Federal Theatre Project

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Poster for Festival of American Dance, Los Angeles Federal Theatre Project, WPA, 1937.

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was a New Deal project to fund theatre and other live artistic performances in the United States during the Great Depression. It was one of five Federal One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The FTP's primary goal was employment of out-of-work artists, writers, and directors, with the secondary aim of entertaining poor families and creating relevant art.


The FTP was established August 27, 1935, after a legislative and administrative prologue. Hallie Flanagan, a theater professor at Vassar, was chosen by WPA head Harry Hopkins, a former class mate at Grinnell College to lead the FTP. She was given the daunting task of building a national theater program to employ thousands of unemployed artists in as little time as possible. Hopkins added to the difficulty of her job by promising the FTP would be "free, adult, and uncensored." At the time, this statement appeared to FTP directors as a green light to all FTP projects, regardless of their political or social content. Soon, however it would come back to haunt Hopkins, Flanagan and the FTP as a whole.

Poster for Susan Glaspell's FTP production of Alison's House, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931.

Living Newspapers were plays written by teams of researchers-turned-playwrights. These men and women clipped articles from newspapers about current events, often hot button issues like farm policy, syphilis testing, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and housing inequity. These newspaper clippings were adapted into plays intended to inform audiences, often with progressive or left-wing themes. Triple-A Plowed Under, for instance, attacked the U.S. Supreme Court for killing an aid agency for farmers. These politically themed plays quickly drew criticism from members of Congress.

Although the undisguised political invective in the Living Newspapers sparked controversy, they also proved popular with audiences. As an art form, the Living Newspaper is perhaps the FTP's most well-known work.

Problems with the FTP and Congress intensified when the State Department objected to the first Living Newspaper, Ethiopia, about Haile Selassie and his nation's struggles against Benito Mussolini's invading Italian forces. The U.S. government soon mandated that the FTP, a federal government agency, could not depict foreign heads of state on the stage, for fear of diplomatic backlash. Playwright and director Elmer Rice, head of the New York office of the FTP, resigned in protest.

Many of the notable artists of the time participated in the FTP, including Susan Glaspell who served as Midwest Bureau Director. The legacy of the FTP can also be found in a new generation of theater artists whose careers began with the FTP. Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Martin Ritt, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey, Marc Blitzstein, Arthur Arent and Abe Feder all became established, in part, through their work in the FTP. Blitzstein, Houseman and Welles collaborated on the controversial FTP production of The Cradle Will Rock.

The FTP was the most expensive of the Federal One projects, consuming 29.1 percent of Federal One's budget, which was itself less than three-fourths of one percent of the total WPA budget.

On June 30, 1939, the FTP was ended when its funding was canceled, largely attributed to strong Congressional objections to the overtly left-wing political tones of less than 10% of the FTP productions.

African-American theatre[edit]

Orson Welles directed the New York Negro Theatre Unit's 1936 production of Macbeth

The Negro Theatre Project (NTP) was part of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and had units that were set up in cities throughout the United States. The units were located in four different geographical regions of the country. In the West, units were located in Seattle, Washington, and Los Angeles, California. In the East, units were located in New York City, New York, Boston, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey. In the South, there were units in Raleigh, North Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. In the Midwest, units were located in Chicago, Illinois, Peoria, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio. The project provided employment and apprenticeships to black playwrights, directors, actors, and technicians. The project offered a much needed source of assistance for African-American theatre from 1935 to 1939.

The New York Negro Unit was active and well known. It was located at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, and staged some 30 plays. The most popular production came to be called the Voodoo Macbeth (1936), director Orson Welles's adaptation of Shakespeare’s play set in the Haitian court of King Henri Christophe. Other plays included Frank Wilson’s folk drama Walk Together, Children (1936), which described the deportation of 100 African-American children from the South to the North to work for low wages. Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen’s The Conjur Man Dies (1936), was a farcical mystery that dramatized Rudolph Fisher’s mystery-melodrama. Also in 1936, J. Augustus Smith and Peter Morrell co-authored Turpentine, a social drama focusing on the injustice of Southern labor camps. George MacEntee's The Case of Philip Lawrence (1937) was a courtroom melodrama, and Haiti (1938) by William DuBois was a historical drama about overthrowing the Haitian government.

A lightly fictionalized version of the FTP's story is presented in the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.

See also[edit]



Further reading
  • Batiste, Stephanie Leigh. Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance (Duke University Press; 2012) 352 pages; Explores African-Americans' participation on stage and screen; especially FTP's "voodoo" Macbeth.
  • Newton, Christopher. "In Order to Obtain the Desired Effect": Italian Language Theater Sponsored by the Federal Theatre Project in Boston, 1935–39," Italian Americana, (Sep 1994) 12#2 pp 187-200
  • Ross, Ronald. "The Role of Blacks in the Federal Theatre, 1935-1939," Journal of Negro History (1974) 59#1 pp. 38–50 in JSTOR
  • Schwartz, Bonnie Nelson. Voices from the Federal Theatre. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
  • Witham, Barry B. The Federal Theatre Project: A Case Study (2004)

Quinn, Susan, "Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times, New York: Walker and Company, 2008.

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