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The Federal Theatre Project was an extension of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. During the American Depression of the 1930s, the Federal Theatre Project provided government funding to produce plays and other performances. Not only did the FTP provide work for thousands of struggling performers, it also provided entertainment and education at a low cost, allowing families suffering from the effects of the Depression to still experience culture and art.
To stimulate the United States economy in the wake of the Depression, President Roosevelt began a variety of extensive projects to increase employment across the country. The Federal Theatre Project was placed under the control of Hallie Flanagan, a Vassar professor, playwright and director. Flanagan had a passion for socially relevant material, and began constructing the program to attract new audiences and use theater as a means of cultural discussion. She touted the idea of “Living Newspaper” plays that would dramatize the local, national and world issues affecting individual Americans in their time period.
The FTP was revolutionary in a variety of ways, many that did not sit well with the United States Congress. Although the companies created were not fully integrated, the FTP created several “Negro Units” to promote African American theater. The FTP also frequently created controversial material, including a 1936 play about Haile Selassie called Ethiopia, which was yanked from the stage as Congress decreed that no current leaders could be portrayed in federally funded productions. As time passed, Congress became more and more disturbed by the FTP, eventually calling Hallie Flanagan to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, only shortly before closing the Federal Theatre Project for good.
Probably the most legendary moment of the FTP was the illicit production of a new musical by Marc Blitzstein called Cradle Will Rock. The show, which took a pro-union stance and was clearly anti-establishment, was banned from being performed on the federal stage. Undeterred, Blitzstein led the gathering audience to an empty theater a few blocks away, and began to tell the story of the play and sing the music. The actors, who were all in the theater at the time, stood up in the audience and acted out the entire show from the floor, never approaching the forbidden stage. Many theater experts consider this one of the greatest moments of all theatrical history, and a powerful protest against attempted censorship.
The Federal Theatre Project ended after only four years, but it launched the careers of many famous theater actors. Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Elia Kazan all began their major professions through the FTP. The experimental program established American theater as a voice for change and a cultural beacon in one of the darkest times in US history. While the United States government has never seen fit to fully fund theater companies since the 1930s, American theater owes a great debt to the creators of the Federal Theatre Project, which undoubtedly helped to shape the modern stage.