Hallie Flanagan

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Hallie Flanagan
A woman in a black tilted hat and black suit sits at bust length and looks directly into the camera
Flanagan in 1940
Born Hallie Ferguson
(1890-08-27)August 27, 1890
Redfield, South Dakota
Died June 23, 1969(1969-06-23) (aged 78)
Old Tappan, New Jersey
Nationality American
Alma mater Harvard University, Vassar College, Grinnell College
Occupation Theatrical producer, director, playwright, author
Known for Directing the Federal Theatre Project

Hallie Flanagan Davis (August 27, 1890 in Redfield, South Dakota – June 23, 1969 in Old Tappan, New Jersey)[1] was an American theatrical producer and director, playwright, and author, best known as director of the Federal Theatre Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Flanagan on CBS Radio for the Federal Theatre of the Air (1936)
Flanagan at the opening of Macbeth (April 14, 1936)


Hallie Flanagan was born in Redfield, South Dakota, and was raised in Grinnell, Iowa. She attended Grinnell Colleges where she majored in Philosophy and German, and was an active member in the dramatic club. During her time at Grinnell she met husband, Murray Flanagan, also a member of the Grinnell dramatic college. After college, the two exchanged vows, and had two sons, Jack and Frederick Flanagan. Murray was diagnosed with tuberculosis; the disease took his life in 1919. Soon after, the eldest son, Jack, died of spinal meningitis in 1922. Hallie and Frederick moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where she enrolled in George Pierce Baker's famous 47 Workshop dramatic production studio at Radcliffe College / Harvard University. This class, one of the first of its kind at an American university, taught playwrighting. Baker was so impressed with her, he decided to make her the director of the workshop's actors' group in 1923. While at Radcliffe and later at Vassar College, Flanagan began developing her own ideas for experimental theatre.


Vassar College[edit]

When Flanagan came to Vassar, there was no theater and all drama courses were taught in the English department. Flanagan's official title at the school was "Director of English Speech". In 1926, Flanagan became the first women awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study theatre around Europe for fourteen months. While there, she met some of the most influential figures in theatre including John Galsworthy, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Edward Gordon Craig and Lady Gregory. Flanagan especially shared a special connection with the Russian theater. She later goes on to write a book, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theater,tbased on her travels. After returning to Vassar, she began to institute many of her new-found ideas with the Vassar Experimental Theatre, which she created. The first play she produced was Anton Chekhov's "A Marriage Proposal", using the original Chekhov style, an expressionistic style, and Meyerhold's Constructivist techniques throughout the three acts. Over the years, she pushed the administration to start an independent major in drama, but it wasn't approved until after Flanagan had left.[2] Flanagan rose to national prominence after producing the theatrical adaptation she co-wrote, Can You Hear Their Voices?, based on the short story written by Whittaker Chambers for The New Masses in 1931.[3]

Federal Theatre Project[edit]

With the onset of the Great Depression, and masses of people, including theatre folk, out of work, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the WPA to provide jobs for many of the unemployed. Among the numerous segments of this program was the Federal Theatre Project aimed at employing out-of-work entertainers. In September 1935, WPA head Harry Hopkins, who knew Flanagan from Grinnell College and had read Flanagan's 1928 book, Shifting Scenes of the European Theatre, asked Flanagan to lead this program.[4]

Flanagan's vision for the Project was to bring theatre to the great majority of the American public who had never witnessed it, plus producing cutting-edge high-quality theatrical material. This was a way to give struggling artists a way to make money. The program involved creating children's theatre as well as Living Newspaper plays, based on German director Erwin Piscator's concepts, that would reach out to the culturally unaware. Though the program enabled the creation of a number of fine works, some argued over political agendas being delivered by plays. Concerns over works with messages deemed to be communistic and socialistic plagued Flanagan and the Theatre Project. Flanagan states, "The basis of the choice of plays is that we have always believed in the Federal Theatre Project that any theater supported by the Federal funds should do no plays of a subversive, or cheap, or shoddy, or vulgar, or outworn, or imitative nature, but only such plays as the Government could stand behind in a program which is national in scope and regional in emphasis and democratic in American attitude." By 1936, Flanagan had helped 12,500 people find jobs cross 28 states and Washington "D.C. "In NYC alone the FTP played (at reduced prices) to weekly audiences of 350,000 many of whom had never seen live theater."Flanagan was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938. After four years, the Federal Theatre Project was shut down and Flanagan returned to Vassar.

Smith College[edit]

In 1942, Flanagan accepted a post as head of the theatre department at Smith College and remained there until her retirement.

Other details[edit]

Flanagan's first husband, Murray Flanagan, died in 1918. In 1934, she married Philip Davis, a professor of Greek at Vassar.

In Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock (1999), Cherry Jones played Hallie Flanagan.

She is also a minor character in the novel The Group, by Vassar grad Mary McCarthy, being mentioned in the first chapter and appearing briefly in the last chapter.

· Flanagan went on leave from Smith in 1953 and officially retired to Poughkeepsie in 1955. She was recognized many times for her contributions to modern theater, including an honorary degree from Williams College in 1941 and the first National Theater Conference Citation award in 1968. Flanagan spent the last few years of her life in nursing homes and died on July 23, 1969 in Old Tappan, NJ.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu
  2. ^ "Hallie Flanagan Davis - Vassar College Encyclopedia - Vassar College". vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  3. ^ Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 478, 494–495. ISBN 0-89526-571-0. 
  4. ^ Eckersley, M. 1997. Soundings in the Dramaturgy of the Australian Theatre Director. University of Melbourne. Melbourne. p16.

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