The Federal Theatre Project

Courtesy of George Mason University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.

The Federal Theatre Project was founded in 1935 under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. Established as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, it aimed primarily to provide relief to out-of-work actors and theater professionals by funding of theatre performances across the country and secondarily to bring relevant art in form of theatre to all Americans, particularly those who were suffering economically during the Depression. At its peak, it employed over 12,000 workers nationwide. Under the leadership of Vassar College theater professor Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre Project aimed to establish itself as a national theater program. Breaking with the past, it adopted a new, innovative, and inclusive approach to theater production--or as Flanagan put it, “re-thinking rather than remembering.” The goal was to create quality, entertaining productions but Flanagan, in particular, also emphasized theater’s value in educating and engaging audiences in social issues.

It was this willingness—and in many cases eagerness—to engage with social issues that ultimately planted the seeds of the project’s demise. Since its inception, it had operated under increasingly severe financial limitations, as well as hostility from certain members of Congress and sections of the press opposed to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Although it survived drastic budget cuts in 1937, its treatment of social issues served to intensify the opposition through the gaze of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. The project had become a political issue and, as support waned, a 1939 Congressional hearing cut funding completely—a final curtain call for the project after four years.