The Federal Theater Project was the largest and most ambitious effort mounted by the Federal Government to organize and produce theater events. It was intended to provide work for unemployed professionals in the theater during the Great Depression and was administered from Washington, DC, but its many companies stretched the full breadth of the nation. It functioned between 1935 to 1939 under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, formerly director of Vassar’s Experimental Theater, and its primary aim was the reemployment of theater workers on public relief rolls including actors, playwrights, directors, designers, vaudeville artists, and stage technicians.
In October 1935, funds amounting to $6,784,036 were made available to the FTP. Representatives of the Federal Theater Director, in cooperation with local WPA offices and the United States Employment Service, set up classification boards, auditioned theater personnel, and started theater groups. It was also hoped that the project would result in the establishment of theater so vital to community life that it would continue to function after the FTP program was completed. The Federal Theater Policy Board, made up of 10 people who met every four months, decided on policies and plays for the next four months, reviewed regional reports, and advised the director. Federal Theaters were set up only in states where 25 or more professional theatrical people were on the relief rolls. By January 1939, 42 theater projects were operation in twenty states. As of January 15, 1939, the Federal Theater Project employed 7,900 people, 95 percent of whom were from relief rolls. The peak employment of 12,760 in June 1936 was reduced by cuts in appropriations and also by the return of more than 2,000 Federal Theater employee to private employment.
Stage productions fell into many categories, including but not limited to new, classical, children's, revues and musical comedies, vaudeville, circus, dance productions, stock, modern foreign, former Broadway productions, puppet and marionette, and ethnic plays. In addition to performances, the FTP sponsored educational opportunities in theater, collaboration with CCC camps, coordination with radio, and other related activities. The entire project was shut down on June 30, 1939, after a congressional investigation that focused on allegations that the project was communistic.
Between 1935 and 1939, the FTP staged more than a thousand theatre productions in 22 different states. Many of these were presented for free in schools and community centers. Although performers were only paid $22.73 a week, the FTP employed some of America's most talented artists. In 1936 alone, the FTP employed 5,385 people in New York. Over a three-year period, more than 12 million people attended performances in the city. One play, It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, in 1936, was produced simultaneously in 22 cities and community centers, and most productions included promotional materials and playbills such as the one featured here. During its four years of existence, the FTP launched or established the careers of such artists as Orson Welles, John Houseman, Will Geer, Arthur Miller, Paul Green, Marc Blitzstein, Canada Lee and Elmer Rice.
Provide students with a copy of the playbill, and lead a class discussion about
the document. (The document analysis worksheet may be useful here.) Share with students
information about the Federal Theater Project and explain that it was one of
many Federal projects designed to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.
Ask students to read Our Documents #69, Franklin Roosevelt's
speech on the unveiling of the so-call second New Deal. Ask students to
use research sources and work in pairs to create a poster-sized chart that compares
the various other New Deal programs designed to curb unemployment. Brainstorming
about the types of people put to work by the Federal Theater Project may suggest
categories for the chart, e.g., actors, directors, set designers, lighting operators,