The Federal Theatre Project, Part One
Following the greatest economic disaster this country had ever faced, the New Deal made funding for the arts one of its largest priorities. Five government-funded arts projects were born out of Federal Project Number One, and though these projects were slowly phased out and defunded over time, one of them – the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) – was famously targeted by Congress and abruptly terminated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities only four years after it began.
It was clear following the Great Depression that employing artists would have benefits beyond lowering unemployment. Of course, artists needed to eat as much as anyone, and it was on that ground that these projects were enacted. By employing theater artists specifically, and by presenting a majority of productions for free, the government was able to improve the public welfare from many angles. This influx of government funding wasn’t just a short-term bailout for theater artists following the Depression, but rather, an invigoration of creativity following a long-term slump after the popularization of film and radio.
And thus the FTP employed more than 15,000 theater artists and put on productions for several million audience members during its four-year tenure. Although it’s impossible to say that the government’s hopes for the FTP were that the project would produce clean, easily digestible content for still-struggling American families to enjoy, it became clear from the project’s first production, Ethiopia, that safe and sanitized productions would not be the norm.
The greatest arm of the Federal Theatre Project was the Living Newspaper, which partnered with the American Newspaper Guild to produce plays straight out of the headlines. Theater has always served as a medium for the oppressed to punch up at the status quo, and these productions were no different.
This first production was still in rehearsals when the government issued a censorship order to remove the play’s depiction of Mussolini among other real-life characters, so Ethiopia never made it to the stage.
The Living Newspaper doubled down with its second attempt, Triple-A Plowed Under, which not only criticized the government’s response to the Dust Bowl, but it also advocated for workers’ rights and unions. The government grew unhappy with these productions – and surely it was facing pressures from its most wealthy delegates to stifle these left-leaning productions – but audiences were thrilled by each new play.
After the third production, Injunction Granted, continued to push back against oppressive societal norms – in this case, targeting capitalism and the ultra-rich – fears of losing government funding shifted the tone and messaging of the Living Newspaper, even though it was still successful in introducing its audiences to progressive themes.
Its final and most successful piece, One Third of a Nation, depicted the stark reality of the housing crisis of the time, and although some hail it as being a powerful influence in moving housing legislation forward, it also served to further stir up disdain within the government.
That disdain was further spurred by the FTP’s other notable arm, the Negro Theatre Unit, which amplified Black voices in the theatrical community and pushed for equality and racial justice. We’ll unpack that in the second part of this series.