The Fearless Federal Theater

Hallie Flanagan

Hallie Flanagan
As the director of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project from 1935 to 1939, Flanagan oversaw the hiring of thousands of unemployed theater workers and the production of nearly 64,000 theatrical performances for over 30 million audience members. Courtesy, NARA.

Compared to the New Deal’s overall expenditures, the budget of the WPA arts projects was laughably small, and the Federal Theater Project’s was even smaller—a mere tenth of one percent. But the Federal Theater, begun in 1935 under the bold leadership of the 5-foot dynamo Hallie Flanagan, still managed to introduce this country to an astonishing range of new ideas that still resonate nearly a century later.

Hallie Flanagan was an adored teacher at Vassar when she took on the Federal Theater job. She was promised by WPA boss Harry Hopkins that the Federal Theater would be “free, adult and uncensored.” She took this as permission to innovate in surprising ways.

Since the goal was to create jobs, there were plenty of old chestnuts among Federal Theater productions—domestic comedies, musical revues, circuses, vaudeville.


The FTP’s “Living Newspaper” dramatized current and historical events. “One-Third of a Nation” portrayed the housing crisis. The title is taken from FDR’s second inaugural address, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
Courtesy, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

But Flanagan also found ways to make necessity the mother of invention. There was a need to create shows that employed large numbers both backstage and on. She used her experience in Europe, where she watched the theater of the left present the news cabaret-style, to develop something she called the Living Newspaper—a series of performances that put hundreds to work presenting an in-depth look at issues of the day.  One Living Newspaper called One-Third of a Nation focused on the perils of slum housing: the set caught fire at the opening of the play and again at the end, dramatizing the relentlessness of poverty. Other Living Newspapers addressed the struggles of farmers, the threat of monopolies and even the spread of syphilis.   

Playbill, 1937
Federal Theater Project production, “Life and Death of an American,” by George Sklar. Courtesy, LOC.

“We are going to make a country in which no one is left out,” Franklin Roosevelt said more than once, and no one worked harder than Hallie Flanagan at making this a reality. Even the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were visited by the Federal Theater Project: a team of professional actors descended on the camps to stage a mock trial, with men from the camp recruited for some of the roles. The audience loved it. The CCC Murder Mystery toured 256 CCC camps along the East Coast, and could have toured the country had the budget allowed.

Flanagan’s most daring gambit may well have been her plan to dramatize Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a fascist takeover, It Can’t Happen Here, and open it on the same night in theaters

Poster "It Can't Happen Here"

It Can't Happen Here
The Federal Theatre opened a stage version of Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist drama in 21 cities on the same night in 1936. Courtesy, LOC.

around the country—a subtle way of challenging the American assumption that fascism could never happen in the United States.  It was a massive organizational challenge—especially since the plan was to open the play in Yiddish and Spanish as well as English, and on Broadway as well as on the pop-up stage of a touring truck. In the end, It Can’t Happen Here played a total of 260 weeks, or five years, in theaters around the country. “Thousands of Americans who do not know what a Fascist dictatorship would mean,” wrote The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, “now have an opportunity to find out.”


The crowd outside Harlem’s Lafayette Theater for opening of the FTP’s Negro Division performance of “MacBeth,” directed by Orson Wells. Courtesy, LOC.

There can be no doubt that the Federal Theater’s approach to race was what most angered and alarmed the right-wing bigots in Congress and led to the FTP’s demise in 1939. All-Black productions were one of the most exciting aspects of Federal Theater from the start.  A production of Macbeth set in Haiti and performed at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem under the direction of Orson Welles, was a critical and popular success—providing a chance, as the Amsterdam News noted, “to abandon banana and burnt-cork casting” and “play a universal character.” 

An all-Black Swing Mikado was another huge hit. But even more controversial, in the eyes of southern senators, was the Federal

Martin Dies
Senator Martin Dies (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1940
Courtesy, Wikipedia.

Theater’s policy of casting Blacks and whites in the same shows. When the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Texas Senator Martin Dies, began to investigate the Federal Theater, they called a witness, Sally Saunders, who told them, with dismay and disgust, that a Black man in the company

had dared to ask her out on a date. Such testimony was used, as Flanagan noted after it was all over, as “a way to hang the New Deal in effigy.”

Congress chose “for that purpose a project small and scattered enough so that protest would not cost too many votes, and potent enough to stir up prejudice.”  She observed: “They were “afraid of the Project, but not for the reasons they mentioned on the floor of the Congress. They were afraid of the Federal Theater because it was educating the people of its vast new audience to know more about such vital issues of the day as housing, power, agriculture and labor,”  They were afraid—and rightly so—of thinking people.”

Susan Quinn is the author of Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times (Walker Publishing Company, 2008, now available from Plunkett Lake Press). Susan and her husband Daniel Jacobs are the authors of a new play, Enter Hallie, which intertwines the stories of Hallie Flanagan’s private struggle and public fight for the Federal Theater. The play will be the subject of a Living New Deal webinar on September 22.

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. 

Collins and Goldberg are co-founders of the National Jobs for All Coalition. Their article is condensed from a piece to be published in an e-book series, E-Theatrum Mundi, ed. by Emeline Jouve and Géraldine Prévot, Sorbonne University Press, 2022. Sheila D. Collins, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at William Paterson University has written and lectured widely on the New Deal and the arts. She is author of numerous books and articles on American politics and public policy, social movements, and religion. She is co-author with Gertrude Goldberg of When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, Oxford University Press. She was the recipient of the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at Adelphi University led the team of scholars that published the first cross-national study of the feminization of poverty. She has written and lectured on full employment, women’s poverty, the New Deal and social reform movements. Chair of the National Jobs for All Network, she received the Columbia University Seminars 2018 Tannenbaum-Warner Award for Distinguished Scholarship.

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

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.