Hallie Decreed that Theater was Essential: 4 Lessons from the Federal Theatre Project

Every time you open a new play, or an old play in a new way, you run the risk of failure – and at the same time, the only chance of a creative success.

A look back at the 2013-14 Broadway season might make you think that someone said that in response to the dearth of new musicals on Broadway this year. It might surprise you to know that it was written in 1940 in response to pressures that the Federal Theatre Project faced throughout its entire existence.

Like approximately zero other people, I am endlessly fascinated by the Federal Theater Project. Though it was far from a perfect organization, it’s a part of American theater history that I’m constantly championing and one that I wish more people talked about. The Federal Theater Project existed under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, which put Americans back to work as part of America’s recovery from the Great Depression. Accordingly, the FTP staged productions of new and classic plays and musicals across the country, employing thousands of out-of-work theater professionals. It was led by the great Hallie Flanagan, a professor, writer, and all-around theater-maker whose vision for the project lives on in her incredible book Arena (from which that amazing line above was quoted).

I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t this blog supposed to be about contemporary musical theater? Why are we even talking about the P.S. (Pre-Sondheim) era?” If you’ve ever admired Joe Papp’s ideals, if you’ve ever felt like you don’t have a place to be creative, if you’ve ever lamented how few original musicals there are these days – then read on. These are the lessons I think we all would do well to learn from the FTP.

Rehearsing The Cradle Will Rock, 1937 (via the Library of Congress)

Rehearsing The Cradle Will Rock, 1937 (via the Library of Congress)

Just because theater is creative doesn’t mean it’s not labor.

Out-of-work theater professionals could have been told to look for survival jobs in other industries – especially manual labor, which was the focus of many branches of the WPA – that contribute to society in more concrete, tangible ways. And I’m sure that’s how many out-of-work theater professionals got by during the Depression. But by employing them within the theater industry, the WPA affirmed not only that theater is necessary within a society but also that the time, effort, and skills put into creating theater are work that deserves to be compensated and respected just like any other.

Understanding theater as work is a radical idea that really shouldn’t be radical. Think about how often you encounter this kind of thinking today. How many times have you been told that you need a “real” job or a “real” degree? That acting, writing, directing, or whatever you do is your hobby and not your career? During the Federal Theater Project era, the government respected theater as work. It’s high time to revive that understanding.

Crowds outside the Biltmore Theater in New York (the Samuel Friedman today!) for the Federal Theatre Project production of Triple-A Plowed Under (via the New Deal Network)

Crowds outside the Biltmore Theater in New York (the Samuel Friedman today!) for Triple-A Plowed Under (via the New Deal Network)

Financial accessibility is crucial… 

The flip side of theater being necessary to society is that society needs to actually, you know, get a chance to attend that theater. Average Americans might respect theater but it being the Depression and all, standard-priced tickets were a luxury they could not afford. And so the FTP made all of its tickets free or low-cost. The result? Audiences flocked to shows. (And, for the most part, loved them.)

It’s crucial – as we’ve already established – that theater-makers get paid for their work. But I’m curious about whether more theaters can find other ways to subsidize ticket costs. Obscene ticket prices keep theater away from the majority of audiences. Rush policies and discount ticket programs help, but imagine if high ticket prices weren’t a barrier to theater. Think of the rising generation of theater artists – that’s us – and how much more theater we could be learning from if ticket prices were more accessible.

Children in line for Alice In Wonderland in San Diego, CA (via the Library of Congress)

Children in line for Alice In Wonderland in San Diego, CA (via the Library of Congress)

…but that’s just the tip of the Accessibility Iceberg.

The FTP had branches all across the country, so geography was never an excuse for an audience member not to attend the theater. Some shows had multiple productions in different regions, maximizing the accessibility of the play across the country. And some new plays that were written for the FTP were region-specific, which is a different kind of geographical accessibility. Those productions became accessible to audience members previously unfamiliar with or uninterested in theater by addressing ideas that mattered especially to them on a stage landscape they were already familiar with.

Moreover, some FTP troupes performed in hospitals, mental institutions, prisons, and other such places. In doing so, it actively reached out to audiences that would be otherwise totally ignored by the theater industry. It all goes back to the belief that theater is necessary in a society, and that no potential audience member should be barred from taking part.

I’m a big believer in accessibility initiatives of all kinds, and I get even more excited when theaters find new ways to interpret “accessibility” beyond ticket prices alone. That’s why I love the Public Works program at the Public Theater. I could gush about that for days (and I already have). Needless to say, I would love to see more theaters and productions developing innovative ways to become more accessible to audiences both old and new.

People protesting the Supreme Court in Power, a Living Newspaper, 1937 (via the New Deal Network)

People protesting the Supreme Court in Power, a living newspaper, 1937 (via the New Deal Network)

New writing is the lifeblood of the theater.

Though the FTP did produce many of what Flanagan describes as “Standard Productions,” it also produced many “New Productions,” which included both newly written works and classical works done in new ways. Arena lists approximately 300 New Productions, which spanned many different genres (including musicals!), and 77 of them were produced in two or more cities – an impressive feat for an organization that lasted only 4 years. And Flanagan’s appreciation of and belief in supporting new work, however risky or challenging, courses through Arena. It’s a fervor that more commercial producers today could do to share.

Of the New Productions, the FTP is best known for creating “Living Newspapers,” a style of theater in which writers dramatized a topical issue, presenting it to audiences in a way that was both educational and emotionally compelling. These plays were often political and relatively experimental in style. (In the ones that I’ve read/seen, the most exciting thing to me was that they planted actors among the audience – in one case, the character who ended up being the leading player. I had no idea writers were doing that in the 1930s!) But as Flanagan notes, it’s risky to do new work; living newspapers were one of the main reasons Congress ultimately shut down the FTP, citing the potential for propaganda in the midst of a communist scare.

A scene from One-Third of a Nation, a living newspaper, 1938 (via the Library of Congress)

A scene from One-Third of a Nation, a living newspaper, 1938 (via the Library of Congress)

I have a distinct memory of the first time I had the thought: “theater is dying.” It was the bloodbath of Broadway closings that was January 4, 2009. I felt like tectonic plates were shifting under me as I watched the very institution of theater crumble. (I was also, apparently, prone to hyperbole.) And yet, like Carlotta in Follies, theater is still here.

These days, anyone who laments that “theater is dying” probably qualifies it with “just like we’ve always predicted.” In Arena, there’s evidence of the longevity this kind of outlook: Flanagan writes, “The theatre, often regarded even by members of its own production as dead or dying, still has tremendous power to stir up life and infuse it with fire.” We can only do so by taking theatrical risks. The FTP, in its emphasis on new work and new audiences, was one answer to theater’s doomsday problem. What will ours be?

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