Federal Theatre Project

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/30/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3978
Congress created the Federal Theatre Project in 1935 to provide work for theater professionals during the Great Depression. The Project was funded under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and directed on the national level by Vassar College drama professor Hallie Flanagan (1890-1969). Seattle initially sponsored three Units: the Federal Players (a white unit), the Negro Repertory Company (an African-American unit), and Variety/Vaudeville. In 1937 a Children’s Theatre unit was created. Prominently involved in the leadership were University of Washington Drama professor Glenn Hughes (1894-1964) and Burton James (1888-1951) and Florence James (1892-1988) of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. The United States Congress abruptly disbanded the Federal Theatre Project on June 30, 1939, amid cries of censorship from performers and accusations of communist infiltration from both within and without the organization.

Live Theater Across America

The Federal Theatre Project was the brainchild of WPA Director Harry Hopkins, and at its height employed some 13,000 people in 31 states. In the Pacific Northwest, drama professor Glenn Hughes served as the initial Regional Advisor, Guy Williams as Washington State Director, and George T. Hood as Washington State Supervisor. Washington state’s Federal Theatre Project employed about 100 people, whose work in turn impacted thousands of Washington audience members.

National Director Hallie Flanagan envisioned the FTP not only as work-aid to technicians and performers, but also as an opportunity to seed the nation with a vast network of theaters and to expose many Americans to live theater for the first time. Performances were free, or nearly so. Plays (vaudeville, puppetry, children’s theater and dramatic productions) were often laced with social commentary. The FTP created Living Newspapers, simple but powerful dramatizations of current events. Seattle, along with other major cities, sponsored racially segregated African American troops known as Negro Units. Productions were not confined to urban centers but opened in numerous towns, sometimes simultaneously. They were produced locally and employed local actors, directors, and technicians.

In order for a city to host a Federal Theatre Project unit, a sponsor had to volunteer to organize and oversee that unit. In many cities, existing theaters served as sponsors. In Seattle Florence James and Burton James, directors of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, sponsored the Negro Repertory Company. Regional Representative Glenn Hughes sponsored Seattle’s (white) dramatic and vaudeville units.

In order to qualify for Federal Theatre Project employment, a person had to show previous employment in the theatrical field and be on relief (out of work and receiving government assistance). A 10 percent leeway to this policy permitted units to be professionally directed and supervised, and it was thus that the Jameses and Glenn Hughes were able to serve as organizers for Washington state. Hughes’s work at the University of Washington and the James’s work at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse had already created an interested Seattle audience that would support Theatre Project productions.

Directors found that administering a project on the government dole meant cooperating with the state WPA offices and coping with the omnipresent government red tape. All Theatre Project paperwork had to be filed in triplicate. In this age before the Xerox machine, documents were typed on a typewriter. To make copies additional sheets separated by carbon paper were inserted behind the sheet being typed on. One copy of every document went to the national office in Washington, D.C. All project proposals for any production of any kind had to be submitted in sextuplicate.

Glenn Hughes’s most enduring contribution to the Federal Theatre Project was the creation of a series of 12 wooden models of historic theaters. Carved by skilled woodcarvers, they were accurately scaled models of the Theater at Delphi, the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, a Japanese Noh theater, a Japanese Kabuki theater, and a Roman Lyric theater, among others. As the models were nearing completion there was talk of shipping them to Washington D.C. for display in the Library of Congress. Hughes had intended them to remain at the University of Washington and responded angrily, stating that they were not built in such a way that they could be shipped without damage. The models remain at the University of Washington. They were refurbished in the early 1980s under the direction of UW Drama professor Jack Wolcott, and were on display in the lobby of Meany Hall for a number of years thereafter. They are currently (2002) in a University of Washington storage facility.

African American Theater

The Negro Repertory Company was the most active unit of Seattle’s Federal Theatre Project and produced some of the most innovative and controversial theater. Historian Rena Fraden states that Seattle’s Negro unit mounted “some of the most experimental of productions of any Negro unit,” (Fraden, 177), and was considered by many to be the most interesting part of Seattle’s Federal Theatre Project. The NRC’s first production was Noah, a whimsical gospel chorus musical which opened on April 28, 1936. This was followed by Stevedore, a Marxist-themed piece of social realism concerning a black union organizer unjustly accused of raping a white woman. The cast was interracial. Audiences responded strongly, even spontaneously rising up and surging onstage to join the cast for the climactic finale at one of the performances.

In June 1937, Burton and Florence James resigned from the Federal Theatre Project in protest over the outcry in the press concerning their production of Power. Power was a Living Newspaper advocating public ownership of utilities, a controversial idea at that time. The show sold out to huge audiences, but both Seattle newspapers denounced it. The furor over Power was the turning point for Seattle’s FTP. It marked a change from vibrant social realism to safer, less volatile subject matter.

After Florence and Burton James resigned, the Negro Repertory Theatre was housed along with other Seattle Theatre Project units in the former Royal Theatre movie house at 1319-23 Rainier Avenue. (In 2002 the location is an underpass of I-90.)

The Variety/Vaudeville unit toured extensively throughout the state of Washington. Using a vaudeville-type format featuring a series of specialty acts and comedians, the Project performed the CCC Review at many of Washington’s 48 Civilian Conservation Corps camps.

Touring to CCC camps was complicated by CCC regulations that prohibited females from sleeping at CCC camps under any circumstances. (The Civilian Conservation Corps comprised men in their late teens, under the supervision of the U.S. Army and with the Army exercising quasi-parental control over the boys’ morals.) Touring male actors could bunk at the CCC camps, but the women in the company had to be housed with various families, sometimes at an inconvenient distance from their colleagues, since CCC camps were in rural areas. Despite the logistical headaches, the tours boosted CCC camp morale and furthered the goal of exposing a wide audience to live theater.

In the autumn of 1937, Hallie Flanagan visited Seattle and was dismayed to find the Project’s activities greatly reduced in the wake of the James’s resignation. She also felt that Glenn Hughes, whose association with the Project had been strongest in its initial stages, was too preoccupied with his duties at the University of Washington to focus on the Federal Theatre Project. George Hood, former manager of the Metropolitan Theatre, was serving as FTP Washington State Director. Flanagan brought Edwin O’Connor up from the Los Angeles unit and imported her Vassar College friend Esther Porter Lane to create a children’s theater unit.

Lane’s arrival boosted morale. According to biographer Joanne Bentley, “Using the vaudeville group, she started a theatre for children that was well received. One vaudevillian she rehabilitated had been a skilled roper. ‘He had only performed in burlesque halls,’ she recalled, ‘so all he knew besides rope tricks was how to tell filthy jokes.’ Esther taught him to substitute nursery rhymes for the jokes. ‘It took ages to teach him, but he did learn. He recited while he roped’” (Bentley, 282). The Mother Goose/Vaudeville piece was called Mother Goose Goes to Town. It was followed by Mother Goose on the Loose These productions toured Seattle area parks. Children came, literally, by the truckload.

One Third of a Nation

On May 23, 1938, Seattle staged what is now remembered as the Federal Theatre Project’s best-known drama, One Third of a Nation. The title refers to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1937, in which he stated “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished.” Written by Arthur Arent, the play examined the history of slum conditions in large cities and spotlighted the need for housing reform. In Seattle, as elsewhere, the production was customized to be site-specific.

Wary of the vitriol evoked by Power, however, director Esther Porter Lane treaded cautiously. “We found what so many projects found. You go and photograph (slum) properties in the community and then you find that the most powerful church in town owns it … All these dirty, unsightly garbage dumps are owned by people whose names you can’t mention” (quoted in Bentley, 272). The show ended with an onstage conflagration of the towering tenement set. The play ran for nine weeks at the newly christened Federal Theatre at Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street. “Seldom has any play so caught the public fancy,” stated the review in The Seattle Times (quoted in Flanagan, 309).

On February 13, 1939, the Seattle FTP opened Arthur Sundgaarde’s Spirochete, a Living Newspaper about the history of syphilis. Spirochete Treponema pallidum is the name of the corkscrew-shaped bacteria that causes the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. The production ran for two months, and was sponsored by the Washington State Board of Health, the Washington Medical Association, the King County Medical Association, the Seattle and King County Health Departments, and the Federated Women’s Clubs. At the time syphilis was incurable. “Approximately 35,000 handbills were distributed throughout the city -- many through doctors’ offices and hospitals -- which stressed that this was not a show for ‘the prurient nor the prude’” (Witham, 89). The disease was so greatly feared and taboo-laden that many audience members had never heard the word "syphilis" spoken in public. Spirochete was the Seattle FTP’s greatest financial and attendance success.

The Anti-Art Un-American Activities Committee

In May 1938, Congress convened the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The committee targeted for investigation first the Works Progress Administration (WPA) overall, and soon the Federal Theatre Project specifically. Texas conservative Democrat Martin Dies (1900-1972) spearheaded the committee. Hallie Flanagan’s character and motives were attacked both by the Dies committee and by disgruntled Project members called as witnesses. Federal Theatre Project productions were branded as propaganda for Communism. Flanagan responded that they were in fact propaganda for democracy since they utilized constitutional freedoms to point out America’s most pressing problems (Bentley). Against a background of Hitler’s march on Europe, Congress slashed relief funding as America’s focus turned toward war.

As Seattle project members joined hundreds of citizens of Vancouver, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River to present Flotilla of Faith, a historic reenactment of the first crossing by whites of the great river, Congress was sounding the Federal Theatre Project’s death knell.

The Seattle Unit spent early June preparing a new Northwest-specific Living Newspaper production called Timber. The piece, written by Seattle Project members Burke Ormsby and Mary Myrtle, tells the story of the rapid decline of America’s timber acreage and the pioneers who “grabbed all they could get and the devil take the hindmost” (Flanagan, 310). The public never saw this play: On June 30, 1939, all Federal Theatre Project workers nationwide were issued pink slips. The Project was officially and abruptly disbanded.

In Washington state, as elsewhere, actors, technicians, directors, designers, costumers, ticket sellers, and vaudevillians all melted back into the fabric of society, each seeking a living without federal assistance. When the Federal Theatre Project closed, 8,000 people across the country lost their paycheck, 87 of them in the state of Washington. Seattle’s FTP units had mounted 51 full productions for a total of 885 performances, as well as touring vaudeville and puppet shows.

Theater professionals from around the country protested the demise of the Federal Theatre Project. Despite the furor over Communist infiltration, in the end it was not anticommunism that felled the Project, but the view in Congress that the average American saw no value in spending tax dollars to aid performers and encourage the arts. Federal funding for the arts was controversial, although the budget for the Project amounted to less than 1 percent of the WPA’s total allocation. Hallie Flanagan’s stepdaughter, Joanne Bentley, quotes an unnamed congressman at the time the Project was shut down: “Culture! What the Hell---Let ‘em have a pick and shovel” (Bentley, 340).


Sources: Hallie Flanagan, Arena (NewYork: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940); Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988); Jane DeHart Matthews, The Federal Theatre: Circa 1935-1939: Plays, Relief, and Politics (New York: Octagon Books, 1980); Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project ed. by John O’Connor and Lorraine Brown (Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1978); Milton Meltzer, Violins and Shovels: the WPA Arts Projects, a New Deal for America's Hungry Artists of the 1930s (New York: Delacorte Press, 1976); George Kazacoff, Dangerous Theatre: The Federal Theatre Project As A Forum For New Plays (New York: Peter Lang, 1989); Rena Fraden, Blueprint For A Black Federal Theatre 1935-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); "WPA Posters" Library of Congress American Memory site (www.memory.loc.gov/); www.lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp; www.newdeal.feri.org/power/index.htm; Dale Carter. “Showplace: Theatres of Puget Sound -- Seattle, Tacoma and Everett,” Marquee, The Journal of the Theatre Historical Society of America, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2001); Quintard Taylor, The Forging Of A Black Community: Seattle’s Central District From 1870 Through The Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Staff of the Fenwick Library, George Mason University, The Federal Theatre Project: A Catalog-Calander Of Productions (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986); (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5105); Nancy Wick, “Playing With History: The Revival of a 1936 Black Drama ... Fulfills the Dream of One Determined UW Director,” Columns(www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/dec95/stevedore.html); Kathryn Hamilton-Wang and Shirley Dallas at the Washington State Library (for information regarding WPA Washington State Administrators); Evamarii Alexandria Johnson, A Production History Of The Seattle Federal Theatre Project Negro Repertory Company, 1935-1939 Seattle: University of Washington Ph.D. Thesis, 1981; Paula Becker interview with Seattle FTP scholar Barry Witham, October 1, 2002; Barry B. Witham, “Pandemic and Popular Opinion: Spirochete in Seattle,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring, 1993), pp. 86-95.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You