the Greeks— as well as plays by new writers like Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw. But the Federal Theatre Project also endeavored to serve diverse cultures, enabling immigrant actors to perform for audiences that understood them. Its repertoire included performances in French, German, Spanish, and Yiddish—the language Eastern European Jews had brought with them to America and continued to speak in the 1930s.

The Yiddish Unit of the Federal Theatre created some new and adventurous stage productions that remain largely unknown to theatre historians because the plays were neither translated nor published.

David Pinski’s 1937 satire, The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper, for example, is the story of a sweatshop tailor who dreamed of owning a restaurant and grocery. Pinski’s Yiddish farce showed Sam, the tailor, struggling to keep his new premises open. Eventually, in a happy ending, Sam returns to his tailor shop and joins a union of tailors that gives him job security in a time of economic hardship.  New York Times critic William Schack found Pinski’s “genial parable” to be “playfully written and performed as an expressionist romp.”

While Pinski is regarded as one of Yiddish theatre’s most important playwrights, this work, which premiered under FTP auspices in Chicago on February 25, 1938, is rarely discussed in print or performed. In 2016, with union membership in decline, it might be worth reviving Pinski’s script for new audiences.

Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) productions were performed in several languages, including Yiddish. Odets’ “Awake and Sing” remains popular today.

Poster Awake and Sing
Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) productions were performed in several languages, including Yiddish. Odets’ “Awake and Sing” remains popular today.

Other Federal Theatre plays performed in Yiddish included a stage version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, and Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing—both of which were also widely seen by English-language audiences. The plays had special appeal to Yiddish-speaking immigrants because they dealt with poverty and political repression as Jews had suffered in Eastern Europe before they moved to America.  Another of the Yiddish Unit’s innovative productions was a vaudeville revue titled We Live and Laugh, featuring a cast of one hundred Yiddish actors. Like Pinski’s, the work was never published, though it can be found in the National Archives.

The democratic and inclusive nature of the Federal Theater Project welcomed Americans to theater—many for the first time. There were children’s plays, puppet shows, and a touring circus. A Negro Unit served African–American actors and audiences at a time when it was particularly difficult for Black artists to find stage work.

Admission prices were kept low – or not charged – because the government had placed the actors and artists on its payroll.

Congress had reservations about the content of a few of the works, which were condemned at hearings in Washington. The Federal Theater Project ultimately was defunded. But the plays it produced were gratefully attended by millions of people across the country.

Joel Schechter teaches theatre history at San Francisco State University.  More details on the plays discussed here and other Yiddish drama can be found in his book Messiahs of 1933.  (Temple University Press, 2008). Email

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

Susan Quinn recounts a fast-paced story about the Federal Theatre Project through the lives and times of those who conceived and led this unique New Deal relief program— Harry Hopkins, the driven director of the WPA, and the intrepid Hallie Flanagan whom Hopkins convinced to run the risky project. Both grew up in Iowa City and attended Grinnell College, after which Hopkins pursued social work in New York City and Flanagan headed an innovative performing arts program at Vassar College.

Quinn recounts a train ride in 1933 during which Hopkins and Flanagan envisioned the new federal program to employ thousands of starving artists—actors, directors, designers, writers, and tradesmen. “Hell!” the notoriously blunt Hopkins says. “They’ve got to eat just like other people.”

Federal Theater ProjectFlanagan was excited by the challenge of bringing live theater to millions of Americans for the first time and saw the potential of the FTP to take on the country’s deep-seated racism and social inequality. She sought Hopkins’ assurances that the government-subsidized FTP would be free from censorship—a difficult promise to keep. At times, she turned to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—an enthusiastic ally of the FTP—to overcome red tape and political opposition.

Though the FTP’s budget was a tiny percentage—one-tenth of one percent– of the WPA’s overall expenditures, it had been labeled a boondoggle by the press, politicians, banks, businessmen, and even theater owners and workers fearing low-quality, low-priced competition. Yet by the end of 1935, 9,245 people got jobs with the FTP in big cities, regional theaters, and small towns nationwide. Some FTP troupes performed for the Civilian Conservation Corps at remote camps.

The FTP produced dramas, comedies, musicals, and children’s theater, including The Revolt of the Beavers, which told the story of a cruel beaver chief who keeps the underling beavers busy processing bark but shares none of the proceeds from their labor. Many scripts were derived from news articles about the hardships of the Great Depression, a controversial genre Flanagan dubbed “The Living Newspaper.”

The FTP’s leading lights included T.S. Eliot, Arthur Miller, Sinclair Lewis, John Houseman, and Orson Welles. It was the Welles/Houseman production of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-labor musical The Cradle Will Rock that proved most dangerous for the FTP. Flanagan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to defend the program before its enemies.

Few government programs received or weathered such scrutiny as the FTP. Thanks to Quinn’s book, this creative and daring project remains in the spotlight.

Reviewed by Susan Ives